Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?

What is Art?What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This late polemic was written over the course of 15 years following the author’s religious conversion and published in 1898. It begins in characteristic Tolstoyan fashion—with a visit to the opera. There Tolstoy observes that, “[b]esides the costumed men and women, two other men in short jackets were running and fussing about the stage.” Viktor Shklovsky later founded the literary critical school of Russian Formalism on this tactic of defamiliarization, in which, Shklovsky famously writes in his manifesto “Art as Technique,” “Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time.”

Tolstoy, however, was no formalist. He uses this technique for social criticism: when he refuses to recognize the stage business as serious or even intelligible, Tolstoy renders judgment against the theater as such. He turns his attention instead to those who toil to bring the spectacle to life, to “one of the workers, his face grey and thin, wearing a dirty blouse, with dirty workman’s hands, the fingers sticking out, obviously tired and displeased.” Why should people’s lives be wasted, in an unequal society, on such insipid and debasing pleasures as the theater?

In his introduction to his and his wife Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of What Is Art?, Richard Pevear explains the biographical and religious background to this iconoclastic tract:

Essentially, Tolstoy’s teaching is a form of Christian anarchism, based on the principles of brotherly love and on certain precepts from the Sermon on the Mount: do not be angry; do not commit adultery; do not swear oaths; do not resist evil; love your enemies (see Matthew 5:21-43). With this Gospel distillation he combined the general outlook of a nineteenth-century liberal and specifically the view of history as the process of moral evolution of the masses and the effacement of governments. The good, he believed, would lead mankind eventually to a stateless, egalitarian, agrarian society of non-smoking, teetotal vegetarians dressed as peasants and practising chastity before and after marriage. This would be the Kingdom of God on earth.

On the basis of this religious morality, Tolstoy believes that true art must serve “mankind’s movement forward towards perfection” and must therefore be “understood by all people.” All other art, especially the incipiently modernist art of the late 19th century, but also most European art from the Renaissance forward, deserves to be considered false art to be banished from the brotherhood of man.

Tolstoy is aware that many readers will judge his doctrines perverse—how can a theory of art that dismisses Dante, Shakespeare, Raphael, and Beethoven be taken seriously? Tolstoy answers with both a theoretical and a historical account. The early chapters of What Is Art? are devoted to Tolstoy’s survey of aesthetic philosophy since its inception in the 18th century. Tolstoy summarizes his vast reading with the conclusion that philosophers define art as that which is beautiful, and they justify artistic beauty in one of two ways, either by a Hegelian assertion that artistic beauty manifests metaphysical forces or by a Kantian-Darwinian view that artistic beauty gives a surplus physical pleasure to humanity once we have secured our survival and also plays a role in our sexual reproduction.

These chapters of cursory summary, a demonstration that he’s done his reading, preview the oversimplifications to come in this disagreeable polemic, as Tolstoy reviews Burke, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and Darwin in a few sentences each, usually sentences unfair to the complexity or force of their thought. But then, a polemic should insult even as it enlightens, and he does get in a good line or two: “Foggy though the Germans may be, the French, once they have read the Germans and begun to imitate them, surpass them by far,” he notes, a comment that, however impolite, may amuse those of us educated during l’âge de Derrida.

Tolstoy dispels what he sees as the errors of the aestheticians by redefining art not as beauty but as the communication of feeling. Through words, he says, we express thoughts, and through art (including verbal art) we express our feelings. Artists’ goal is to “infect” others with their feelings—he uses this unappealingly viral-bacterial metaphor throughout—which means that the purpose and justification of art is to unite human beings in a universal community of emotion based on Christ’s teaching of humility and simplicity.

Tolstoy moreover argues that his view of art was widely shared in the epochs before the European Renaissance: the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, the Chinese—they all expected art to subserve religion and to unite their communities around shared values that, from Tolstoy’s perspective, represented authentic stages in human progress before the revelation of Christ’s true message. This message itself was perverted by the alliance of Christianity with worldly power and pagan values in the form of the Western and Eastern churches; for this reason, Tolstoy does not romanticize the ecclesiastical Middle Ages, though he allows that medieval art at least united the people to the church, however flawed.

