Leo Tolstoy Archive

What is Art?
Chapter 9

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

Leo Tolstoy

The unbelief of the upper classes of the European world had this effect, that instead of an artistic activity aiming at transmitting the highest feelings to which humanity has attained,—those flowing from religious perception,—we have an activity which aims at affording the greatest enjoyment to a certain class of society. And of all the immense domain of art, that part has been fenced off, and is alone called art, which affords enjoyment to the people of this particular circle.

Apart from the moral effects on European society of such a selection from the whole sphere of art of what did not deserve such a valuation, and the acknowledgment of it as important art, this perversion of art has weakened art itself, and well-nigh destroyed it. The first great result was that art was deprived of the infinite, varied, and profound religious subject-matter proper to it. The second result was that having only a small circle of people in view, it lost its beauty of form and became affected and obscure; and the third and chief result was that it ceased to be either natural or even sincere, and became thoroughly artificial and brain-spun.

The first result—the impoverishment of subject-matter—followed because only that is a true work of art which transmits fresh feelings not before experienced by man. As thought-product is only then real thought-product when it transmits new conceptions and thoughts, and does not merely repeat what was known before, so also an art-product is only then a genuine art-product when it brings 74a new feeling (however insignificant) into the current of human life. This explains why children and youths are so strongly impressed by those works of art which first transmit to them feelings they had not before experienced.

The same powerful impression is made on people by feelings which are quite new, and have never before been expressed by man. And it is the source from which such feelings flow of which the art of the upper classes has deprived itself by estimating feelings, not in conformity with religious perception, but according to the degree of enjoyment they afford. There is nothing older and more hackneyed than enjoyment, and there is nothing fresher than the feelings springing from the religious consciousness of each age. It could not be otherwise: man’s enjoyment has limits established by his nature, but the movement forward of humanity, that which is voiced by religious perception, has no limits. At every forward step taken by humanity—and such steps are taken in consequence of the greater and greater elucidation of religious perception—men experience new and fresh feelings. And therefore only on the basis of religious perception (which shows the highest level of life-comprehension reached by the men of a certain period) can fresh emotion, never before felt by man, arise. From the religious perception of the ancient Greeks flowed the really new, important, and endlessly varied feelings expressed by Homer and the tragic writers. It was the same among the Jews, who attained the religious conception of a single God,—from that perception flowed all those new and important emotions expressed by the prophets. It was the same for the poets of the Middle Ages, who, if they believed in a heavenly hierarchy, believed also in the Catholic commune; and it is the same for a man of to-day who has grasped the religious conception of true Christianity—the brotherhood of man.

The variety of fresh feelings flowing from religious 75perception is endless, and they are all new, for religious perception is nothing else than the first indication of that which is coming into existence, viz. the new relation of man to the world around him. But the feelings flowing from the desire for enjoyment are, on the contrary, not only limited, but were long ago experienced and expressed. And therefore the lack of belief of the upper classes of Europe has left them with an art fed on the poorest subject-matter.

The impoverishment of the subject-matter of upper-class art was further increased by the fact that, ceasing to be religious, it ceased also to be popular, and this again diminished the range of feelings which it transmitted. For the range of feelings experienced by the powerful and the rich, who have no experience of labor for the support of life, is far poorer, more limited, and more insignificant than the range of feelings natural to working people.

