Leo Tolstoy Archive

What is Art?
Chapter 2

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

Leo Tolstoy

For the production of every ballet, circus, opera, operetta, exhibition, picture, concert, or printed book, the intense and unwilling labor of thousands and thousands of people is needed at what is often harmful and humiliating work. It were well if artists made all they require for themselves, but, as it is, they all need the help of workmen, not only to produce art, but also for their own usually luxurious maintenance. And, one way or other, they get it; either through payments from rich people, or through subsidies given by Government (in Russia, for instance, in grants of millions of rubles to theaters, conservatoires and academies). This money is collected from the people, some of whom have to sell their only cow to pay the tax, and who never get those æsthetic pleasures which art gives.

It was all very well for a Greek or Roman artist, or even for a Russian artist of the first half of our century (when there were still slaves, and it was considered right that there should be), with a quiet mind to make people serve him and his art; 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.

10And therefore it is necessary for a society in which works of art arise and are supported, to find out whether all that professes to be art is really art; whether (as is presupposed in our society) all that which is art is good; and whether it is important and worth those sacrifices which it necessitates. It is still more necessary for every conscientious artist to know this, that he may be sure that all he does has a valid meaning; that it is not merely an infatuation of the small circle of people among whom he lives which excites in him the false assurance that he is doing a good work; and that what he takes from others for the support of his often very luxurious life, will be compensated for by those productions at which he works. And that is why answers to the above questions are especially important in our time.

What is this art, which is considered so important and necessary for humanity that for its sake these sacrifices of labor, of human life, and even of goodness may be made?

“What is art? What a question! Art is architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry in all its forms,” usually replies the ordinary man, the art amateur, or even the artist himself, imagining the matter about which he is talking to be perfectly clear, and uniformly understood by everybody. But in architecture, one inquires further, are there not simple buildings which are not objects of art, and buildings with artistic pretensions which are unsuccessful and ugly and therefore cannot be considered as works of art? wherein lies the characteristic sign of a work of art?

It is the same in sculpture, in music, and in poetry. Art, in all its forms, is bounded on one side by the practically useful and on the other by unsuccessful attempts at art. How is art to be marked off from each of these? The ordinary educated man of our circle, and even the artist who has not occupied himself especially with æsthetics, 11will not hesitate at this question either. He thinks the solution has been found long ago, and is well known to everyone.

“Art is such activity as produces beauty,” says such a man.

If art consists in that, then is a ballet or an operetta art? you inquire.

“Yes,” says the ordinary man, though with some hesitation, “a good ballet or a graceful operetta is also art, in so far as it manifests beauty.”

But without even asking the ordinary man what differentiates the “good” ballet and the “graceful” operetta from their opposites (a question he would have much difficulty in answering), if you ask him whether the activity of costumiers and hairdressers, who ornament the figures and faces of the women for the ballet and the operetta, is art; or the activity of Worth, the dressmaker; of scent-makers and men-cooks, then he will, in most cases, deny that their activity belongs to the sphere of art. But in this the ordinary man makes a mistake, just because he is an ordinary man and not a specialist, and because he has not occupied himself with æsthetic questions. Had he looked into these matters, he would have seen in the great Renan’s book, Marc Aurele, a dissertation showing that the tailor’s work is art, and that those who do not see in the adornment of woman an affair of the highest art are very small-minded and dull. “C’est le grand art” says Renan. Moreover, he would have known that in many æsthetic systems—for instance, in the æsthetics of the learned Professor Kralik, Weltschönheit, Versuch einer allgemeinen Æsthetik, von Richard Kralik, and in Les problèmes de l’Esthétique Contemporaine, by Guyau—the arts of costume, of taste, and of touch are included.

Es Folgt nun ein Fünfblatt von Künsten, die der subjectiven Sinnlichkeit entkeimen” (There results then a pentafoliate of arts, growing out of the subjective perceptions), says 12Kralik (p. 175). “Sie sind die ästhetische Behandlung der fünf Sinne.” (They are the æsthetic treatment of the five senses.)

These five arts are the following:—

Die Kunst des Geschmacksinns—The art of the sense of taste (p. 175).

Die Kunst des Geruchsinns—The art of the sense of smell (p. 177).

Die Kunst des Tastsinns—The art of the sense of touch (p. 180).

Die Kunst des Gehörsinns—The art of the sense of hearing (p. 182).

Die Kunst des Gesichtsinns—The art of the sense of sight (p. 184).

