Leo Tolstoy Archive

What is Art?
Chapter 11

Written: 1897
Source: Original Text from Gutenberg.org
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: RevoltLib.com; 2021

Leo Tolstoy

Becoming ever poorer and poorer in subject-matter and more and more unintelligible in form, the art of the upper classes, in its latest productions, has even lost all the characteristics of art, and has been replaced by imitations of art. Not only has upper-class art, in consequence of its separation from universal art, become poor in subject-matter and bad in form, i.e. ever more and more unintelligible, it has, in course of time, ceased even to be art at all, and has been replaced by counterfeits.

This has resulted from the following causes. Universal art arises only when some one of the people, having experienced a strong emotion, feels the necessity of transmitting it to others. The art of the rich classes, on the other hand, arises not from the artist’s inner impulse, but chiefly because people of the upper classes demand amusement and pay well for it. They demand from art the transmission of feelings that please them, and this demand artists try to meet. But it is a very difficult task, for people of the wealthy classes, spending their lives in idleness and luxury, desire to be continually diverted by art; and art, even the lowest, cannot be produced at will, but has to generate spontaneously in the artist’s inner self. And therefore, to satisfy the demands of people of the upper classes, artists have had to devise methods of producing imitations of art. And such methods have been devised.

These methods are those of (1) borrowing, (2) imitating, (3) striking (effects), and (4) interesting.

107The first method consists in borrowing whole subjects, or merely separate features, from former works recognized by everyone as being poetical, and in so re-shaping them, with sundry additions, that they should have an appearance of novelty.

Such works, evoking in people of a certain class memories of artistic feelings formerly experienced, produce an impression similar to art, and, provided only that they conform to other needful conditions, they pass for art among those who seek for pleasure from art. Subjects borrowed from previous works of art are usually called poetical subjects. Objects and people thus borrowed are called poetical objects and people. Thus, in our circle, all sorts of legends, sagas, and ancient traditions are considered poetical subjects. Among poetical people and objects we reckon maidens, warriors, shepherds, hermits, angels, devils of all sorts, moonlight, thunder, mountains, the sea, precipices, flowers, long hair, lions, lambs, doves, and nightingales. In general, all those objects are considered poetical which have been most frequently used by former artists in their productions.

Some forty years ago a stupid but highly cultured—ayant beaucoup d’acquis—lady (since deceased) asked me to listen to a novel written by herself. It began with a heroine who, in a poetic white dress, and with poetically flowing hair, was reading poetry near some water in a poetic wood. The scene was in Russia, but suddenly from behind the bushes the hero appears, wearing a hat with a feather à la Guillaume Tell (the book specially mentioned this) and accompanied by two poetical white dogs. The authoress deemed all this highly poetical, and it might have passed muster if only it had not been necessary for the hero to speak. But as soon as the gentleman in the hat à la Guillaume Tell began to converse with the maiden in the white dress, it became obvious that the authoress had nothing to say, but had merely been moved by poetic memories of other works, and imagined that by ringing the 108changes on those memories she could produce an artistic impression. But an artistic impression, i.e. infection, is only received when an author has, in the manner peculiar to himself, experienced the feeling which he transmits, and not when he passes on another man’s feeling previously transmitted to him. Such poetry from poetry cannot infect people, it can only simulate a work of art, and even that only to people of perverted æsthetic taste. The lady in question being very stupid and devoid of talent, it was at once apparent how the case stood; but when such borrowing is resorted to by people who are erudite and talented and have cultivated the technique of their art, we get those borrowings from the Greek, the antique, the Christian or mythological world which have become so numerous, and which, particularly in our day, continue to increase and multiply, and are accepted by the public as works of art, if only the borrowings are well mounted by means of the technique of the particular art to which they belong.

As a characteristic example of such counterfeits of art in the realm of poetry, take Rostand’s Princesse Lointaine, in which there is not a spark of art, but which seems very poetical to many people, and probably also to its author.