What followed the Middle Ages was a catastrophe: the educated ruling classes rightly ceased to believe in “church religion,” but did not take the step of adopting true Christianity, which would have meant dissolving their own class privileges to join with all people and equally share their labor. Instead, this ruling class believed nothing at all and subsidized art to entertain them in their nihilism, an irreligious, involuted, and self-impressed art that most people outside the elite could not comprehend. Such art both worsened and legitimized vast social inequality, since the poor were excluded from the education necessary to appreciate “advanced” aesthetics, since the labor of the poor was exploited in the production of the art (think of the harassed theater worker), and since a connoisseur class is by its nature parasitic on a working class.

Tolstoy’s political and economic critique is compelling: the poor really are excluded from high culture and oppressed in a class-stratified society. The solution, one might think, is to improve their lot by redistributing both resources and opportunities to them, a development perhaps enabled by advancing technology that requires less overall human labor. But this solution is too Marxist and irreligious for Tolstoy. Though he would later be hailed by Lenin as “the mirror of the revolution,” Tolstoy dismisses “the now widely spread theory of Marx that economic progress is inevitable and consists in the swallowing up of all private enterprises by capitalism.” (This theory was later endorsed by Lenin himself when he praised the monopolization of capital as a prelude to the communist command economy, a concept much neglected by socialists today who are, in their moralism, rather the children of Tolstoy than Lenin.)

Tolstoy believes that art addressed to the ruling class is in itself perverted, a word he uses frequently, in contrast to art that can be appreciated by “simple unperverted working people.” Why are working people unperverted? Here Tolstoy echoes Hegel: the workers’ labor brings them into contact with the necessities and exigencies of the world, phenomena never experienced by the indolent privileged. This is a superficially attractive theory that will not survive a moment’s contact with reality, in my experience as a scion of farm and factory workers who wanted nothing more than to be free of labor and enjoy all manner of refreshments, from cigarettes to pork chops to unsavory entertainments, that would have horrified the fastidious aristo-turned-peasant Count Tolstoy, for whom “the poor” were just a humble aggregate of noble savages. Why else does he contrast Hamlet unfavorably with “an account of the theatre of a savage people, the Voguls”? Not out of respect for other cultures, but because he wishes to legislate for an imaginary monoculture he finds everywhere but in his own pathologically hated social state. The Christian ideal animating this elevation of the humble demands an art that celebrates not victory and strength, but rather the moralized weakness of the victim condition as a source of spiritual power:

And the highest work of [Christian] art was no temple of victory with statues of the victors, but the image of a human soul so transformed by love that a tortured and murdered man could pity and love his tormentors.

On the basis of this caste metaphysics, Tolstoy judges that only art made by or comprehensible to everyone, especially society’s victims, is legitimate art. Legitimate art can either be religious or essentially neutral (on the latter point, Tolstoy upholds household decoration as serious business, and praises ornament, from fashion to dolls, as well as wholesome children’s entertainment, as superior to fine art and opera).

Everything else he deems “harmful,” the mere amusement and alibi of the un-Christian victors, from his hated Shakespeare to the mystifying late works of Beethoven, the perverse poetry of Baudelaire, the obscure poetics of Mallarmé, the sordid novels of the naturalists, the immoralism of Nietzsche and the decadents (“aesthetes like Oscar Wilde choose as the theme of their works the denial of morality and the praise of depravity”), and above all—he devotes a whole chapter to this particular hatred—the innovative operas of Wagner, which he finds “so stupid, so farcical, that one wonders how people older than seven can seriously attend it.” Of good art, he proffers a little canon:

The majority understand and have always understood what we, too, consider the highest art: the artistically simple narratives of the Bible, the Gospel parables, folk legends, fairy tales, folk songs are understood by everyone.

