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WHAT IS ART? By Leo Tolstoy

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February 2016
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Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Howl Obscenity Trial

In June 1957 the owner and publisher of City Lights Books in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the bookstore manager of City Lights, Shig Murao, were arrested and brought to trial for publishing and distributing obscenity. The obscene material was the famous Pocket Poets #1 issue of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Ginsberg’s poems were filled with what then was considered obscene language and descriptions of obscene sexual situations. Both prosecution and defense brought in some of the most celebrated writers and critics of the day to solve the question: Was Howl and Other Poems really art, or was it titillating trash? The judge ruled in Ferlinghetti’s favor. Today Ferlinghetti’s poet Allen Ginsberg is considered one of the canonical icons of late 20th-century American poetry.

This court trial gave historical significance to the question What is Art? But the question is asked everyday by editors, writers, librarians, teachers, school principles, art museum curators, and readers of literature and aficionados of all the arts.

Let’s spend a few days looking at how one writer treated the question. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those monumental novels, presented his ideas in What is Art? published in 1897, at the end of his life. He died in 1910.

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m by no means expecting you to go off and read this little short book simply in order to understand the posts in my blog. I’ll cite the relevant quotes needed to understand what Tolstoy’s main ideas are. But just in case here is a link to the full text if you like:

And here is a short summary of the parts of Tolstoy’s treatise I will be looking at the next few weeks to use as a reference point to come back to occasionally,

Simple Summary of Relevant Portions of What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

For Tolstoy, art is not related to enjoyment. That raises questions right off the bat. You might even want to ask yourself how enjoyment is not even in the picture.

The problem with definitions of art, Tolstoy thinks, is that they consider the object of art rather than its purpose. Art “is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings.” He says, “Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced or is producing the art, and with those who also receive/received the same artistic impression.” Thus, Art transmits feelings.

Yes, Art is communication. It communicates. It does not just exist for its own sake in a simple art for art’s sake condition. Moreover, its communication is not the conveying of information. (More on this in the next post.)

You probably know that long after Tolstoy wrote his great novels he converted to an extreme version of Christianity and founded a religious cult. If you don’t know this story, you should see the wonderful film about the Tolstoy’s last days, The Last Station (2009) for which Christopher Plummer was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Given this context, Tolstoy’s theory of art is naturally related to his idea of Christianity.

So, religion is the highest comprehension of life by all of society. Good art brings men nearer to their religious perception and that of the whole of society. True art has to correspond to religious sentiment of time and place. In the Renaissance, art first became corrupt. Tolstoy’s concern then is the issue of true art versus counterfeit art. How do we determine the genuine thing from the pretender? The infectious quality of the art indicates its value, and the infection depends on clarity, individuality, and sincerity

Art is progressive. So is feeling. Christian art especially must emphasize unity, brotherhood, and sonship or, as Tolstoy would say, common feelings.

I’ll probably leave the Christian elements out of our discussion, not because I don’t think them relevant, but because I am concerned with Tolstoy’s answer to the question of what art is more than his application, which is the religious part of his argument.

Stay tuned for next Saturday’s post: “How Do We Know If It’s Art or Not?”

As always, my blog posts 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. Re-tweet and Re-blog, please.


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