Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Leo Tolstoy and Art

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

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.[1]  – 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).

Tolstoy wrote,

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.

 

[1] What is Art?, 43.

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4 Comments

  1. Dear Hoon,

    To begin where you end.

    “According to Tolstoy, religion can be the subject matter of art, but more importantly, it is his Christian convictions which define art.”

    Contrary to Tolstoy, would not certain Reformers say ‘art is a subject matter of religion’. Henry Til, in ‘The Calvinistic Concept of Culture’ [Baker Academic. 2001. 37], comments “[i]t is therefore more correct to ask what the role of culture is in religion than to put the question the other way round…religion…is not of life a thing apart, it is man’s whole existence.”
    If Tolstoy defines art by “his Christian convictions”, then should not ‘Christian’ be in inverted commas? Tolstoy has said he “believe[s] that the will of God is most clearly and intelligibly expressed in the teachings of the man Jesus, whom to consider a God and pray to [he] esteem[s] the greatest blasphemy.” [As quoted by George Steiner in ‘Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’. Yale University Press. 1996. 263]

    To end where you begin.

    “In thinking about my Fall courses, I am working through some issues on the broad subject of art…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.”

    Does this not present a progressive and evolutionary view? What ‘before history’ is there of history? Or, as in ‘Hamann and Time’ you say “time is defined by who God is and what he has done”, so can there be a ‘pre-time’ with ‘pre-history’ before what God does?
    Is there a pre-historic language which Adam would not recognise? Is there a pre-historic Nature which Adam would not also recognise? How would you, then, place Hamann’s arguments within a “pre-historic to the present’ viewpoint?

    Yours,

    Peter

    • As I understand Tolstoy, he argues that the subject matter is not necessarily what makes some art Christian. You can have Christian subject matter, but more importantly, it is the Christian convictions of the artist which shapes the artwork according to these truths.
      As for pre-history, I was using to term to address artwork created before written history.

      • Dear Hoon,

        Going to your previous comment before your last Tolstoy quote you ask “[b]ut, how does one differentiate between regular communication and art?”

        For Tolstoy, leaving aside that he was a Unitarian at best, you answer “the subject matter is not necessarily what makes some art Christian…it is the Christian convictions of the artist which shapes the artwork according to these truths.” My reading of this quote is ‘special importance has been given by all men to that small part of art, but specifically called art, which flows from their religious perception’. It appears to me that you are equating ‘religion’ with ‘Christian’ and not Tolstoy. If anything, from the quote you give of Tolstoy, he could accept the Reformed position of “[i]t is therefore more correct to ask what the role of culture is in religion than to put the question the other way round” as you have.

        However, more significant is the question itself. Although I am not sure that your Tolstoy quote answers this question I am bewildered that you should turn to Tolstoy when Hamann gives his answer. Hamann has said that ‘Language is the mother of reason and revelation, the alpha and omega’. As Betz says, “for Hamann, all language, and poetic language in particular, betrays a common religious root.” [AE. 115] You appear to be seeking the special out of the ordinary rather than the special in the ordinary. For it is the lilies of the field and not Solomon’s grandeur. It is the day with eternity in it. It is, as Hamann implies, that ‘when we eat and drink we cannot eat or drink anything but God’.

        To which a retort may come ‘Is there art?’ In the circumstances I find this problematic. For Terry Glaspey, whom you have mentioned elsewhere, in his ’75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know’ fails to mention ‘The Holy Bible’ in the form of The King’s James Version. But it is to The Scriptures that I must look for any understanding of what may be called ‘art’. This is not just as Leland Ryken has written of ‘the Bible as literature’ but also as Thorlief Boman has written of ‘Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek’ [W. W. Norton & Company. 1970]

        Although there is ‘culture arising from religion’, Boman writes “[f]or the Greeks beauty lies in the plastic and consequently in the tranquil, moderate, and harmonious expression of the intellectual motive…[but t]he Israelite…[i]t is not form or configuration which mediate the experience of beauty, as for the Greeks, but the sensations of light, colour, voice, sound, tone, smell and taste.” [pages 85 and 87] So on the one hand Hamann would understand this difference while on the other hand it strikes at many of the Christian masterpieces mentioned by Glaspey.

        Yours,

        Peter

        • Peter,

          While I agree with much of what you have said, for the purposes of the course I am teaching, Hamann is not a suitable discussion partner (though I find his thoughts on aesthetics very fruitful). The course is primarily a survey of art history. I address Tolstoy because he is discussed in the next course in the humanities sequence. By addressing Tolstoy, students in the course get a brief discussion of religion and art, not just religion as the subject matter of art.

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