SECOND YEAR--SECOND SEMESTER                                                                                                              David Banach

Unit 3--Tolstoy

Lecture 3


Tolstoy on Art


The destiny of art in our time is to transmit from the realm of reason to the realm of feeling the truth that well-being for men consists in their being united together, and to set up, in place of the existing realm of force, that kingdom of God--that is of love.

(What is Art?, XX)

For us with the standard of good and evil given by Christ, no  human actions are incommensurable. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent.

(War and Peace)


  I. Tolstoy's view of art is similar in many ways to Michelangelo's. They share the common insight that art connects and unifies humanity with each other and with its highest destiny. The differences lie more in changes in how reality was viewed during the modern period than in their views of art. Looking at Tolstoy's view of art is revealing of a change of view that has shaped Western Culture and of Tolstoy's particular greatness. Perhaps more than any other thinker of his time, Tolstoy tried to retain the fundamental views of Christianity on the value of human life in the face of an industrial and scientific culture that made them increasingly hard to understand and to follow.


 II. Tolstoy's theory of art:  Tolstoy rejected any definition of art based on a conception of beauty. Since we have no objective way of defining beauty, it merely becomes defined as what pleases us, which is different for each person. The only clear definition of art can lie in its function, which is the transmission of feeling. Art can then be judged on how well it transmits feelings (infectiousness) and on the value of the feelings transmitted (truth or goodness).

A. (1) The function of art is the transmission of feeling: "If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art." (V) "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 others are infected by these feelings and also experience them." (V) Language communicates propositions and thoughts. Art communicates feelings. Together they are the means of human progress. Art plays a central role in the development of humankind.

 B. (2) The criterion for judging the form of art, or art as art, is infectiousness.  One way of judging art is by its effectiveness in performing its function of transmitting feeling, irrespective of the value of the feelings transmitted. "The stronger the infection the better is the art, as art." (XV)One can know one is infected by the feeling of the artist because one "is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else's--as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express.  A real work of art destroys  . . . the separation between himself and the artist, and not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art." (XV) The infectiousness of art is mainly determined by its form. Tolstoy identifies three conditions that determine infectiousness:

1.    Individuality or Specificity: The more specific or individual the feeling transmitted, the more infectious it is. The feeling of joy one's birthday surrounded by friends is more effectively transmitted than the general feeling of joy.

2.    Clarity: The more pure the feeling transmitted, and the fewer the distractions, the more infectious.

3.    Sincerity: The more strongly and genuinely the artist feels the emotion to be transmitted the more infectious the feeling. This is, by far, the most important of the three conditions. One of the main causes of bad art for Tolstoy was insincerity or artificiality.

 C. (3) The criterion for judging the content of art is the quality of the feelings transmitted.  Thought progresses through language, and the feelings of Man progress through art. The value of the feelings transmitted by art is determined by the religion of the time, which is the highest level of understanding of the meaning of human life attained by the society of an age. At different times, different type of feelings have been valued in art. (This was one of the first  socio-cultural theories of art.) The religion of Tolstoy's time, according to Tolstoy, was the view that our well-being "lies in the growth of brotherhood among men--in their loving harmony with one another" (XVI) Two types of feelings are in consonance with this religion:

1.    Religious feelings of the unity of man with God and neighbor, as well as feelings of disapproval for things that divide men. Art that divides classes, races, or nations would, therefore, be bad.

2.    Simple Universal feelings common to all. Those feelings that are common to all men, independently of class, education, and culture most effectively bring about a state of union of man with man which is the meaning of life according to our highest understanding, or religion. Universal art is good. Exclusive art is bad.


III. Tolstoy's criticism of the art of his time: Tolstoy felt that at the time of the Renaissance, our culture and its art had lost its religious content and had become merely an attempt to produce whatever pleased a certain class of people. Since at that time, Tolstoy believed, the majority of people had stopped believing and living according to the religion of their time, art had gone adrift and had (1) Lost its religious subject matter and attempted only to produce pleasure. The art of his time produced mainly feelings of Pride, Sexual Desire, and of the Worthlessness of Life; (2) become exclusive; since different classes and cultures were pleased by different things, art became more specialized to the tastes and experiences of certain peoples and less universal.; and (3) Insincere: As art became a way of making money, schools sprang up that taught techniques of producing certain types of pleasure. Artists could master these techniques and please an audience without having anything new to say or without really feeling anything.

IV. Some Simple Criticisms of Tolstoy's Theory.

A. Art can produce feelings in an audience, without the artist actually feeling anything, Art expresses not transmits feeling. This attacks Tolstoy's criterion of sincerity.

B. You may criticize the religious criteria Tolstoy applies and suggest that art may transmit other important feelings. You would not then, however, be criticizing not his view of art, but his religious views.

C. We cannot know whether we are really feeling the feeling that the artist felt or just a different one of our own. Tolstoy thinks we just know when we are infected by the feeling of another. This problem reflects a fundamental problem that we, not Tolstoy, have in understanding what feeling is and how we could possibly share it with another. Our view of reality makes this problematic in a way that Tolstoy's didn't, just as Tolstoy's view of reality made the transmission of form or beauty problematic in way that Michelangelo's didn't.


V. Views of Art and Views of Reality. The changes in views of art from Michelangelo, to Tolstoy, to Picasso and the Post-Modern age represent a fundamental shift in how reality is viewed more than a shift in our views of art.

A.    Michelangelo's Neo-Platonic View: There is more to the world than meets the eye, and it is directly visible to us through the use of the faculties given to us by God. Not only can we directly apprehend the more basic forms that are the reality that lies behind the world, but to an artist whose soul is alive, this material world is like a ghost world filled with windows through which shine the more vibrant realities of another world. Art aims at opening these windows for others and the transmission of these forms or realities. Art transmits realities.

B.    Tolstoy's Nineteenth Century View:  There is more to the world than meets the eye but through reason and language we cannot reach it. We only see our own representations of the more basic reality or Will that lies beneath the surface. (Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788-1860). Feeling objectifies or expresses this reality more immediately than language. Art transmits feelings.

C.    The Post-Modern View (Picasso?): There is no more to the world than what meets the eye, and we create how it meets the eye and can transform it. Because science has made it impossible for us to understand what feelings could be beyond the states of the brain and how we could transmit these feelings, we can no longer understand Tolstoy's theory. And once we see science as just another way that the world appears to us, just another point of view, we can see the specifically human activity to be the construction of realities. Art transmits points of view.

3 elementsThe Three Elements:


1. The effect or feeling that the object produces inside me, the viewer. (Feeling) The function of the art work is the transmission of feeling for Tolstoy.

2. The artwork itself as an object. (Form) This determines the infectiousness of the artwork for Tolstoy. (Individuality, Clarity, Sincerity.)

3. Something beyond the object to which it points, or which it represents. (Meaning, Content) The quality or truth of the religious feelings transmitted affects the value of the art for Tolstoy. (Religious Feelings of Unity and Simple Universal Feelings)