The Literary Life

Home » Greatness

Category Archives: Greatness

Tolstoy’s Ultimate Definition of Art

8bb931dbbd7952033dac2c7db5517d10

Tolstoy’s Ultimate Definition of Art

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 12

I have been writing recently about the idea of what makes a work of literature art, based upon Leo Tolstoy’s treatise What is Art?

In developing his argument, Tolstoy, we have seen, establishes ways in which literary art communicates and what kinds of communication make something art and, specifically, what kind don’t. If you want to refer to Tolstoy’s actual text, we have been looking through Chapter 5. (I have a link in an earlier post in this series.)

The preparatory work being finished, Tolstoy eventually states his definition of art. So here we go. Is Tolstoy right or wrong?

First, here is what art does: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling this is the activity of art.”  

So, the writer first feels a strong experience and through the literary tools at hand transmits his or her feelings to the readers.

Then Tolstoy states his definition of what literary art is: “Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.

Notice the word “infect.” Readers are infected by the writer. They feel a similar intensity of feelings and emotion as the writer originally felt.

Ok, can you make an application relating to literature today or perhaps some of the Great Literature you have studied in the past? Is Tolstoy right?

But, you know, there’s also another question you might be considering. You may already be thinking it. For most of the modernist period in which many of us grew up and were educated, the value of feelings was minimized. We were taught, and many still accept, that truth is discoverable only through objective, reasoned inquiry. Well, if the main purpose of art is to transmit feelings, is art valuable?

Think about it.

Paul Varner

Advertisements

Tolstoy on Distinguishing Real Art from Counterfeit Art

75d59715e0c9369e7d208f3984ba6e71

Tolstoy on Distinguishing Real Art from Counterfeit Art

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 11

In Part 10 I quoted Leo Tolstoy’s definition of art from Chapter 5 of What is Art?  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 Part 10? 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?

Think about it.

Paul Varner

The Union Between Writer and Reader

The Union Between Writer and Reader

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 9

def1d4bb69184c9c2b71eac859712ddc

When you read any kind of Great Literature, whether your latest novel or the book of poetry on your nightstand, what is your relation with the author of that book? Have you ever considered this question? I’m sure you have, but let’s put a bit of theory to it.

When you read, you feel something for what the author says, I assume. Well, here is Leo Tolstoy from What is Art?

“The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s—as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express.”

Or consider this idea that

“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist. . . .”

Examine Tolstoy’s ideas. Have you ever experienced this kind of feeling with a work of art? What was it? What was it like? Did you ever experience the same feeling when you read the same book years later?

Paul Varner

What is False Taste in Literature?

What is False Taste in Literature?

Series: Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, Part 8

 553fb47f366598003b3702d08a062a84

Elsewhere in I wrote up a series of entries to The Literary Life dealing with the Big Question of Literary Taste: What is Taste? Who Has Taste? Do You Have Taste? and so forth. I based the series off of David Hume’s famous treatise, “Of the Standard of Taste.”

Taste, though, is one of those Big Questions that has an endless complexity to it. The Big Questions are never simple, right? Here is a quote from the 19th-century Russian writer Leo Tolstoy from What is Art? with his view of False Taste.

What is False Taste? Most sophisticated literary people assume they have good taste, but obviously not everyone has good taste. Can we agree? I mean, not all literature is in good taste. So, what about the possibility of False Taste?

Here’s Tolstoy’s answer: Certainly, matters of taste are internal to individual readers, and

“there are people who have forgotten what the action of real art is, who expect something else from art (in our society the great majority are in this state), and that therefore such people may mistake for this aesthetic feeling the feeling of diversion and a certain excitement which they receive from counterfeits of art. But though it is impossible to undeceive these people, just as it is impossible to convince a man suffering from color blindness that green is not red, yet, for all that, this indication remains perfectly definite to those whose feeling for art is neither perverted nor atrophied, and it clearly distinguishes the feeling produced by art from all other feelings.”  

