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Tolstoy’s What is Art?


by Miles Mathis

Truth, I mourn for you who have predeceased me! —Homer


In 1898, Leo Tolstoy published his book What is Art? to a very poor reception.  This was no surprise—to Tolstoy least of all—since the book attacked art and artists from the first page.  Not only did he critique the decadent arts of his time (as might be expected from a very old, very religious man); he also attacked Goethe, Beethoven, Michelangelo, and many other traditional artists.  At one point he even agreed with Plato that it would be “better that there were no art than that depraved art should continue”.  

        The reception to Tolstoy’s argument was just as cold in the 20th century.  It would be expected that art critics and Modern artists would not care for Tolstoy’s very cutting remarks, but even religious and conservative people found his argument unsatisfying for various reasons.  One must remember that Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Holy Synod in 1901, so he was persona non grata on both sides of the fence.  Lev Shestov and many others attacked Tolstoy on mostly religious grounds, and even the translator of the Penguin Classic edition of the book, Richard Pevear, had little sympathy for Tolstoy.  In the preface, Pevear spends more time promoting the theologian and Orthodox priest Pavel Florensky than creating an audience for Tolstoy.  This is strange behavior, since tradition, good manners, and sales all dictate that a preface should be written by someone who finds the book useful.  Pevear begins the preface by dismissing the book as “an expression of Tolstoy’s will to dominate others, to be a ‘spiritual master’”, and ends it by saying that “the abyss…is within the prophet himself”.   One might expect such a preface to Mein Kampf, but here such heat is surprising.    


I am going to break ranks again with the 20th century and critics of all kinds by taking Tolstoy’s side.  I can’t agree with him about everything, of course.  The Plato quote goes too far, and Tolstoy steps over the line in a lot of other ways, some of which I will mention.  But in my opinion the main thesis of the book is correct, his specific critiques and examples are often spot-on as well as entertaining, and even his way of subordinating art to religion at the end is not too offensive to me (though this will surprise some of my readers, I think).

         It seems to me that the dismissal of Tolstoy’s opinions on art has been entirely too easy.  Tolstoy is generally recognized as one of history’s great novelists, War and Peace and Anna Karenina being classics that rank very high.  Tolstoy’s fame as a novelist did not drop off after his death; it has continued to climb to this day.  Some would say that he is the greatest novelist in history.  I am not here to make that argument, since I don’t need to, and since I am not sure that I agree with it.  My point is only that those who disagree with Tolstoy have never shown him the deference he deserved.  What we have in Tolstoy’s late polemical writings is something very rare in history.   How many times since the dawn of civilization has an artist of the first rank expended so much effort analyzing his own field?   With Tolstoy we finally have what we have almost never had before in art: a qualified expert speaking in his subject of expertise.   Up until the time of Tolstoy, and in all the years since, art criticism has mostly been the realm of non-artists. 

         For this reason alone we should pay special attention to what Tolstoy says.  The analysis of a great artist is worth ten-thousand analyses by non-artists.  He has been to the top of the mountain and they have not.  He has communed with the Muses and they have not.  He was chosen by the Muses, and they were not.  This is not beside the point.  Furthermore, a look down or behind is always worth more than a look up or ahead.  This is why hindsight is 20/20.  Tolstoy had hindsight.  His critics did not and could not—they had not been where he had gone.

       Nor are Tolstoy’s opinions uneducated, generalized, or narrow-minded, as some claim.  It is clear that he did a vast amount of research and reading to be able to quote and mention all the examples he does.  In a couple of places his comments seem incomplete, but even at his most iconoclastic he is never far from some truth.  A sympathetic reader can almost always find a way to see his point, even when he is attacking someone we would prefer to leave standing.

