You look at all the wonderful books of Great Literature on your bookshelves and admire your collection. You occasionally hang out at a coffee house called Monk’s or some such down the road on open mic night and listen to poetry readings. You drive over to Fort Worth, in Texas, to go to the new Impressionist exhibit at the prestigious Kimbell Art Museum. But when you get there you are torn, because just across the street is the Amon Carter Museum, equally opulent and well funded. But the Amon Carter is devoted to Western Art, or as sneering elites say, Cowboy Art. Inevitably the question arises: Can Western paintings really be art? You know the Kimbell has real art. But what about the Carter? Or, is all the slam poetry and spoken word stuff from the coffee house actually art? Why is this novel by Charles Dickens on my shelf unquestionably Great Literature but the paperback down on bottom by John Grisham maybe a bit questionable? You may like something, but, you ask yourself, is it art? (Of course, yes, I’m really talking about myself here.)
For the next few weeks I would like in The Literary Life to take up the biggest question of all about literature as art: What is Art?
That’s really the biggest question of all. Last fall The Literary Life took up the question “What is Taste?” If you didn’t read those posts back then, why don’t you scroll back through this blog, or click back on the calendar beginning October 15, 2015 and review those posts. There I took up such questions as Who Has Taste? Is Literary Taste Indisputable? And so forth.
And as I based the questions of Taste upon a classic text by David Hume—“Of the Standard of Taste”—so too I will be working out the ideas of what makes one work of literature art and another not art from Leo Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” You may find the full text of Tolstoy’s book numerous places on line. But here is one link to a site that will give you several viewing options. “What is Art” actually is a short book. But I intend to just focus on a couple of chapters (5 and 15). Here’s link for the curious: https://archive.org/stream/whatisart00tolsuoft/whatisart00tolsuoft_djvu.tx
But don’t worry. I’m not going to assume everyone will have read Tolstoy or read his piece recently anyway. We will take a gentle approach, I promise.
As always, my blog posts for these Big Question series are intended to be interactive. Please jot down your ideas and questions in the comment box. For those reading in LinkedIn and Twitter, please enter your comments in the actual blog itself for all readers to see. I if you don’t mind I would like to place any comments elsewhere in the blog comment box and discuss these ideas with other readers.
So, you like it, but you really wonder if it’s art? Let’s find out what some answers are to this very Big Question. (Spoiler Alert: the answers usually tend just to be more questions.)