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How Do We Know If It’s Art or Not?


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


Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature



Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 2

Ok, the question for me at the moment is what books am I going to put up on this gorgeous new bookshelf Jeanine bought me for our anniversary last December. It’s just now getting here from the special order department. The problem is that it’s going to sit in our living room next to its nearly identical mate from a previous anniversary. That one has all my very best books, all hardback, beautiful bindings, matching sets—the works. I’ve got a few more matching sets of books—the complete works of Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle, that kind of thing. But I really need space for books I use day in and day out. Our house is getting overrun with books. How do I choose? Well, I’m certainly not going to put all my 100s of cheap paperback Westerns in my new bookshelf. Ah, the pains and dilemmas of a Literary Life.

Oh well. I’m starting a new series on one of the Big Questions of literature—the question of What is Art? You know, we’ve all asked ourselves “I like it, but is it really art?” This is the second part of the series. So you might scroll back and start the series in order. It’s up to you.

But here I also want to say a few more things by way of introduction to the series before we see what Leo Tolstoy said on the subject. Let’s consider that field of philosophy called The Philosophy of Art

Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature

The philosophy of art is appropriately complex, worried over by philosophers and critics endlessly, for good reason. As rich and varied as the arts themselves are, so are the debates over the nature of art itself. University Courses, entire departments, endless books through the ages are devoted to the philosophical questions of art.

So, clearly here in  The Literary Life, there is not much I can do but attempt to simplify for the moment some of the ways we approach to the really Big Questions of art, and in my case, literature.

The textbook discussions—and thus the party line—generally fall into four areas, typified by the following four questions:

  1. Questions of quality: What is good art and what is bad art? Or what makes a novel, poem, or symphony great? How do we evaluate the quality of a poem or a novel?
  2. Questions of ontology: Of origins, essence, being–such as what is an “original” work of art? And what makes something a work of art in the first place? In other words, what is art?
  3. Questions of aesthetics: What is the essence of beauty within the work and how does it manifest itself? Originally the study of sensory experience, aesthetics evaluates the experience of the studied effect the work has upon the appropriately qualified audience.
  4. Questions about Ultimate Value: Why is Great Literature important, anyway?

For a moment, then, let’s consider this last question because it is a question that goes beyond what art is but also asks what its purpose, function, and importance are in our lives. This is the contextual framework I hope to keep in mind as we consider in this series what it is that makes something truly a work of art, particularly what it is that makes a work of literature a work of art.

Here’s the typical argument. Great Literature matters because it provides the perceived history and carries down the essential stories of a civilization’s culture.

Ok, but plenty of literature and art, such as poetry, most visual art, and great music, do not necessarily tell stories, develop narratives, and may not actually convey any information in the sense of story or history.

And then much literature serves simply to divert, similar to the same way a decorative, pleasant painting’s main purpose may be to cover an otherwise bare wall. Or some music is simply soothing and serves mainly to make a stressful day more relaxing. I’m a fan of the Spa channel on Sirius XM.  And for the majority of people such concerns are the only ones that matter and arguments for some literature being greater than other really are not important. I don’t know if that’s ok or not.

But surely such uses of art seem to trivialize and demean it. Beethoven’s great symphonies, Rembrandt’s monumental paintings in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the epics of Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy—these works inspire virtually a religious fervor, and we define Western Civilization in terms of them.

With these things in mind let’s really get into the Big Question: What is Art?

Paul Varner

What is Art? and What is Not Art?


Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Howl Obscenity Trial

What is Art? and What is Not Art?

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 3

In June 1957 the owner and publisher of City Lights Books in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the bookstore manager of City Lights, Shig Murao, were arrested and brought to trial for publishing and distribution obscenity. The obscene material was the famous Pocket Poets #1 issue of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Ginsberg’s poems were filled with what then was considered obscene language and descriptions of obscene sexual situations. Both prosecution and defense brought in some of the most celebrated writers and critics of the day to solve the question: Was Howl and Other Poems really art, or was it titillating trash? The judge ruled in Ferlinghetti’s favor. Today few would argue against Allen Ginsberg’s status as one of the canonical icons of late 20th-century American poetry and Howl and Other Poems as one of the great books of the last century.

Of course, this court trial gave historical significance to the question What is Art? But everyday the question is asked by editors, writers, librarians, teachers, school principles, art museum curators, and readers of literature and aficionados of all the arts.

Let’s look at how one writer treated the question. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those monumental novels, presented his ideas in What is Art? published in 1897, at the end of his life. He died in 1910.

As I mentioned in part 2 of this series, I’m by no means expecting you to go off and read this little short book simply in order to understand the posts in my blog. I’ll cite the relevant quotes needed to understand what Tolstoy’s main ideas are. But just in case here is a link to the full text if you like:

And here is a short summary of the parts of Tolstoy’s treatise I will be looking at the next few weeks to use as a reference point to come back to occasionally,

Simple Summary of Relevant Portions of What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

For Tolstoy, art is not related to enjoyment. That raises questions right off the bat. You might even want to ask yourself how enjoyment is not even in the picture.

The problem with definitions of art, Tolstoy thinks, is that they consider the object of art rather than its purpose. Art “is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings.” He says, “Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced or is producing the art, and with those who also receive/received the same artistic impression.” Thus, Art transmits feelings.

Yes, Art is communication. It communicates. It does not just exist for its own sake in a simple art for art’s sake condition. Moreover, its communication is not the conveying of information. (More on this in part 4 of this series.)

You probably know that long after Tolstoy wrote his great novels he converted to an extreme version of Christianity and founded a religious cult. If you don’t know this story, you should see the wonderful film about the Tolstoy’s last days, The Last Station (2009) for which Christopher Plummer was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Given this context, Tolstoy’s theory of art is naturally related to his idea of Christianity.

So, religion is the highest comprehension of life by all of society. Good art brings men nearer to their religious perception and that of the whole of society. True art has to correspond to religious sentiment of time and place. In the Renaissance, art first became corrupt. Tolstoy’s concern then is the issue of true art versus counterfeit art. How do we determine the genuine thing from the pretender? The infectious quality of the art indicates its value, and the infection depends on clarity, individuality, and sincerity.

Art is progressive. So is feeling. Christian art especially must emphasize unity, brotherhood, and sonship or, as Tolstoy would say, common feelings.

I’ll probably leave the Christian elements out of our discussion, not because I don’t think them relevant, but because Tolstoy’s theory does not actually depend on them that much.

Anyway, don’t forget to read the next entry in this series: “How Do We Know If It’s Art or Not?”

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


More Problems with Elitist Approaches to Great Literature


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


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?


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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