Just for fun, grant Tolstoy his argument for a moment. What would be false taste today? Would someone who cared only for elitist literature have false taste? Or fantasy? Or novels with lots of explosions in them? Or sappy, sentimental romances? Or Marlboro Man tough guy Westerns?

What do you think?

Paul Varner

How Do We Judge Art (Sincerity)?

How Do We Judge Art (Sincerity)?

0f535c23f63aec6e7305ede507e79c41

Is There Any Problem with these Criteria from Leo Tolstoy for Judging Art? Part 7 (Continued).

As we have seen in previous posts, and especially in the most recent post, according to the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whether something is art or not depends upon the degree of infectiousness the reader feels transmitted from the author.

Ok, so for Tolstoy, the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. On the sincerity of the artist, i.e. on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he or she transmits.

We have looked at the first two criteria previously, so let’s go after the third criteria today.

Of his three criteria, Tolstoy considers the last, sincerity, as the culmination of the others and as the ultimate standard of judgment.

He says, in What is Art?,

“But most of all is the degree of infectiousness of art increased by the degree of sincerity in the artist. As soon as the spectator, hearer, or reader feels that the artist is infected by his own production, and writes, sings, or plays for himself and not merely to act on others, this mental condition of the artist infects the receiver; and, contrariwise, as soon as the spectator, reader, or hearer feels that the author is not writing, singing, or playing for his own satisfaction, does not himself feel what he wishes to express, but is doing it for him, the receiver, a resistance immediately springs up, and the most individual and the newest feelings and the cleverest technique not only fail to produce any infection but actually repel.”

Further, for Tolstoy, Sincerity includes the other two degrees of infectiousness.

The problem is how sincerity is to be determined. And that’s always the rub, isn’t it? Here’s how Tolstoy eventually determines sincerity in What is Art?: readers will intuitively determine sincerity themselves by the intensity of their emotion.

My title for this post asks you if you see any problem with Tolstoy’s criteria for judging art. As before I am asking you to look about you. What about the idea of sincerity that is revealed in the novel or poetry you have been reading lately?

Is Tolstoy right?

Paul Varner

How Do We Judge Art? (Clarity)

How Do We Judge Art? (Clarity)

b77eca73c6e9279174bb79e5b87f21ac

Is There Any Problem with These Criteria from Leo Tolstoy for Judging Art?

Series: Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, Part 7

As we have seen in previous parts of this series, and especially in the most recent post, according to the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whether something is art or not depends upon the degree of infectiousness the reader feels transmitted from the author.

Ok, so for Tolstoy, the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. On the sincerity of the artist, i.e. on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he or she transmits.

We looked at the first criteria last time.

Now let’s tackle the second criteria today with the third continued in the next post of the series.

Concerning the degree of clearness, or clarity, with which feeling is transmitted from author to reader, Tolstoy says, in What is Art?,

“The clearness of expression assists infection, because the receiver, who mingles in consciousness with the author, is the better satisfied the more clearly the feeling is transmitted, which, as it seems to him, he has long known and felt, and for which he has only now found expression.”

Moreover, for Tolstoy, clarity means that for the feeling transmitted to be clear, it would be simple. It must come across immediately in opposition to intellectualism that would require sterile analysis separated from emotion or feeling. It must be accessible to common readers.

My title for this post asks you if you see any problem with Tolstoy’s criteria for judging art. As before I am asking you to look about you. What about the idea of clarity that is revealed in the novel or poetry you have been reading lately?

Is Tolstoy right?

To Be Continued

Paul Varner

How Do We Judge Art?

How Do We Judge Art? Is There Any Problem with These Criteria from Leo Tolstoy for Judging Art?

Series: Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, Part 7

3306c54d388fbab9c28a22ce19322a3b

I always get a chuckle when I am discussing literature and art with some people, or when I simply see notes on Comments pages in social media after an article that dares to evaluate the varying qualities of one work of art, say a film out currently, with a resulting judgmental tone. “How dare you say this movie is a better work of art than this other movie,” someone inevitably will say. “I mean, really, can we actually say something is even art or not, much less say that one writer, one poet, one artist is superior to another? Isn’t it all just a matter of personal opinion?”