The second method of imparting a semblance of art is that which I have called imitating. The essence of this method consists in supplying details accompanying the thing described or depicted. In literary art this method consists in describing, in the minutest details, the external appearance, the faces, the clothes, the gestures, the tones, and the habitations of the characters represented, with all the occurrences met with in life. For instance, in novels and stories, when one of the characters speaks we are told in what voice he spoke, and what he was doing at the time. And the things said are not given so that they should have as much sense as possible, but, as they are in life, disconnectedly, and with interruptions and omissions. In dramatic art, 109besides such imitation of real speech, this method consists in having all the accessories and all the people just like those in real life. In painting this method assimilates painting to photography and destroys the difference between them. And, strange to say, this method is used also in music: music tries to imitate not only by its rhythm but also by its very sounds, the sounds which in real life accompany the thing it wishes to represent.

The third method is by action, often purely physical, on the outer senses. Work of this kind is said to be “striking,” “effectful.” In all arts these effects consist chiefly in contrasts; in bringing together the terrible and the tender, the beautiful and the hideous, the loud and the soft, darkness and light, the most ordinary and the most extraordinary. In verbal art, besides effects of contrast, there are also effects consisting in the description of things that have never before been described. These are usually pornographic details evoking sexual desire, or details of suffering and death evoking feelings of horror, as, for instance, when describing a murder, to give a detailed medical account of the lacerated tissues, of the swellings, of the smell, quantity and appearance of the blood. It is the same in painting: besides all kinds of other contrasts, one is coming into vogue which consists in giving careful finish to one object and being careless about all the rest. The chief and usual effects in painting are effects of light and the depiction of the horrible. In the drama, the most common effects, besides contrasts, are tempests, thunder, moonlight, scenes at sea or by the sea-shore, changes of costume, exposure of the female body, madness, murders, and death generally: the dying person exhibiting in detail all the phases of agony. In music the most usual effects are a crescendo, passing from the softest and simplest sounds to the loudest and most complex crash of the full orchestra; a repetition of the same sounds arpeggio in all the octaves and on various instruments; 110or that the harmony, tone, and rhythm be not at all those naturally flowing from the course of the musical thought, but such as strike one by their unexpectedness. Besides these, the commonest effects in music are produced in a purely physical manner by strength of sound, especially in an orchestra.

Such are some of the most usual effects in the various arts, but there yet remains one common to them all, namely, to convey by means of one art what it would be natural to convey by another: for instance, to make music describe (as is done by the program music of Wagner and his followers), or to make painting, the drama, or poetry, induce a frame of mind (as is aimed at by all the Decadent art).

The fourth method is that of interesting (that is, absorbing the mind) in connection with works of art. The interest may lie in an intricate plot—a method till quite recently much employed in English novels and French plays, but now going out of fashion and being replaced by authenticity, i.e. by detailed description of some historical period or some branch of contemporary life. For example, in a novel, interestingness may consist in a description of Egyptian or Roman life, the life of miners, or that of the clerks in a large shop. The reader becomes interested and mistakes this interest for an artistic impression. The interest may also depend on the very method of expression; a kind of interest that has now come much into use. Both verse and prose, as well as pictures, plays, and music, are constructed so that they must be guessed like riddles, and this process of guessing again affords pleasure and gives a semblance of the feeling received from art.

It is very often said that a work of art is very good because it is poetic, or realistic, or striking, or interesting; whereas not only can neither the first, nor the second, nor the third, nor the fourth of these attributes supply a standard of excellence in art, but they have not even anything in common with art.

111Poetic—means borrowed. All borrowing merely recalls to the reader, spectator, or listener some dim recollection of artistic impressions they have received from previous works of art, and does not infect them with feeling which the artist has himself experienced. A work founded on something borrowed, like Goethe’s Faust for instance, may be very well executed and be full of mind and every beauty, but because it lacks the chief characteristic of a work of art—completeness, oneness, the inseparable unity of form and contents expressing the feeling the artist has experienced—it cannot produce a really artistic impression. In availing himself of this method, the artist only transmits the feeling received by him from a previous work of art; therefore every borrowing, whether it be of whole subjects, or of various scenes, situations, or descriptions, is but a reflection of art, a simulation of it, but not art itself. And therefore, to say that a certain production is good because it is poetic,—i.e. resembles a work of art,—is like saying of a coin that it is good because it resembles real money.

