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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

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

 

What is Art? Art Communicates Soul to Soul

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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?

Paul Varner

 

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

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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

 

Great Literature and Its Cultural Contexts

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Ok, it seems that nobody today wants to be considered elitist in our culture, as I have been writing about in my recent posts on Ways to Approach Great Literature. For many readers, Cultural Study is an antidote to elitism.

Here, for example, we would consider recent Great Writers of English Literature and their works in order to see how the culture of 19th and 20th century Great Britain formed those writers and works and how those writers through their works reflected their culture.

A basic assumption of Cultural Studies is that we all are products of the dominant culture. A few of us may be perceptive enough to know that and to react against it, but only of few can ever truly separate themselves from the power culture—even when we might think we have done so. Except, of course, those invisible people all around us who are rejected from the power culture.

Or, to ask a question from the last post again, Do the desperately poor from the Third World, for example, create art? Can that art ever possibly be considered great? Most readers would say no simply because the creation of art requires some measure of leisure.

So, one way to approach the Major British Writers and all the Great Writers is to notice what values they assume in their Great Literature. How do their values support the privileged class? When do they subvert the assumptions of power and privilege? What writers are mouthpieces of the power class and what writers countermand the assumptions of power?

In other words, we can see how these writers respond to their culture. Because they are distant from us much will be transparent. Perhaps, then, we can turn to our own culture and begin to see how it works as well.

This approach, however, presents as many problems, if not more, as elitist approaches. Nevertheless, cultural studies in its many guises, such as Postcolonial, Feminist, Gender, Popular Culture studies, dominate current academic debates in literature and English departments in the U.S. and especially in the U.K. Thus, what I have been talking about in this very short post is merely a blurb for the complex but favored Way to Approach Great Literature (as well as less than great literature). Preeminent among those problems of cultural studies is that literature no longer is read for its own artistic value but is seen as valuable primarily as artifacts for studying culture, then and now. In fact, most cultural critics would not separate Great Literature from other literature, the distinction between High Culture and Low Culture no longer being considered valid in any of the arts.

What do you think? Leave comments in the box below and be sure to keep reading these posts already posted on Ways to Approach Great Literature. Stay tuned for more next Thursday.

 

More Problems with Elitist Approaches to Great Literature

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Here I am rubbing my fingers across the fine red mahogany of my new bookshelf Jeanine bought me for our anniversary and looking at and smelling the fine leather bindings of my precious books written by the greatest authors of our civilization. I feel very smug right now.

What have we been talking about on this blog? Oh, yes. Different attitudes toward and approaches to Great Literature. Those of us privileged enough to lead a Literary Life are pretty special. Just think about what other people are like. Poor souls.

But wait. Do we really want to be perceived as elitists, as literary snobs? Are we really comfortable assuming we know who is great and what works matter? Just consider for a minute: who decides what constitutes the Great Literature that these Major Writers supposedly produced? Is there such a thing as Great Literature that transcends all culture, all gender or racial concerns, a literature that by independent, universal, timeless standards is merely great?

What are some implications for those of us who would answer yes to all of the above?

If you are reading The Literary Blog for the first time you must notice that I am mainly asking questions and rarely giving any kind of answers. But I guess that’s always been my approach to any issue. I’m pretty suspicious of questions that have easy answers. Obviously there are those kinds of questions in life. But the Big Questions about life, about art, about humanity, about politics generally don’t have easy answers.

So let’s talk. Post your reactions to these questions in the Comments box. Then engage with each other is robust discussion. There’s where truth lies.

Stay tuned for Thursday’s post and let’s keep asking questions.

Elitism: Great Literature for the Sake of Great Literature

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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.

What Does It Mean to Lead a Literary Life?

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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.

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