       For instance, Tolstoy attacks female nudity in the arts again and again.  It is one of the cards he plays every other page.  Most would think it difficult for an artist such as myself to get past this, but get past it I did.  I even noticed that in one place he mentions the Venus de Milo as art worth keeping.  How can one make sense of this?  By recognizing that Tolstoy is critiquing all gratuitous content in art and by recognizing that very much nudity in 19th century painting was gratuitous.   Tolstoy doesn’t have time to make every distinction for us in such a compact book; a subtle reader can make some of these distinctions himself.  This is what a proper reader should do, in fact.  A reader should make some effort to be convinced, at least at first reading, and especially if the author is Tolstoy.  A reader who finds it easy to take the higher ground with Tolstoy at each point can only be called a bad reader—and an extremely self-satisfied person.   In fact, I fail to see why such a person would read the book at all, or read any book.

         I have heard quite learned people call Tolstoy a boor, a rube, or a simpleton.   My response is that he may have been mistaken, but he was never any of these things.  He was a very intelligent, talented, earnest, and conscientious man, and as such he deserves the benefit of the doubt on every single page.  If his statements offend us we should question ourselves as least as much as his statements.  We should do this if only to be consistent, since those of us most likely to be offended are Moderns, and Moderns constantly claim that a painful education is the most needful education.  

         For example, the Moderns have told us that Van Gogh gives us a painful and needful education.  Let us see what Van Gogh—an intelligent, talented, earnest, and conscientious man—had to say of Tolstoy’s polemics.  While waiting for Gauguin to arrive at the yellow house in Arles, VG read Tolstoy’s What I Believe, a book in many ways like What is Art?  He wrote to Theo, “Good God! we must not complain of living in an age of nothing but slackers when we are side by side with such specimens of mortality as this, and with no great faith in heaven at that.”

          Before reading analysis by either of them, I tended to assume that Tolstoy and Van Gogh were more likely to be experts in the field of art theory than almost anyone else, since they had proven themselves experts in the field of art.  After reading all the critical responses to Tolstoy and Van Gogh by non-artists in the 20th century, I find that my assumption was correct. 


Tolstoy begins the book by attacking specialization in the arts.   He complains that art tends to turn artists of all kinds into narrow and freakish people.  His argument is very much like the current argument against circus children or young athletes.  He extends this argument to include all the support positions in the arts—all the man-hours spent in the production of plays, operas, exhibits, and so on.  This argument is his least controversial one, since most people agree that the arts can be very inefficient and that artists, like athletes, can often be very limited people.  For every good play or movie there seem to be a hundred bad ones, and for every well-rounded artist there seem to be a hundred stunted ones.  The logical counter to this is that the arts are part of a well-rounded education, and that if a few artists sacrifice to their specialty, most people benefit when the arts flourish.  But Tolstoy doesn’t accept this either, except in principle.  He agrees that he arts might provide part of an important education in a healthy society, but in a society inundated with counterfeit art and bereft of real art, all this effort is wasted—or, worse, it is counterproductive.  I will return to this in a moment, since Tolstoy must first prove that society is bereft of real art in order to prove that the effort is wasted.  The bulk of the book is spent doing just that.

        Before I continue, let me mention one other thing.  Perhaps the main reason that this first argument of Tolstoy is his least controversial is due to the fact that it applies to artists.   Most of the attacks on Tolstoy have come from critics and religious people, who are perhaps understandably less concerned about defending artists than they are about defending themselves.  Most critics have been astonished that Tolstoy would attack Goethe and Beethoven, but few have been astonished that he would attack art as an absurdly inefficient field or would attack most artists for being shallow and stunted.  Few have been astonished since this is also the first assumption of criticism.   All artists must be assumed to be shallow and stunted; otherwise some few of them would be capable of defining their own field.

