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Tolstoy on Distinguishing Real Art from Counterfeit Art

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February 2016
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In the last post I quoted Leo Tolstoy’s definition of art from Chapter 5 of What is Art? and asked your thoughts. As might be expected, Tolstoy spends much of his time developing out his definition.

Just for the sake of getting your ideas, I want to give two quotes from Chapter 15. Remember the idea of infectiousness from the last post? This idea comes to be a dominant concept in judging real art from counterfeit art.

Tolstoy says, “There is one indubitable indication distinguishing real art from its counterfeit, namely, the infectiousness of art. If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint, on reading, hearing, or seeing another man s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art.”

The work of art unifies us not only with the original writer but with other readers who are similarly infected with the same feelings, right?

Tolstoy continues: “And however poetical, realistic, effectual, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy, and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it).”

What do you think about this idea that real art is distinguished from counterfeit by “the infectiousness of art.” What does it mean? Is Tolstoy correct?

Let’s see your comments. And why not respond to each other’s ideas?

Think about it.

Paul Varner


1 Comment

  1. Brian Rusher says:

    Tolstoy seems to have a notion that art is in some way an aspect of community, or it is an act of community-building, and I like that. But, I wonder what the impact is upon our understanding of art when the reading community reads its own values into a literature? For example, to touch upon your area of expertise, Dr. Varner, Larry McMurtry has bemoaned the way in which Lonesome Dove is read. He has stated that he was attempting to write the American version of The Divine Comedy but people read it as if it is Gone With the Wind.

    It seems like this happens quite a lot. A community intent on finding the meaning it’s searching for finds just that. Often we are already “infected” with the tropes or motifs of our art-illness and see it when we read. McMurtry’s readers, in his mind, refused the infection he offered in favor of the infection they already possessed–presumably, a romanticized reading of the West.

    I suppose I’m just thinking out loud here. I like what Tolstoy is saying, but I also find it to be incomplete.


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