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Tolstoy’s Ultimate Definition of Art

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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

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Tolstoy on Distinguishing Real Art from Counterfeit Art

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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

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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

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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)?

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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)

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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

Infectiousness as Tolstoy’s Sole Measure of Excellence in Art

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Infectiousness as Tolstoy’s Sole Measure of Excellence in Art

Series: William Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 10

I’ve just finished reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Ok, I guess that’s a confession. What is a grownup doing reading Little Women? Or, what is a grown man doing reading Little Women? Alas, I’m a sucker for 19th-century sentimental literature. Besides, it’s a good Christmas read—which is when I started it—but it is a 600 page ordeal.

But think about a novel like Little Women. It is sentimental, full of plenty of good feeling. Alcott clearly was trying to communicate feeling (as well as plenty of strong moral precepts about proper ways for young women to become proper wives and “spinsters”). Evidently she succeeded considering the appeal of the novel through many generations.

But is Little Women art? Leo Tolstoy, as we have seen, has strong ideas about how to determine what is art and what is not art. He even has contempt for that which claims to be art but really is counterfeit art.

Let’s apply Tolstoy’s criteria from What is Art?

In Chapter 15 he states, “If a man is infected by the author’s condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art; but if there be no such infection, if there be not this union with the author and with others who are moved by the same work then it is not art. And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art.”

Further, “The stronger the infection the better is the art as art, speaking now apart from its subject matter, i.e., not considering the quality of the feelings it transmits.

The question in judging artistic merits of a work of literature, then, is not merely whether the feelings transmitted are infectious, but how infectious are the feelings? The more the better. It’s all a matter of quantity: “And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art.

What novel or book are you reading right now? Are its feelings infectious? How infectious?

Try Tolstoy’s system out. Why not? Just for fun. Don’t question the system.

Think about it.

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

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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

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