Equally little can imitation, realism, serve, as many people think, as a measure of the quality of art. Imitation cannot be such a measure, for the chief characteristic of art is the infection of others with the feelings the artist has experienced, and infection with a feeling is not only not identical with description of the accessories of what is transmitted, but is usually hindered by superfluous details. The attention of the receiver of the artistic impression is diverted by all these well-observed details, and they hinder the transmission of feeling even when it exists.

To value a work of art by the degree of its realism, by the accuracy of the details reproduced, is as strange as to judge of the nutritive quality of food by its external appearance. When we appraise a work according to its realism, we only show that we are talking, not of a work of art, but of its counterfeit.

112Neither does the third method of imitating art—by the use of what is striking or effectful—coincide with real art any better than the two former methods, for in effectfulness—the effects of novelty, of the unexpected, of contrasts, of the horrible—there is no transmission of feeling, but only an action on the nerves. If an artist were to paint a bloody wound admirably, the sight of the wound would strike me, but it would not be art. One prolonged note on a powerful organ will produce a striking impression, will often even cause tears, but there is no music in it, because no feeling is transmitted. Yet such physiological effects are constantly mistaken for art by people of our circle, and this not only in music, but also in poetry, painting, and the drama. It is said that art has become refined. On the contrary, thanks to the pursuit of effectfulness, it has become very coarse. A new piece is brought out and accepted all over Europe, such, for instance, as Hannele, in which play the author wishes to transmit to the spectators pity for a persecuted girl. To evoke this feeling in the audience by means of art, the author should either make one of the characters express this pity in such a way as to infect everyone, or he should describe the girl’s feelings correctly. But he cannot, or will not, do this, and chooses another way, more complicated in stage management but easier for the author. He makes the girl die on the stage; and, still further to increase the physiological effect on the spectators, he extinguishes the lights in the theater, leaving the audience in the dark, and to the sound of dismal music he shows how the girl is pursued and beaten by her drunken father. The girl shrinks—screams—groans—and falls. Angels appear and carry her away. And the audience, experiencing some excitement while this is going on, are fully convinced that this is true æsthetic feeling. But there is nothing æsthetic in such excitement, for there is no infecting of man by man, but only a mingled feeling of 113pity for another, and of self-congratulation that it is not I who am suffering: it is like what we feel at the sight of an execution, or what the Romans felt in their circuses.

The substitution of effectfulness for æsthetic feeling is particularly noticeable in musical art—that art which by its nature has an immediate physiological action on the nerves. Instead of transmitting by means of a melody the feelings he has experienced, a composer of the new school accumulates and complicates sounds, and by now strengthening, now weakening them, he produces on the audience a physiological effect of a kind that can be measured by an apparatus invented for the purpose.[83] And the public mistake this physiological effect for the effect of art.

As to the fourth method—that of interesting—it also is frequently confounded with art. One often hears it said, not only of a poem, a novel, or a picture, but even of a musical work, that it is interesting. What does this mean? To speak of an interesting work of art means either that we receive from a work of art information new to us, or that the work is not fully intelligible, and that little by little, and with effort, we arrive at its meaning, and experience a certain pleasure in this process of guessing it. In neither case has the interest anything in common with artistic impression. Art aims at infecting people with feeling experienced by the artist. But the mental effort necessary to enable the spectator, listener, or reader to assimilate the new information contained in the work, or to guess the puzzles propounded, by distracting him, hinders the infection. And therefore the interestingness of a work not only has nothing to do with its excellence as a work of art, but rather hinders than assists artistic impression.

We may, in a work of art, meet with what is poetic, and 114realistic, and striking, and interesting, but these things cannot replace the essential of art—feeling experienced by the artist. Latterly, in upper-class art, most of the objects given out as being works of art are of the kind which only resemble art, and are devoid of its essential quality—feeling experienced by the artist. And, for the diversion of the rich, such objects are continually being produced in enormous quantities by the artisans of art.