Of the first of these—die Kunst des Geschmacksinns—he says: “Man hält zwar gewöhnlich nur zwei oder höchstens drei Sinne für würdig, den Stoff künstlerischer Behandlung abzugeben, aber ich glaube nur mit bedingtem Recht. Ich will kein allzugrosses Gewicht darauf legen, dass der gemeine Sprachgebrauch manch andere Künste, wie zum Beispiel die Kochkunst kennt.[4]

And further: “Und es ist doch gewiss eine ästhetische Leistung, wenn es der Kochkunst gelingt aus einem thierischen Kadaver einen Gegenstand des Geschmacks in jedem Sinne zu machen. Der Grundsatz der Kunst des Geschmacksinns (die weiter ist als die sogenannte Kochkunst) ist also dieser: Es soll alles Geniessbare als Sinnbild einer Idee behandelt werden und in jedesmaligem Einklang zur auszudrückenden Idee.[5]

13This author, like Renan, acknowledges a Kostümkunst (Art of Costume) (p. 200), etc.

Such is also the opinion of the French writer, Guyau, who is highly esteemed by some authors of our day. In his book, Les problèmes de l’esthétique contemporaine, he speaks seriously of touch, taste, and smell as giving, or being capable of giving, esthetic impressions: “Si la couleur manque au toucher, il nous fournit en revanche une notion que l’œil seul ne peut nous donner, et qui a une valeur esthétique considérable, celle du doux, du soyeux du poli. Ce qui caractérise la beauté du velours, c’est sa douceur au toucher non moins que son brillant. Dans l’idée que nous nous faisons de la beauté d’une femme, le velouté de sa peau entre comme élément essentiel.

Chacun de nous probablement avec un peu d’attention se rappellera des jouissances du goût, qui out été de véritables jouissances esthétiques.[6] And he recounts how a glass of milk drunk by him in the mountains gave him æsthetic enjoyment.

So it turns out that the conception of art as consisting in making beauty manifest is not at all so simple as it seemed, especially now, when in this conception of beauty are included our sensations of touch and taste and smell, as they are by the latest æsthetic writers.

14But the ordinary man either does not know, or does not wish to know, all this, and is firmly convinced that all questions about art may be simply and clearly solved by acknowledging beauty to be the subject-matter of art. To him it seems clear and comprehensible that art consists in manifesting beauty, and that a reference to beauty will serve to explain all questions about art.

But what is this beauty which forms the subject-matter of art? How is it defined? What is it?

As is always the case, the more cloudy and confused the conception conveyed by a word, with the more aplomb and self-assurance do people use that word, pretending that what is understood by it is so simple and clear that it is not worth while even to discuss what it actually means.

This is how matters of orthodox religion are usually dealt with, and this is how people now deal with the conception of beauty. It is taken for granted that what is meant by the word beauty is known and understood by everyone. And yet not only is this not known, but, after whole mountains of books have been written on the subject by the most learned and profound thinkers during one hundred and fifty years (ever since Baumgarten founded æsthetics in the year 1750), the question, What is beauty? remains to this day quite unsolved, and in each new work on æsthetics it is answered in a new way. One of the last books I read on æsthetics is a not ill-written booklet by Julius Mithalter, called Rätsel des Schönen (The Enigma of the Beautiful). And that title precisely expresses the position of the question, What is beauty? After thousands of learned men have discussed it during one hundred and fifty years, the meaning of the word beauty remains an enigma still. The Germans answer the question in their manner, though in a hundred different ways. The physiologist-æstheticians, especially the Englishmen: Herbert Spencer, 15Grant Allen and his school, answer it, each in his own way; the French eclectics, and the followers of Guyau and Taine, also each in his own way; and all these people know all the preceding solutions given by Baumgarten, and Kant, and Schelling, and Schiller, and Fichte, and Winckelmann, and Lessing, and Hegel, and Schopenhauer, and Hartmann, and Schasler, and Cousin, and Lévêque and others.

What is this strange conception “beauty,” which seems so simple to those who talk without thinking, but in defining which all the philosophers of various tendencies and different nationalities can come to no agreement during a century and a half? What is this conception of beauty, on which the dominant doctrine of art rests?

In Russian, by the word krasota (beauty) we mean only that which pleases the sight. And though latterly people have begun to speak of “an ugly deed,” or of “beautiful music,” it is not good Russian.

A Russian of the common folk, not knowing foreign languages, will not understand you if you tell him that a man who has given his last coat to another, or done anything similar, has acted “beautifully,” that a man who has cheated another has done an “ugly” action, or that a song is “beautiful.”

In Russian a deed may be kind and good, or unkind and bad. Music may be pleasant and good, or unpleasant and bad; but there can be no such thing as “beautiful” or “ugly” music.