People of our circle, æstheticians, usually think and say just the contrary of this. I remember how Gontchareff, the author, a very clever and educated man but a thorough townsman and an æsthetician, said to me that after Tourgenieff’s Memoirs of a Sportsman there was nothing left to write about in peasant life. It was all used up. The life of working people seemed to him so simple that Tourgenieff’s peasant stories had used up all there was to describe. The life of our wealthy people, with their love affairs and dissatisfaction with themselves, seemed to him full of inexhaustible subject-matter. One hero kissed his lady on her palm, another on her elbow, and a third somewhere else. One man is discontented through idleness, and another because people don’t love him. And Gontchareff thought that in this sphere there is no end of variety. And this opinion—that the life of working people is poor in subject-matter, but that our life, the life of the idle, is full of interest—is shared by very many people in our society. The life of 76a laboring man, with its endlessly varied forms of labor, and the dangers connected with this labor on sea and underground; his migrations, the intercourse with his employers, overseers, and companions and with men of other religions and other nationalities; his struggles with nature and with wild beasts, the associations with domestic animals, the work in the forest, on the steppe, in the field, the garden, the orchard; his intercourse with wife and children, not only as with people near and dear to him, but as with coworkers and helpers in labor, replacing him in time of need; his concern in all economic questions, not as matters of display or discussion, but as problems of life for himself and his family; his pride in self-suppression and service to others, his pleasures of refreshment; and with all these interests permeated by a religious attitude towards these occurrences—all this to us, who have not these interests and possess no religious perception, seems monotonous in comparison with those small enjoyments and insignificant cares of our life,—a life, not of labor nor of production, but of consumption and destruction of that which others have produced for us. We think the feelings experienced by people of our day and our class are very important and varied; but in reality almost all the feelings of people of our class amount to but three very insignificant and simple feelings—the feeling of pride, the feeling of sexual desire, and the feeling of weariness of life. These three feelings, with their outgrowths, form almost the only subject-matter of the art of the rich classes.

At first, at the very beginning of the separation of the exclusive art of the upper classes from universal art, its chief subject-matter was the feeling of pride. It was so at the time of the Renaissance and after it, when the chief subject of works of art was the laudation of the strong—popes, kings, and dukes: odes and madrigals were written in their honor, and they were extolled in cantatas and hymns; 77their portraits were painted, and their statues carved, in various adulatory ways. Next, the element of sexual desire began more and more to enter into art, and (with very few exceptions, and in novels and dramas almost without exception) it has now become an essential feature of every art product of the rich classes.

The third feeling transmitted by the art of the rich—that of discontent with life—appeared yet later in modern art. This feeling, which, at the commencement of the present century, was expressed only by exceptional men; by Byron, by Leopardi, and afterwards by Heine, has latterly become fashionable and is expressed by most ordinary and empty people. Most justly does the French critic Doumic characterize the works of the new writers—“c’est la lassitude de viver, le mépris de l’époque présente, le regret d’un autre temps aperçu à travers l’illusion de l’art, le goût du paradoxe, le besoin de se singulariser, une aspiration de raffinés vers la simplicité, l’adoration enfantine du merveilleux, la séduction maladive de la rêverie, l’ébranlement des nerfs,—surtout l’appel exaspéré de la sensualité” (Les Jeunes, Erné Doumic).[67] And, as a matter of fact, of these three feelings it is sensuality, the lowest (accessible not only to all men but even to all animals) which forms the chief subject-matter of works of art of recent times.

From Boccaccio to Marcel Prévost, all the novels, poems, and verses invariably transmit the feeling of sexual love in its different forms. Adultery is not only the favorite, but almost the only theme of all the novels. A performance is not a performance unless, under some pretense, women appear 78with naked busts and limbs. Songs and romances—all are expressions of lust, idealized in various degrees.

A majority of the pictures by French artists represent female nakedness in various forms. In recent French literature there is hardly a page or a poem in which nakedness is not described, and in which, relevantly or irrelevantly, their favorite thought and word nu is not repeated a couple of times. There is a certain writer, Erné de Gourmond, who gets printed, and is considered talented. To get an idea of the new writers, I read his novel, Les Chevaux de Diomède. It is a consecutive and detailed account of the sexual connections some gentleman had with various women. Every page contains lust-kindling descriptions. It is the same in Pierre Louÿs’ book, Aphrodite, which met with success; it is the same in a book I lately chanced upon—Huysmans’ Certains, and, with but few exceptions, it is the same in all the French novels. They are all the productions of people suffering from erotic mania. And these people are evidently convinced that as their whole life, in consequence of their diseased condition, is concentrated on amplifying various sexual abominations, therefore the life of all the world is similarly concentrated. And these people, suffering from erotic mania, are imitated throughout the whole artistic world of Europe and America.

Thus in consequence of the lack of belief and the exceptional manner of life of the wealthy classes, the art of those classes became impoverished in its subject-matter, and has sunk to the transmission of the feelings of pride, discontent with life, and, above all, of sexual desire.