Many conditions must be fulfilled to enable a man to produce a real work of art. It is necessary that he should stand on the level of the highest life-conception of his time, that he should experience feeling and have the desire and capacity to transmit it, and that he should, moreover, have a talent for some one of the forms of art. It is very seldom that all these conditions necessary to the production of true art are combined. But in order—aided by the customary methods of borrowing, imitating, introducing effects, and interesting—unceasingly to produce counterfeits of art which pass for art in our society and are well paid for, it is only necessary to have a talent for some branch of art; and this is very often to be met with. By talent I mean ability: in literary art, the ability to express one’s thoughts and impressions easily and to notice and remember characteristic details; in the depictive arts, to distinguish and remember lines, forms, and colors; in music, to distinguish the intervals, and to remember and transmit the sequence of sounds. And a man, in our times, if only he possesses such a talent and selects some specialty, may, after learning the methods of counterfeiting used in his branch of art,—if he has patience and if his æsthetic feeling (which would render such productions revolting to him) be atrophied,—unceasingly, till the end of his life, turn out works which will pass for art in our society.

To produce such counterfeits, definite rules or recipes exist in each branch of art. So that the talented man, 115having assimilated them, may produce such works à froid, cold drawn, without any feeling.

In order to write poems a man of literary talent needs only these qualifications: to acquire the knack, conformably with the requirements of rhyme and rhythm, of using, instead of the one really suitable word, ten others meaning approximately the same; to learn how to take any phrase which, to be clear, has but one natural order of words, and despite all possible dislocations still to retain some sense in it; and lastly, to be able, guided by the words required for the rhymes, to devise some semblance of thoughts, feelings, or descriptions to suit these words. Having acquired these qualifications, he may unceasingly produce poems—short or long, religious, amatory or patriotic, according to the demand.

If a man of literary talent wishes to write a story or novel, he need only form his style—i.e. learn how to describe all that he sees—and accustom himself to remember or note down details. When he has accustomed himself to this, he can, according to his inclination or the demand, unceasingly produce novels or stories—historical, naturalistic, social, erotic, psychological, or even religious, for which latter kind a demand and fashion begins to show itself. He can take subjects from books or from the events of life, and can copy the characters of the people in his book from his acquaintances.

And such novels and stories, if only they are decked out with well observed and carefully noted details, preferably erotic ones, will be considered works of art, even though they may not contain a spark of feeling experienced.

To produce art in dramatic form, a talented man, in addition to all that is required for novels and stories, must also learn to furnish his characters with as many smart and witty sentences as possible, must know how to utilize theatrical effects, and how to entwine the action of his 116characters so that there should not be any long conversations, but as much bustle and movement on the stage as possible. If the writer is able to do this, he may produce dramatic works one after another without stopping, selecting his subjects from the reports of the law courts, or from the latest society topic, such as hypnotism, heredity, etc., or from deep antiquity, or even from the realms of fancy.

In the sphere of painting and sculpture it is still easier for the talented man to produce imitations of art. He need only learn to draw, paint, and model—especially naked bodies. Thus equipped he can continue to paint pictures, or model statues, one after another, choosing subjects according to his bent—mythological, or religious, or fantastic, or symbolical; or he may depict what is written about in the papers—a coronation, a strike, the Turko-Grecian war, famine scenes; or, commonest of all, he may just copy anything he thinks beautiful—from naked women to copper basins.

For the production of musical art the talented man needs still less of what constitutes the essence of art, i.e. feeling wherewith to infect others; but, on the other hand, he requires more physical, gymnastic labor than for any other art, unless it be dancing. To produce works of musical art, he must first learn to move his fingers on some instrument as rapidly as those who have reached the highest perfection; next he must know how in former times polyphonic music was written, must study what are called counterpoint and fugue; and furthermore, he must learn orchestration, i.e. how to utilize the effects of the instruments. But once he has learned all this, the composer may unceasingly produce one work after another; whether program-music, opera, or song (devising sounds more or less corresponding to the words), or chamber music, i.e. he may take another man’s themes and work them up into definite forms by means of counterpoint and fugue; or, what is commonest of all, he 117may compose fantastic music, i.e. he may take a conjunction of sounds which happens to come to hand, and pile every sort of complication and ornamentation on to this chance combination.

Thus, in all realms of art, counterfeits of art are manufactured to a ready-made, prearranged recipe, and these counterfeits the public of our upper classes accept for real art.

And this substitution of counterfeits for real works of art was the third and most important consequence of the separation of the art of the upper classes from universal art.