Beautiful may relate to a man, a horse, a house, a view, or a movement. Of actions, thoughts, character, or music, if they please us, we may say that they are good, or, if they do not please us, that they are not good. But beautiful can be used only concerning that which pleases the sight. So that the word and conception “good” includes the conception of “beautiful,” but the reverse is not the case; the conception “beauty” does not include the conception 16“good.” If we say “good” of an article which we value for its appearance, we thereby say that the article is beautiful; but if we say it is “beautiful,” it does not at all mean that the article is a good one.

Such is the meaning ascribed by the Russian language, and therefore by the sense of the people, to the words and conceptions “good” and “beautiful.”

In all the European languages, i.e. the languages of those nations among whom the doctrine has spread that beauty is the essential thing in art, the words “beau,” “schön,” “beautiful,” “bello,” etc., while keeping their meaning of beautiful in form, have come to also express “goodness,” “kindness,” i.e. have come to act as substitutes for the word “good.”

So that it has become quite natural in those languages to use such expressions as “belle ame,” “schöne Gedanken,” of “beautiful deed.” Those languages no longer have a suitable word wherewith expressly to indicate beauty of form, and have to use a combination of words such as “beau par la forme,” “beautiful to look at,” etc., to convey that idea.

Observation of the divergent meanings which the words “beauty” and “beautiful” have in Russian on the one hand, and in those European languages now permeated by this æsthetic theory on the other hand, shows us that the word “beauty” has, among the latter, acquired a special meaning, namely, that of “good.”

What is remarkable, moreover, is that since we Russians have begun more and more to adopt the European view of art, the same evolution has begun to show itself in our language also, and some people speak and write quite confidently, and without causing surprise, of beautiful music and ugly actions, or even thoughts; whereas forty years ago, when I was young, the expressions “beautiful music” and “ugly actions” were not only unusual but incomprehensible. 17Evidently this new meaning given to beauty by European thought begins to be assimilated by Russian society.

And what really is this meaning? What is this “beauty” as it is understood by the European peoples?

In order to answer this question, I must here quote at least a small selection of those definitions of beauty most generally adopted in existing æsthetic systems. I especially beg the reader not to be overcome by dullness, but to read these extracts through, or, still better, to read some one of the erudite æsthetic authors. Not to mention the voluminous German æstheticians, a very good book for this purpose would be either the German book by Kralik, the English work by Knight, or the French one by Lévêque. It is necessary to read one of the learned æsthetic writers in order to form at first-hand a conception of the variety in opinion and the frightful obscurity which reigns in this region of speculation; not, in this important matter, trusting to another’s report.

This, for instance, is what the German æsthetician Schasler says in the preface to his famous, voluminous, and detailed work on æsthetics:—

“Hardly in any sphere of philosophic science can we find such divergent methods of investigation and exposition, amounting even to self-contradiction, as in the sphere of æsthetics. On the one hand we have elegant phraseology without any substance, characterized in great part by most one-sided superficiality; and on the other hand, accompanying undeniable profundity of investigation and richness of subject-matter, we get a revolting awkwardness of philosophic terminology, enfolding the simplest thoughts in an apparel of abstract science as though to render them worthy to enter the consecrated palace of the system; and finally, between these two methods of investigation and exposition, there is a third, forming, as it were, the transition from one to the other, a method consisting of eclecticism, now flaunting 18an elegant phraseology and now a pedantic erudition.... A style of exposition that falls into none of these three defects but it is truly concrete, and, having important matter, expresses it in clear and popular philosophic language, can nowhere be found less frequently than in the domain of æsthetics.”[7]

It is only necessary, for instance, to read Schasler’s own book to convince oneself of the justice of this observation of his.

On the same subject the French writer Véron, in the preface to his very good work on æsthetics, says, “Il n’y a pas de science, qui ait été plus que l’esthétique livrée aux rêveries des métaphysiciens. Depuis Platon jusqu’ aux doctrines officielles de nos jors, on a fait de l’art je ne sais quel amalgame de fantaisies quintessenciées, et de mystères transcendantaux qui trouvent leur expression suprême dans la conception absolue du Beau idéal, prototype immuable et divin des choses réelles” (L’esthétique, 1878, p. 5).[8]

If the reader will only be at the pains to peruse the following extracts, defining beauty, taken from the chief writers on æsthetics, he may convince himself that this censure is thoroughly deserved.

I shall not quote the definitions of beauty attributed to the ancients,—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc., down to Plotinus,—because, in reality, the ancients had not that conception of beauty separated from goodness which forms the basis and aim of æsthetics in our time. By referring the 19judgments of the ancients on beauty to our conception of it, as is usually done in æsthetics, we give the words of the ancients a meaning which is not theirs.[9]