Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them. – Leo Tolstoy
In thinking about my Fall courses, I am working through some issues on the broad subject of art. One of my classes will be the seemingly impossible task of covering the entirety of art history. Of course, a semester will only allow broad sweeps with select moments of concentration if we are to get through pre-historic to the present.
In addition to a survey of art history, I periodically pause to define art and its role in society. I start with something like this video to get the conservation started.
As we go through historical periods we spend some time reading various literary sources defining art. One of the scholars I will be looking at is Leo Tolstoy. Students usually do not immediately think of Tolstoy when attempting to define art, but they are familiar with his novels. However, in addition to War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878), Tolstoy wrote a little work titled What is Art? (1897).
but in our day, when in all men there is at least some dim perception of the equal rights of all, it is impossible to constrain people to labor unwillingly for art, without first deciding the question whether it is true that art is so good and so important an affair as to redeem this evil. If not, we have the terrible probability to consider that while fearful sacrifices of the labor and lives of men, and of morality itself, are being made to art, that same art may be not only useless but even harmful. What is Art?, 8
For Tolstoy, art is not neutral. Art can be morally good, but also morally bad.
Tolstoy goes on to explain how art has been defined from Plato to Baumgarten. His intentions are to show that beauty does not necessarily mean good. Speaking of German aestheticians, Tolstoy wrote, “founded their theories on a conception of the Beautiful, understanding beauty in the sense of a something existing absolutely, and more or less intermingled with Goodness or having one and the same root” ( What is Art?, 18). He singled out Kant and stated,
The aesthetic teaching of Kant is founded as follows: Man had a knowledge of nature outside him and of himself in nature. In nature, outside himself, he seeks for truth; in himself he seeks for goodness. The first is an affair of pure reason, the other of practical reason (free will). Besides these two means of perception, there is yet the judging capacity (Urteilskraft), which forms judgments without reasonings and produces pleasure without desire (Urteil ohne Begriff, und Vergnügen ohne Begehren). This capacity is the basis of aesthetic feeling. Beauty, according to Kant, in its subjective meaning is that which, in general and necessarily, without reasonings and without practical advantage, pleases. In its objective meaning it is the form of a suitable object, in so far as that object is perceived without any conception of its utility. What is Art?, 21
To such thinking Tolstoy responded, “In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to ease to consider it as a means to pleasure, and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way, we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man” (What is Art?, 40). For Tolstoy, intercourse is the central motif of art.
Speech, transmitting the thoughts and experiences of men, serves as a means of union among them, and art acts in a similar manner. 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. What is Art?, 41
He goes on to explain,
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. To take the simplest example: one man laughs, and another, who hears, becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another, who hears, feels sorrow. What is Art?, 41
But, how does one differentiate between regular communication and art? For Tolstoy, it is a matter of religion.
This special importance has always been given by all men to that part of this activity which transmits feelings flowing from their religious perception, and this small part of art they have specifically called art, attaching to it the full meaning of the word. What is Art?, 44
According to Tolstoy, religion can be the subject matter of art, but more importantly, it is his Christian convictions which define art.