I chuckle as I talk back in my mind, because, my goodness, look around you folks. Our culture worships what critics say about everything. We pay good money to hear and read the judgments of critics everywhere: movie critics, book critics, television critics, poetry critics, art critics—you name it.

That said, I am working through one of the most famous statements on this subject over the last few weeks for The Literary Life, Leo Tolstoy’s’ famous What is Art? If this topic interests you, scroll back through the last several posts for a context to the next few posts. I also have a link back there to substantial excerpts from the text of What is Art?

According to Tolstoy, whether something is art or not depends upon the degree of infectiousness transmitted from the author to the reader. We reviewed what that means at length earlier.

Ok, so for the great Russian novelist, the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. On the sincerity of the artist, i.e. on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he or she transmits.

Let’s tackle the first criteria here and leave the others for the next few posts in this series on Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art?.

So the degree of infectiousness transmitted through a work of literature (since that’s what Tolstoy is really talking about when he says “art”) depends upon how much of the author’s individuality is offered up to the reader.

Tolstoy says, “The more individual the feeling transmitted the more strongly does it act on the receiver, the more individual the state of soul into which he is transferred the more pleasure does the receiver obtain, and therefore the more readily and strongly does he join in it.”

Of course, the great Russian critic qualifies elsewhere that if the feeling is so individual that only the writer can feel it, how is the onlooker supposed to feel it also? And if the writer conveys a religious idea, (a great concern for Tolstoy) the individuality would have to conform to the outside religious perception.

Fine, but we probably have to reconsider individuality by the fact that the abstract aspects may in and of themselves be individual—the universal message shown through the concrete ideas. If so, the concrete is what is individual. Usually at this point someone brings up Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Illych” to show how the Russian himself worked the idea out. If you’ve never read the story, which is not short, try it out.

My title for this post asks you if you see any problem with Tolstoy’s criteria for judging art. What about the idea of individuality that is revealed in the novel or poetry you have been reading lately? (Let’s just pass by this issue when it comes to judging movies.)

Is Tolstoy right?

To be continued

Paul Varner

John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art, Part Two

56c3c079b3953eb5ce446709fa464ad4

October 27, 2016

Sometimes nowadays it’s not fashionable to talk about one work of literature being better than another much less that any given work of literature might be GREAT while a similar work might be not so great. Especially when it comes to contemporary literature or fairly recent literature. Is Cormac McCarthy a great novelist? What about Larry McMurtry? Are either what we might call a Great novelist? Usually we just let the question alone.

Even when it comes to the writers in the Canon we generally just let matters rest where they are. Of course there was that time back in the old days of the Canon Wars when a hardy few even questioned Shakespeare’s and Milton’s greatness.

Still–we generally can’t let the question go. What determines greatness in literature? It’s a Big Question.

But maybe help is on the way. Or not. Anyway, I’ve been working with John Ruskin here in The Literary Life lately, and for the last two installments I’ve been examining what this great thinker of the Victorian era had to say about greatness. Don’t forget, here’s a guy who had a mental breakdown because he was afraid he wasn’t being taken as a Great writer.

So I’ve posted an excerpt from Ruskin’s Modern Painters where he tackles this Big Question. Then yesterday I posted Part One of this series. There I quoted Ruskin on what matters in determining Greatness. All that’s well and good, but: What things are we not concerned with in determining what great art is? Remember, Ruskin said, “It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”

But then,  “I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.”

There you go. I hope that resolves all your questions. Of course there is the little matter of the “higher faculty of the mind.” A great idea, by which a work’s greatness is determined (and the more great ideas the better) can operate only on the “higher faculty” of your mind. So—do you have a higher faculty?

So, what makes a great writer or poet? Back to John Ruskin: “If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.”

