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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

What, According to Leo Tolstoy, Is Not Art?

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What, According to Leo Tolstoy, Is Not Art?

Series: Leo Tolstoy: What is Art, Part 6

Let’s continue our series What is Art?, based upon ideas by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In Part 5 of this series I showed how in What is Art? Chapter 5 Tolstoy begins his definition process for what art is by establishing that art communicates feelings from the soul of the poet to the soul of the reader. Fine. But plenty of things communicate feelings from one person to another. “If a man,” Tolstoy says, “infects another or others directly, immediately, by his appearance, or by the sounds he gives vent to at the very time he experiences the feeling; if he causes another man to yawn when he himself cannot help yawning, or to laugh or cry when he himself is obliged to laugh or cry, or to suffer when he himself is suffering that does not amount to art.” Probably no one would disagree.

But what Tolstoy is going to do is make a distinction between what is art and what is not art on the basis not just of communication of feelings but on the basis of the sincerity of that communication of feelings one soul to another.

What, then, in our own time is not art, according to Tolstoy’s criteria?

What about popular romance novels? I know, I beat up on Romance readers last time. Still, in Romances the reader certainly experiences feelings communicated by the author. At times the passionate feelings are intense. Are popular romances art? Be careful before you answer. Don’t just say it depends on what you call art. That’s the whole point of this series—to think about what is art and what is not.

Well, what about Westerns and action novels? Don’t we feel the tension in the air as the moment of decision in the gunfight arrives? Don’t we thrill at the chase scenes? When the villain gets blown to smithereens by some clever stratagem of the hero’s, doesn’t our heart race? Are popular Westerns and action novels art?

What about Detective stories? The emotional rewards we feel in trying to solve the mystery before the author reveals all to us. Is this art?

Well, surely popular horror novels are art. Oh how our blood curdles as the sticky situations abound one after another. We even have nightmares from the feeling communicated by the author. Isn’t this art? Surely, Leo, you’ll grant us our horror novels, right?

No, Leo will say. All these fail to rise to the level of art because of the lack of sincerity or lack of genuine feeling communicated by the author. Everything we feel from these kinds of popular novels written for the market is contrived. Certainly, the authors have no genuine feeling.

I once had a laughing box that I bought at a novelty store. It had a battery and when you pressed the switch a little recording of maniacal laughter would begin. The laughter would grow in intensity the longer the switch was on. I kept it in my desk drawer at my office so that when a student would come in and want to question a grade I could pull out the laughing box. Well, that’s why I had it, but I never really pulled it out for that reason. The point is that I could switch on the laughing box and everybody in the room would start inevitably laughing. You just couldn’t help yourself. It was funny. That laughing box communicated feelings to its listeners. But was there any sincere emotion communicated?

Tolstoy would probably say most of the genre fiction I mentioned above falls short of his sincerity test. Actually, most literature falls short.

So what do you think? Is Tolstoy right?

Let’s keep going. Part 7 of this series asks How Do We Judge Art?

Paul Varner

 

 

 

How Do We Know If It’s Art or Not?

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How Do We Know if It’s Art or Not?

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 4

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 Chapter 5, if you are curious.

Of the four questions and approaches to the consideration of art that I outlined in Part 2 of this series, 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 through 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 were 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? Think about it. As a spoiler alert, Tolstoy is going to consider sincerity the standard of judgment for determining art.

Paul Varner

 

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