We might grant him the folklore, though even here I suspect that “folk” art is made by dedicated individual artists, and not by the collective mind of the volk, to a much higher degree than 19th-century Romantic intellectuals (and their 21st-century multiculturalist legatees) suspect. But the Bible is a bad example even on its face. The very fact that its narratives are “artistically simple”—that is, they do not always yield up immediately intelligible meanings—has made them objects of theological contention and even religious warfare for millennia. Why did the Talmudists and the Church Fathers spill so much ink on a text supposedly so transparent? And even the contents of the Bible were not decided by “the people” but by a council of intellectuals. As for “Gospel parables,” Christ himself insisted they were for a coterie, not for the hoi polloi: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”—appropriately enough, since they are often spectacularly obscure. I understand why Jesus cursed the fig tree less than I understand Mallarmé.

Tolstoy’s modern canon of legitimate art is far better—Schiller, Dickens, Stowe, Dostoevsky, George Eliot—though he hedges in a footnote, admitting that his own judgment might have been perverted by his miseducation in elite society. Furthermore, he excludes his own early novels—the masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina—from the category of legitimate art and upholds among his own works only late parables like “God Sees the Truth but Waits.”

Finally, Tolstoy concludes that true art must not teach either “sensuality” (he is preoccupied by the role of the female nude in the history of painting) or any type of patriotism or militarism that would impede the formation of a benevolent world society. In his final chapter, he adds that science, too, should be judged only by its immediate contribution to social justice and that there is no such thing as knowledge (or art) for its own sake. What should happen to illegitimate art? Tolstoy explains that “not only should [it] not be encouraged, but [it] should be banished, rejected and despised as art that does not unite but divides people.” Moreover, “all the people who wish to live a good life should be directed towards destroying this art.”

Tolstoy’s ethic of non-violence influenced Gandhi and King, but is there any connection between Tolstoy’s late preachings and certain other modern developments? When Pol Pot forcibly depopulated Cambodia’s cities and slaughtered its metropolitans in the name of agrarian justice, when Mao ordered his cadres to immolate the vain works of tradition and smash the beneficiaries of an unequal society, did they know they had a warrant in Tolstoy? While there is a documented and direct line from Maoism through the French intelligentsia of ’68 to today’s advocates of extirpating the literary canon, do these advocates know that the cry to abolish the canon is coming from inside the canon itself? While Tolstoy would seem not to approve of Pol Pot’s or Mao’s violence, does his injunction to “destroy” not give a license to the armed iconoclast? We all know what they burn after they burn books.

Richard Pevear is unconvinced by Tolstoy’s message and contrasts it in his introduction to the work of Pavel Florensky, a polymathic Christian contemporary of Tolstoy’s who shared his historical narrative—he too saw a rupture in Christian society occur with the Renaissance—but who advocated not simplistic art that condescends to a stereotyped peasantry but rather a restoration of a holistic symbolic art that unites the spiritual and the material. (I don’t know Florensky’s work but in summary it suggests an analogy to T. S. Eliot, whose modernism was meant to heal “the dissociation of sensibility” introduced, again, by early modernity.) More pragmatically, George Orwell, in his essay “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool,” cautions that those peddling attractive but unworkable messages of universal love and absolute social justice may be concealing—even from themselves—their own will to power, their own desire for victory over a humanity prostrated before their “humble” wisdom and benevolence:

The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power. There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances. They will not say to somebody else, ‘Do this, that and the other or you will go to prison,’ but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars. Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics—a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage—surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.

The Tolstoy of the great novels was, as a great novelist must be, a sharp enough psychologist to know this. The Tolstoy of What Is Art? knows only what the totalitarian polemicist always knows: that he is right, and that we must either agree with him in every detail or be “banished, rejected and despised.”