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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.
Art Communicates Soul to Soul: Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?
Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 5
For Leo Tolstoy a work of literature does not justify itself merely by its existence. There is no such thing as Art for Art’s Sake. The function of the work is to communicate. He says, “Speech, transmitting the thoughts and experiences of men, serves as a means of union among them, and art acts in a similar manner.”
Of course all texts communicate similarly to this. But art and literature goes further: “The peculiarity of this latter means of intercourse, distinguishing it from intercourse by means of words, consists in this, that whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.”
Literature communicates the author’s feelings. But communication requires a reader. What is the responsibility of the reader in order for the work of art to be effective? Tolstoy says, “The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.”
Again, Tolstoy says, “And it is on this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling, and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”
Well, fine, all these ideas may seem fairly reasonable. But wait. One of the issues in poetry, especially, since the late modernist period of the post World War II generations has been that of subjectivity versus objectivity.
So, does the poet unashamedly bare his or her soul to the world or should the poet aim for as much detachment from the subject matter as possible? Some “confessional” poets such as Sylvia Plath were at one time criticized for expressing personal feelings.
For the reader, or the critic, does it matter what the poet felt when composing the poem? In fact, do we care what the poet intended at all? Actually, shouldn’t we approach the poem, or any text, as if the poet is dead and has left no trace of intentions whatever? Do intentions matter anyway? These are common questions.
Obviously, Tolstoy would say the answers to these questions would all be “You bet it matters.” In fact, these answers would be determinative in reading literature.
Is Tolstoy right? How do his ideas play out in literature today?
But, ok, art communicates soul to soul. That’s fine. What doesn’t? In other words what is not art?
Elitism: Great Literature for the Sake of Great Literature
Why do we value Great Literature in our lives? That’s a pretty big question. Let’s look at several different ways we can allow literature a prominent place in our lives.
One way is to look at the great writers and their great works of art that they produced purely for the sake of studying and appreciating their great literature. That’s it. Why say anything more. I mean, there’s got to be much to say for this attitude. Let’s just sit back and be elitists? After all, we have proper literary taste, right?
Obviously, there can be much said for this attitude without the elitist label. After all, if great art is in fact humanity’s highest achievement (certainly a common idea), then studying the great art of particular periods, or of the past in general, is one of the highest activities we can do as educated people, right? So, we need no apology for studying great art merely for the sake of studying it. I mean, after all, most universities have entire colleges, much less departments, devoted to literature and art in general.
But, beyond that, part of what makes a highly educated person is a deep understanding and appreciation of great art and literature. Or, as I used to tell my students, nose sufficiently in the air, “So what will set you apart from the underlings you will work with in your highly paid profession will be that you have read Shelley and they haven’t.” Well, maybe another Big Question ought to be what is the place for snobbery and elitism in our literary lives? (I need to find that emoticon for “just joking.”)
Obviously, a deep study of Great Literature gives us a deep and abiding appreciation for humanity. The major writers of Western Civilization touch on the great universal concerns that we all can identify with.
But, there are problems aplenty with such an attitude and such an approach toward literature. Can you see the problems? Let’s start a discussion. Give out your ideas in the comments at the bottom of this post.
Then stay tuned for my take on problems with the elitist approach to Great Literature. Re-blog, re-text, and let others in your network know about The Literary Life. And please click the follow button.
For my anniversary present Jeanine bought me a very nice, very large bookshelf with beautiful wood and finish, exactly the kind of shelving anyone dedicated to reading the great authors would love having, I would guess. (Alas, the bookcase in the image is not mine.) I can’t wait to get some of my very best books up on the shelves and begin enjoying my simple library.
Of course, that got me to thinking. Here we are in January and the beginning of another season of reading, reading, reading, and, for me, of writing and blogging. By season I mean the academic year. I’m sure I will always run my life by it rather than the calendar year. But January means new beginnings and reexamining old thinking.
If you’ve been following The Literary Life blog, you know that for the most part I write about what I call the Big Questions of literature. Maybe someday I will get around to writing heavily again about specific authors and specific novels, plays, or poems. But when I think of actually living a life in which Great Literature matters, it seems to me that the Big Questions really matter.
After all, why do any of what we are doing? Purely for enjoyment? No I don’t think so.
Satisfaction, yes, but not enjoyment in the same sense some people enjoy watching The Bachelor on Monday nights.
So–the Big Questions. Those of you who began following my blog last fall will remember my series on literary taste where I asked the Big Questions about taste, such as What is Taste in Literature? Do you have Taste? and so forth.
Let’s look ahead to what’s coming up this winter and spring on The Literary Life blog when we will tackle such Big Questions as what are the ways we usually approach Great Literature? What is Art? Can we define greatness in literature? What is poetry and what value does it have? What is the function of criticism? And much more. In looking at these Big Questions we will work with the ideas of such thinkers as Tolstoy, Ruskin, Arnold, Mill, and Emerson.
As with the series on Taste, I really want to work these posts assuming some level of discussion and questioning. I have lots of questions. Not many answers, but plenty of ideas to think about concerning the Big Questions. I know you are all thinking people who read and absorb Great Literature not merely for the immediate thrill or good feeling, but with the same relentless questioning you apply to matters of your own profession and your other interests. So stay tuned for the next post.