Good Article Review On Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?”
In Tolstoy’s essay “What is Art?” he defines art as one of the conditions of human life (170). By “condition” he means a necessary attribute of what it means to be a human being. Having a brain, having lungs, having the ability to speak are conditions of what it means to be human. Tolstoy’s argument is that art is just as much a necessary condition as any other condition. Art is necessary in order to be human. Tolstoy rejects the notion of “art for art’s sake” or that art is simply “a means to pleasure” (170). For example, receiving pleasure from eating a delicious bowl of ice cream is not art. Rather, Tolstoy explains that a work of art is like an act of communication. Art would be relating the experience of eating a bowl of ice cream in such a way that the experience is communicated to others in a meaningful way. Art makes it possible to communicate a feeling and have it remain sustained throughout human history. It is the reason we keep copies of Shakespeare on our shelves or hang paintings on our walls. They are emblems of human communication, not just beautiful objects.. Tolstoy further says that art is supposed to be a way in which human beings can come together and share common experiences. First the there is the artist who communicates through his or her artwork. Second, there is the collective responses of all those who experience the work
In this way, Tolstoy suggests that great art elicits empathy. Empathy simply means the ability to feel someone else’s experiences whether they are pain or suffering or gladness or joy. Empathy is art: “to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself” (171). Tolstoy warns that art cannot merely be infecting another person with one’s presence or inflicting another with an emotion. Just because I feel sad when someone else is sad does not mean art has been created. Tolstoy gives a vivid example of a boy who recounts to his listeners the experience of coming upon a wolf in the forest. Even if the boy had never encountered the wolf in real life, his retelling of the story, the way in which it evinces in his listeners fear and dread, is art.
In this way, Tolstoy reminds the reader that art can be very powerful, so powerful, in fact, that some philosophers have sought to repudiate art for it can lead people astray and make them lost. However, the repudiation of art is falsely aligned since those philosophers, such as Plato, confuse art with the experience of pleasure. Art is supposed to be a profound means of communication. If art is repudiated, then the very conditions of what makes us human are repudiated. Tolstoy wants to probe deeper into the conditions of what us human. If there were no art then there would be no such thing as human communication and, therefore “mankind could not exist” (175). People do not go to art simply to see beautiful things.
Art is passing on through signs and images something important, something by means of feeling to others and they in turn pass it on to others. Art is the transmission of feelings through generations of human activity. In this way, art is not some mysterious transcendent “being” that exists over and beyond human experience. Art is not a psychological release of pent-up energy. Nor is it just the expression of feeling. Throwing paint on a canvas, because one is angry, does not fit Tolstoy’s definition of art nor does expressing one’s joy constitute art. For art to be art, there has to be more than one person involved. Art cannot exist in isolation. It can begin in isolation, but Tolstoy’s point is that art has to be shared. What is a novel that no one reads? Or a play that is not performed or a poem that is not read out loud or a painting that remains hidden in a dark closet?
Art is what separates us from being mere animals. A dog that barks because it is scared is not producing art. Humans are human because they can communicate important emotions through thousands of years of collective pain and sorrow, as well as joy and happiness. What does it mean to read an ancient poem written by Homer? It means to experience a sensation, a feeling of pride, or of tragedy that has been passed down through the centuries. If it were not for this ability to pass on thoughts through writing and speech, we would not have art, nor would there be such a thing as scientific discovery. Art can help us mitigate violence, and art can help us to create civilization.
In other words, the art is not the painting. The “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo or Botticelli’s “La Primavera” is not a work of art just because it is a composition of color. It is a work of art because the object communicates a feeling. However, Tolstoy assumes that it has to be the producer of the art’s intent to communicate a feeling for the art to be an artwork. However, cannot the human capacity to appreciate beauty in of itself be the condition for what makes art the profound expression that it is? Of course, Tolstoy wants to make a deeper argument about art. He wants to save art from the naysayers who say that art can corrupt people, or that art is only an activity of pleasure and has nothing to do with normal, everyday human activity.
If one sees art as just merely going to a museum or listening to a pretty song, then they have missed Tolstoy’s point in his essay. The point of the essay is that the conditions of art are present in every example of when one human being is attempting to communicate to another human being. Of course, it can be a failed attempt at communication. Not every human impetus to communicate is art. However, when communication does occur and it produces something resounding like a work of art in the heart of someone else then art has been created.
Tolstoy, Leo, and Aylmer Maude. “What is Art?” in Tolstoy on Art. London: Oxford University
Press, 1924. Web. Apr. 8. 2015. <https://archive.org/details/tolstoyonart00tolsuoft>
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