        In order to show that society is bereft of real art, Tolstoy first needs a definition of art.  He cannot proceed to his main argument without it, and he realizes this full well.  He therefore glosses the history of aesthetics, paring it down until he has some workable ideas.  He does this with amazing skill and efficiency.  I suspect that his efficiency in doing this is one of the reasons he has been attacked and dismissed with such ferocity.  The critics have not liked to see an artist enter their field and race through it with much greater precision than they have been able to achieve themselves.  Tolstoy makes short work of the history of aesthetics from Baumgarten to his own time, and this speed must be galling to self-proclaimed experts who have never been able to make much sense of the question.  Tolstoy accepts Kant’s definition of beauty as that which is pleasing to the senses, but does not accept Kant’s claim that art is defined by beauty.  Instead, Tolstoy takes the theory of Eugene Veron, gives it a subtle twist, and arrives at art as successful expression—or, as Tolstoy is translated by Pevear, emotional “infection”.   So beauty has very little to do with art for Tolstoy.  He believes that beauty exists (though he will not call it objective, much less mystical—in this context Tolstoy is satisfied with a practical definition); but beauty is not the central concept of art.  The central concept of art is a sharing of emotion or of feeling. 

         Veron had said basically the same thing in L’esthetique in 1878, a book Tolstoy admits to liking.  The only difference is that Veron did not explicitly require that the expression be successful.  He defined art as the manifestation of emotions in lines, sounds, words, and so on, leaving open the possibility that this emotion was manifest to no one but the artist.  This is mostly just quibbling on the meaning of the word manifestation, since Veron could easily argue that something that was not manifest to other people was not really manifest at all. 

         Despite the fact that I believe beauty is very important in both art and life, I have to agree with Veron and Tolstoy that expression is more central to the definition of art than beauty is.  Art doesn’t have to be either beautiful or pleasant, but it must be expressive.   The problem is that this definition contains only quality, but not quantity—and it contains too little of quality.  That is, Tolstoy says that emotion must be successfully manifest, but he does not say how much emotion or what kind of emotion.  In 1898 this side of the argument was not as clearly needed.  Now it is very clearly needed.   For example, someone may cite this case: “You spit on me, intending to insult me.  I am insulted.  Are you an artist?”  Of course not, but Tolstoy’s first definition does not make this clear.  Contemporary criticism has come to accept that the spitting is artistic.  Pluralism wants to answer this question in the affirmative for various reasons, but it claims that the main reason is because no one can give a logical argument to the contrary [see the current claim of John Carey, for instance]. 

           Tolstoy already gives us a hint how to solve this very early on in the book, since he explicitly says that the audience comes to feel the same thing the artist does.  This is what infection is.  Therefore, if we fill in the blanks ourselves, we can see that the spitting example does not work due to the fact that I do not feel what you do.  You hate me, therefore you spit on me, perhaps intending me to become emotional.  But I do not come to hate me too.  No, if anything, I hate you.  We both feel hatred, but not for the same object.  Emotion is involved, but there is no artistic infection. 

          Someone might say, “What if I spit on someone we both hate?  Then we both feel the same thing, and I am an artist.”   But again, this doesn’t work.  I hate the person before you spit on him, therefore your action did not cause my emotion. 

          Tolstoy can argue himself out of any of these facile examples, so I will move on to one he can’t so easily counter.  He can’t argue himself out of trivial examples of infection.  People are emotionally infected by each other all the time.  A child tells his mother how he was injured on the playground and the mother may become emotional.  Is this art?  Of course not.  A baby cries and I share a bit in his pain.  Art?  No.  Tolstoy does address this issue in passing later when he is critiquing Wagner and Hauptmann and others, but he does not tie his comments to his definition of art.  This is another place we must fill in distinctions for ourselves, and this time we must fill in quite a lot. 

          In discussing Hauptmann’s play Hanneles Himmelfahrt (Hannele goes to Heaven), Tolstoy complains that the emotions caused by the play are not caused aesthetically—that is, by infection; they are only “a mixed feeling of suffering for another and gladness for oneself, that it is not I who am suffering—like what we experience in viewing an execution, or what the Romans experienced in their circuses”.  

         Tolstoy’s  critique of Wagner is much more extensive, and resembles in many ways Nietzsche’s critique in The Case of Wagner.  Tolstoy’s main point is that the emotions called up by Wagner’s operas are not called up aesthetically.  Rather, they are called up by mostly dishonest—non-musical and non-literary—means. Wagner uses simple psychological tricks to create a heightened emotional state, one similar to hypnosis or hysteria.  Tolstoy puts it this way, “Try sitting in the dark for four days in the company of not quite normal people, subjecting your brain to the strongest influence of sounds calculated to excite the brain by strongly affecting the nerves of hearing, and you are certain to arrive at an abnormal state and come to admire the absurdity”.  