You want to know which writer is greater than another? Add up the number of great ideas in each other’s work and compare them. Maybe I’m being a bit silly here and I apologize. Surely a work of literature that involves substantial ideas, substantial thinking, and that is received in a profound way by readers who really have a depth of mind that matters is a greater work of literature than another one that deals with less substantial thought. And the writer who in his or her whole body of work demonstrates such depth is greater than a writer whose work is less demonstrative of such. Right?

But what about works without such great ideas? What about comedy? (Shakespeare’s The Tempest?) Or farce? (Moliere’s A Physician in Spite of Himself?)

Or, what kinds of literary art in our time, I mean today, cannot be considered great (so says Ruskin) simply based upon their essential premise? Maybe fantasy? Or action thrillers? Cheap romance? I’d better stop before someone gets mad.

But, really, does John Ruskin have a point about what makes a work of literature GREAT. Is Ruskin correct? (Don’t forget the higher faculty of your mind when answering this question.)

I hope these discussions really make you think. I hope they are relevant to the literary life you lead. If you are new to The Literary Life blog click on #Big Questions in the tags and categories to see similar questions I have been treating this season and last.

If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.

Paul Varner

John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art? Part 1

Processed with VSCOcam with 5 preset

October 27, 2016

Yesterday I posted to The Literary Life a short excerpt from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters that handles one of the biggest of the Big Questions relating to art or literature: What makes one work of art great and another one not great. So I urge you to scroll back in the blog one day to that selection from Modern Painters. Now, all of Ruskin’s examples are from painting, but as far as I know everyone agrees, it is a given, that what Ruskin says about great painting also applies to Great Literature.

Ok, let’s think for a minute. How do we evaluate literature? Do we just say I like what I see and that’s good enough for me? Well, of course, sometimes it really doesn’t matter. But if you are like me, especially as I was when I was pretty young, you surely have wondered why it a universal given that, say, William Shakespeare is a great–with a capital G—GREAT playwright and poet whereas (I know I am going to get into trouble for this) J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, is not a GREAT playwright and writer. Or substitute any two extremes of writers that you like. There clearly is a difference that goes way, way beyond “O gee whiz everybody has a right to their [sic.] own opinion.” This might be a good time for you to go way back into the archives of The Literary Life to that series I had last year on “What is Good Taste?” in literature.

As then, I am not promoting my opinions so much as I am merely asking you to think about these Big Questions by seeing what some of the great minds of the past have thought about them.

I have posted several celebrated facts of John Ruskin’s life and reputation recently. So here, let’s see what Ruskin has to say about the matter at hand: how do we evaluate a work’s tendency to greatness?

First, what is the importance of an artist’s carefully trained technique or lack thereof in determining greatness?

Ok, go John Ruskin. Tell us. How about this quote: “Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.”

What, you say? You mean all that work you did at the Chicago Art Institute the last four years for your MFA doesn’t make your painting great? Or, look buddy, I got an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and that’s not good enough?

Well, ahem, let’s get back to Professor Ruskin who says, “He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed.” All that technique and craftsmanship is not enough.

Again, “He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet.” And, it is “nothing more than language.”

But relax. You didn’t waste your time learning technique. Ruskin does provide a caveat to all the above. Matters of technique of all kinds are necessary for a work of art to be great, but they are “not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”

Now, unfortunately, it seems to me as a critic that there are way to many writers or would-be writers who skip right past the whole technique and craft thing and head right toward saying (or “saying”) something great.

Of course, before Modernism, what mattered as far as technique and craft was pretty clear-cut. It’s always a good question to explore, for readers and writers, what matters by way of craft and technique, for us as postmodern readers and writers. Again, clearly some technical details do matter. What are they? Some things are obvious in, oh, say film production. but what about for poetry? For fiction? What about drama? I don’t know if I can tell you.  I could make a few guess, but I’ll bet there are those ready to tell you.

There we go, John Ruskin beginning his discussion on what makes a work of art great. Stay tuned for more.

If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.

Paul Varner

 

%d bloggers like this: