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How Do We Know If It’s Art or Not?

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February 2016
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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.



  1. Stuart Henry says:

    I think Brian makes some good points too, particularly about de-familiarizing the reader … and new ways of seeing.

    And, these are profound and searching questions.

    But having recently published a blog post I wrote myself (which should, I think, be linked to my name above) entitled ‘On the Meaning and Nature of Great Literature’, I’ve given this topic a fair amount of thought … and think my series of posts on the soul-enriching and life-enhancing benefits of great literature is likely to interest you and your readers.

    And, I’d welcome your feedback … and like to hear other thoughts on this topic.

    Meanwhile, and broadly speaking, I think it’s fair to say that art is characterised by what it is … but great art, by what it does.

    Like great literature, advertising and marketing, or other pop literature, however, may move us too, and often even demonstrate superior technical skill.

    But, great literature, or art, I think, moves us to transcend our frequently stifling, or parochial, socio-cultural conditioning and appeals instead to our essential and enduring, or universal, humanity … and intrinsic human potential. Literature, or art, is great then, I think, to the extent that it can help, or inspire, us to more fully and truly (or more freely, autonomously, and harmoniously) exercise and develop our intrinsic human attributes and potentialities. “That’s literature then” as I say on my blog, “that helps [or inspires] us to … imagine, understand, relate, and create.”

    Great literature then, I think, is, essentially, a work of love … that transcends, and can help us transcend, the frequently stifling, or corrupting, demands of what’s (socio-politically or socio-economically) expedient. Thus then it embraces, and can help awaken, the whole person and the whole person’s potential.

    In the words of William Congreve, meanwhile, my patron poet Ovid, well describes, I think, the origins, and ends, of such art:

    “No fraud the poet’s sacred breast can bear;
    Mild are his manners, and his heart sincere.
    Nor wealth he seeks, nor feels ambition’s fires,
    But shuns the bar; and books and shades requires.
    Too faithfully, alas! we know to love,
    With ease we fix, but we with pain remove;
    Our softer studies with our souls combine,
    And both to tenderness our hearts incline.
    Be gentle, virgins, to the poet’s prayer,
    The god that fills him, and the muse revere;
    Something divine is in us, and from heav’n
    Th’ inspiring spirit can alone be giv’n.”

    P.S. It’s good to see a (as you say, rare) blog devoted “to what it means to live a life in which serious literature … passionately matters”:)


  2. Brian says:

    My immediate reaction is a loud and blaring “Art does!” Usually, the Russian Formalists are where I start when considering art, and they suggested that true art defamiliarizes the reader. True art moves us to consider not the reality we’re trained to see, but reality as it is. Art “shocks” us into a new way of seeing. But I like what Tolstoy writes about passing “on to others feelings he has lived through.” That’s a little less scientific than the Russian Formalists, and I do feel that art invokes something meaningful in the human spirit.

    As I write this, I consider Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles. Academically, I understand how groundbreaking, “shocking,” this music was to Western culture, but being a generation removed from the Beatles, I never heard anything unexpected in their music. I enjoy Sgt. Pepper’s, but I don’t think it “does” for me what it did for the Baby Boomers. But, I still think this album is an example of art. Art is. I guess.

    I could say the same for The Catcher in the Rye. I get why it hands on to others a feeling, and I get why that was shocking in 1952. But, it doesn’t move me in the same way.


    • Paul Varner says:

      These are excellent observations, Brian. As a member of the Beatles’ generation, I remember the talk was about how with Sgt. Pepper the group had passed the barrier of commercialism for their music. They were now so great that they could create music unrelated to popular appeal. Of course, the album was a huge commercial success as well as being hugely innovative.


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