         So clearly not any infection will do.  Tolstoy needs to add a few sentences to his definition of art, and he never gets around to it.  Instead, he lets many chapters’ worth of commentary do the work of fine-tuning his definition.   This is an acceptable method of presenting a thesis, although it is expecting a lot from your audience.  It assumes that readers will read and understand all your words, and more, that they will be capable of filling in any omissions (and will want to).  When most of your readers are hostile readers, as Tolstoy himself predicted, this is not a very logical assumption to make.  It would have been better for Tolstoy to have catalogued all his fine-tunes and to have presented them in his conclusion.   As it is, it is entirely too easy for those whose greatest desire is to misinterpret to do so early and often. 

          Tolstoy does refine his definition a bit in Chapter 15, but not in answer to his critiques of Hauptmann and Wagner.  He states that stronger infections imply better art, and that stronger infections are caused by 1) feelings that are more particular, 2) feelings that are clearer, 3) feelings that are more earnest.  These categories are mainly meant to counter the obscure, manufactured feelings that Tolstoy finds in the Decadents, and someone who wanted further delineations of these three categories would have to go to Tolstoy’s specific commentary on how various poems or other works of art are obscure, generalized, or disingenuous.  I think Tolstoy’s argument is easily comprehensible and to-the-point in this case, and only someone who did not want to understand him would fail to understand him.  But that still leaves Hauptmann and Wagner, whose aesthetic shortcomings do not seem to be defined primarily by clarity or earnestness, at least at a glance.   Part of the problem is that Tolstoy demands an aesthetic use of forms, but does not provide a definition of “aesthetic”.  “Aesthetic” cannot mean simply “having to do with beauty”, since Tolstoy clearly does not want to inject beauty back into the argument at this point.  It would be more than ironic to dismiss beauty as the central concern of art, only to reintroduce it as a primary qualifier of technique. Rather, Tolstoy tells us that an aesthetic presentation is not brutal or vulgar, “crude or primitive.”  An author’s intentions should not be obvious or telegraphed.  And, in addition, raw sympathy is not enough to merit the term “art”.  Raw sympathy, we are to understand, is primitive.  Used in any creative production, it can only be a sign of a lack of subtlety and a mark of insincerity. 

       This is easy enough for a rational person to agree with, and had Tolstoy continued to spin his thesis in this direction, we would be unlikely to find fault with a stricter definition of art that required some minimum amount of skill in execution, some minimum amount of emotional content, and some refinement of the sorts of emotion that were aesthetically non-trivial.  It is not popular to propose a hierarchy of emotions, but it also is not that hard to do.  Infecting someone with thirst or with the desire to scratch would certainly not have as much claim to art as infecting someone with brotherly love or religious awe.  In fact, Tolstoy later defines the highest art as an art that instills brotherly love.  The problem is that before he does this he gives an example of successful art the case of peasant women singing a cheerful song to a married girl, banging on scythes to provide their own musical accompaniment.  One can understand why Tolstoy would prefer the sincerity of this performance to the manufactured and spiritless productions of contemporary artists, but the example does little to explain his dismissal of crudity or raw sympathy.  Here the sympathy is happy rather than morbid, as in the case of an execution.  But it is obviously primitive and lacking in aesthetic subtlety.  From this example, one may infer that Hauptmann’s problem had much less to do with crudity and more to do with insincerity.  Raw emotion in a raw environment is sincere.  Raw emotion pre-fabricated and scripted and delivered in a theater can only come across as insincere. 


To flesh out Tolstoy’s criticisms and to fill in the final holes, we need a lot more structure, and he finally provides that in his definition of counterfeit art.  Chapter 11 is the most important in the book, for it is here that he tells us definitely what art is not, and thereby—in many important ways—what art is. Some people don’t like negative definitions, but an artist knows that in any delineation, negative space is very important.  Showing us where art fails is crucial, since it saves later artists from the same mistakes.  Tolstoy’s critique of counterfeit art is both wide-ranging and specific enough that it is of great use, both to artists and critics.   The content of his argument is very high, whether one prefers to title his book What is Art? or  What is Not Art?   

           According to Tolstoy, the four main features of counterfeit art are borrowing, imitation, effectfulness, and diversion.  Borrowing is another term for pastiche.  Counterfeit art is often art that uses old forms in order to mimic real art.  I hardly think it is necessary to comment on this further, since the entire 20th century provides this commentary.  Imitation concerns letting the details of the art stand for the art.  Realism in the theater, naturalism or photo-realism in painting, excessive description or grittiness in literature, and so on.  Effectfulness is using tricks or special effects in order to elicit a gasp or an easy reaction.  Sharp contrasts and juxtapositions, extremities, shocking or disgusting situations or depictions, loud noises and screams, gratuitous death, sex, and nudity.   Diversion is an intellectual interest added to the work.  All gratuitous content not covered by effectfulness falls into this category, including manufactured documentary methods, the use of popular historical periods to generate interest, enigmatic plotlines that must be puzzled out, poetic obscurity that must be unraveled, and many similar things.  Tolstoy says, “It is said that a work of art is good because it is…realistic or effectual or interesting, but [none of these] can be a standard of worth in art.”    A work may certainly be some or all of these things, but if it is not also emotionally infectious, it is not art but a counterfeit of art.  In fact, a true work is likely to avoid these things, since these categories most often impede clarity and sincerity, and thereby impede emotional infection. 

         And now you see why I find Tolstoy to be so important.  Better than anyone else, he cut to the heart of the matter in 19th century art.   He also predicted the problems of the 20th century.  In the 20th century, art and theory have become highly aware of Tolstoy’s first two categories.  In painting, both borrowing and imitating were jettisoned early on.  In all the other arts, borrowing was frowned on, although imitating held on in literature, theater and film.  But the importance of Tolstoy’s last two categories of counterfeit art has never been widely recognized.  In fact, these categories have engulfed all the arts.  Effectfulness and diversion sum up Modern art, especially once you realize that politics and theory are just diversions.  They are gratuitous intellectual interests added to the work, interests that can have nothing to do with an emotional infection.  Politics may certainly generate emotions, but not the sort of emotions Tolstoy is claiming for art.  Tolstoy demands that these emotions must be particular.  That is to say, the emotions in the work of art must be personal to the artist, in the first instance.  These emotions become shared only through the infection.  But political emotions are cultural emotions to start with; they are group emotions in the first instance.  They have already been shared even before the work of art is imagined by the artist.  Infection is thereby impossible.  Only a reminder of the emotion is possible.   A reminder of a pre-existing group emotion is not art, it is propaganda.  This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is fundamental.  Go back to my spitting example. Political art is the artist spitting on someone or something we both hate. But the shared emotion existed before the art and so there is no infection. There is only the manufactured use of existing emotion, a crude and inaesthetic borrowing and diversion. This is not art.


Another chapter in the book, Chapter 12, is also highly significant and highly satisfying.  It is here that he dismisses art education as mostly useless and art criticism as completely useless.  Tolstoy says, “Art consists of conveying to others the special feeling experienced by an artist.  How can this be taught in schools?….The one thing a school can teach is how to convey feelings experienced by other artists in the way these other artists conveyed them….This education not only does not contribute to the spread of true art, but, on the contrary, by spreading artistic counterfeits, …it deprives people of the ability to understand true art.”   

           Tolstoy concedes that basic technique can be taught in schools; and he leaves open the possibility that schools can teach his own aesthetic theory or some variation of it—which would clear away all the false notions that Modern people have in their heads.   In a culture where babies are weaned on insincerity, it is obvious that sincerity is no longer the natural default position.  In a decadent and fake culture, sincerity must be taught, or at least encouraged by mentors.  This is what contemporary schools can do. 

           Concerning critics, Tolstoy says this, “Critics are the stupid discussing the clever.”  And, “An artist, if he is a true artist, has conveyed to others the feeling he has experienced.  What is there to explain?”  And, “Artistic works cannot be interpreted.  If it had been possible to explain in words what he wished to say, he would have said it in words.  But he said it with his art, because it was impossible to convey the feeling he experienced any other way.  The interpretation…proves only that the interpreter is incapable of being infected by art.”  And, “It is the people least capable of being infected by art who have always been critics.”  I recommend you to my counter-critiques against Arthur Danto for a more recent example of Tolstoy’s thesis.  Tolstoy has purposely kept his language very bald in this book (and took critical hits for precisely that!), but I sometimes have a bit more fun with my polemics.*   


Tolstoy’s final chapters are his weakest, and his foes usually concentrate their fire here.  He ties art to the religious feeling of the times, claims that brotherly love is this religious feeling, and implies that all art—or at any rate the best art—must tie itself to this theme.  I have little doubt that he is correct in his religion, although I doubt he is correct in his history.  Meaning that I agree that brotherly love is an important religious concept, but I do not agree that it is or was ascendant.  Love of heuristic science, the machine, and economics is the current religion of man, and art has certainly tied itself to this religion.  The Futurists wrote the bible of this religion and the avant garde has followed it scrupulously ever since.  The Europe of Tolstoy’s time was very much closer to the religion of Futurism than it was to the religion of Jesus or the Amish. 

          Of course what Tolstoy is attempting is the concurrent move of both art and religion—indeed, all of culture—to his own ideal.  This does not offend me, since artists are only doing their jobs when they are idealists.  Beyond that, his ideal itself does not much offend me.   It is hard to be offended by a man who wants us to treat each other and the earth kindly.   I am a Nietzschean in that I believe in men doing great things, but I do not believe that destroying nature and each other is a great thing.  I can therefore be Nietzschean and Tolstoyan at the same time.  I think it is worth repeating that they both attacked Wagner in much the same way.  Neither believed in eternal life or salvation.  They believed that “now” was ultimately important.  Tolstoy makes a couple of asides to Nietzsche with contempt, but it is not clear to me that he understood Nietzsche’s main points.  Nietzsche attacks the church viciously, but attacked Jesus with little relish.  His portrait of Jesus in The Anti-christ is both compelling and sympathetic.   He attacks Paul with much greater fervor.  Nietzsche’s separation of Christ and Christianity has much in common with Dostoevsky’s separation in “The Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov.   And Tolstoy agrees at many or most points with this separation. 

          I am not here to reconcile Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche.  As I said in the beginning, one does not have to agree with all the points of a book in order to defend it.  In many ways I find the simple agrarian, Christian life of Tolstoy to be very compelling.  In other ways I find it limited and nihilistic.  Tolstoy seemed in the end to be moving closer and closer to a Mennonite or Amish rejection of all art and decoration, a rejection I find utterly anti-sensual and anti-natural.  But it is worth noticing that, although he threatens us with this position, he never embraces it himself.  He says that a statue to Pushkin must look obscene in the eyes of a simple peasant, but praises Eugene Onegin and Gypsies as “works of true art”. He also praises Dickens, Eliot, Hugo, Stowe, Dostoevsky, Schiller, Gogol, Maupasssant, Moliere, Cervantes, Kramskoy, Millet, Lhermitte, Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven.    He calls the Last Judgment of Michelangelo absurd, but makes no attempt to dismiss the whole oeuvre of the artist.   Tolstoy is clearly trying to force us to become more discerning judges of art, and the most poignant method of doing this is by attacking very famous works.   A reader may not agree with all of his conclusions, but a fair reader will see that he is always making an important point, verified or not. 

           Tolstoy comes closest to losing me as an ally when he suggests that forbidding art, a la Plato, may be the only religious solution.  He says this only to counter what he sees as existing extremity with the opposite extremity, since he knows (or thinks he knows) that there is no possibility of a government completely forbidding art.  The rest of the book undercuts his threat, and it is clear that art remains of ultimate importance to him.  He would not have spent 15 years trying to write a book on a subject that was no longer important to him.  If he had known two things about the near future, he might not have suggested total censorship, even as a threat or as hyperbole.  He did not know that Hitler and Stalin were just around the corner.  And, even more importantly, he did not know that Modernism would, with a simple change of theory, forbid all “high art” of the kind he was critiquing.   In the name of equality, progressive theory would jettison not just skilled counterfeit art, but skilled genuine art as well.  The term to include both was “aristocratic art”.   This theoretical reversal was achieved before Hitler or Stalin or even Lenin came to power. 

           Tolstoy was no precursor to this movement, since he was concerned more with fraternite than egalite.   He certainly would never have argued for low counterfeit art as the solution to high counterfeit art. That is, he would be unlikely to see progress in going from the high counterfeit of Wagner’s Ring Cycle to the low counterfeit of John Cage sitting on a piano, or from the high counterfeit of Gerome’s Pollice Verso to the low counterfeit of Hirst’s shark in a tank. 


The other place that Tolstoy most tries my alliance is with his claims that peasants could not appreciate a statue to Pushkin, since they could not understand love poetry.  In the same line is his claim, oft repeated, that simple honest folk could not appreciate nudity or sexuality of any kind.  Admittedly, I have never met a 19th century Russian peasant, but it strains all belief to imagine that young peasant men would have no interest or understanding of paintings of naked women.  Some might agree that these paintings were decadent or lewd, but they would have no problem understanding them—and appreciating them in some basic ways.   It also strains belief to imagine that peasant women could not appreciate the love poems of Pushkin or Heine or even of Baudelaire.  Not all of Baudelaire’s poems are decadent or even lascivious.   A few are quite tender.  Peasants who could read would be just as likely to be affected by these poems as anyone else, since peasants are sexual creatures like the rest of us. 

          I ultimately pass by Tolstoy’s new-found prudery, since it does not seem to me to be central to his thesis.  His overarching intent is to clean up some of the decadence of his time, and I am mostly in favor of that.  I am just not convinced that all signs of sexuality and all instances of nudity are samples of decadence.  Small doses of decadence, in controlled environments, may even be salutary.  Art is precisely this controlled environment.  Art and sex cannot be entirely experimental.  But experimenting cannot be forbidden either.  It is one of the harmless joys of existence, whether in the museum or in the bedroom.


In conclusion, it is my belief that What is Art? is one of the most important books in the history of art criticism.  It, along with Whistler’s polemics, Rodin’s L’art, and Van Gogh’s letters, should be studied by every contemporary artist.  The useful information in these writings far outweighs the useful information in all the books by art critics put together.  Ruskin, Fry, Bell, Stein, Greenberg, Rosenberg, Danto, Hughes, Carey, and all the rest should be relegated to the dustiest shelves, while these books by real artists should be reprinted with proper prefaces (or, preferably, no prefaces at all) and made required reading in all schools of art and art history.  This by itself would go a long way toward re-balancing history in favor of artists.  Theory in the 20th century has given power to administrators and taken it away from artists.  It has encouraged analysis and analyzers while discouraging artists.   Useful art theory would do the reverse.  It begins to appear that only art theory by artists is useful art theory to artists.


*It might be worth noting here that this idea was not unique to Tolstoy; nor did it die with him. In fact, it was and has remained a truism. Even the Futurists, the arch-enemies of Tolstoy, agreed with him on this point. Bruno Munari famously put it this way, "Il piu grande ostacolo alla comprensione di un'opera d'arte e quello di voler capire." Word for word, that is, "The greatest obstacle to comprehending a work of art is that of wanting to understand it." Keep that in mind when reading Arthur Danto, and my comments on him. It is especially fruitful to compare that quote to Danto's quote: "Until one tries to write about it, a work of art remains a sort of aesthetic blur."

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