How do we know whether something we are reading is art or not. That’s a big question that comes up all the time in our literary lives, wouldn’t you agree? What’s the difference between Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and, say, a romance by Danielle Steele? Are both novels really art? Ok, feel free to defend Steele if you like, but, is there any question of the greatness of Anna Karenina? Plug any name you want in place of Danielle Steele in this question, but there is one thing we surely agree upon and that there is a difference between Tolstoy’s novel and a novel by any of 100s of authors such as Steele on the shelves at the local Books-a-Million. So, we face the question of what is art and what is not, right? The problem is not in the question of whether there’s a difference, but in the question of what’s the difference.
Let’s see what Tolstoy himself says about how we know what’s art and what’s not. If you haven’t been reading The Literary Life, I am developing a series on what art is based upon Tolstoy’s highly influential treatise What is Art? published in 1897. Tolstoy follows one particular tradition in answering the question. The passages I am looking at today come from Book V, if you are curious.
Of the four questions and approaches to the consideration of art that I outlined last Tuesday, February 2nd, Tolstoy rejects the question of aesthetics. In fact, he attacks all the various theories of beauty of his day in What is Art?
Aesthetic theories, he says, are either of the mystical or transcendental sorts, or they appeal to the hedonistic. The former is absurd and the latter is inadequate: “The satisfaction of our taste cannot serve as a basis for the definition of the merits of food.”
Tolstoy is equally scornful of the popular aestheticism of his day—the idea of art for art’s sake. Any kind of art, or literature that can only appeal to the educated classes, or as he says, to the initiates, he condemns outright.
Thus, along with a number of other works of art held in esteem though time, Tolstoy attacks Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, partly on this ground.
No, for Tolstoy, essence does not matter in art. It is not what a work of art is but what it does. And for him art is the communication of feelings: “Art is a human activity consisting of this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” And, as we will see later, the degrees of infectiousness and sincerity become chief criteria in judging art.
The first thing for you then to think about is where do you fall between these two polarities—Art is or Art does? (Of course, these are not the only choices, but for now just consider these two.) In other words, what makes something art? Never mind for now whether it’s good art or not. Just, what makes it art?
For example, there you stand with the hordes in The Louvre gazing at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa on the wall. What makes the Mona Lisa art? The mere fact of its existence right there in front of you? Would a similar painting be art if it was one of those masterpieces forgotten for years and found rolled up in somebody’s attic and sold in a Sotheby’s auction for millions? Was it a work of art all the time it was rolled up and neglected? Why?
Or does the painting do something? Does it move us in certain ways? Again, take any given work of Great Literature. Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet really art simply because of its existence? Or is the fact that we identify with Hamlet and feel powerful emotions of pity for him yet fear that we too could be brought to such a pass under similar circumstances?
What do you think? Post your comments. Think about it. As a spoiler alert, Tolstoy is going to consider sincerity the standard of judgment for determining art.