Leo Tolstoy Archive

What is Art?

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

Leo Tolstoy

What thoughtful man has not been perplexed by problems relating to art?

An estimable and charming Russian lady I knew, felt the charm of the music and ritual of the services of the Russo-Greek Church so strongly that she wished the peasants, in whom she was interested, to retain their blind faith, though she herself disbelieved the church doctrines. “Their lives are so poor and bare—they have so little art, so little poetry and color in their lives—let them at least enjoy what they have; it would be cruel to undeceive them,” said she.

A false and antiquated view of life is supported by means of art, and is inseparably linked to some manifestations of art which we enjoy and prize. If the false view of life be destroyed this art will cease to appear valuable. Is it best to screen the error for the sake of preserving the art? Or should the art be sacrificed for the sake of truthfulness?

Again and again in history a dominant church has utilized art to maintain its sway over men. Reformers (early Christians, Mohammedans, Puritans, and others) have perceived that art bound people to the old faith, and they were angry with art. They diligently chipped the noses from statues and images, and were wroth with ceremonies, decorations, stained-glass windows, and processions. They were even ready to banish art altogether, for, besides the visuperstitions it upheld, they saw that it depraved and perverted men by dramas, drinking-songs, novels, pictures, and dances, of a kind that awakened man’s lower nature. Yet art always reasserted her sway, and to-day we are told by many that art has nothing to do with morality—that “art should be followed for art’s sake.”

I went one day, with a lady artist, to the Bodkin Art Gallery in Moscow. In one of the rooms, on a table, lay a book of colored pictures, issued in Paris and supplied, I believe, to private subscribers only. The pictures were admirably executed, but represented scenes in the private cabinets of a restaurant. Sexual indulgence was the chief subject of each picture. Women extravagantly dressed and partly undressed, women exposing their legs and breasts to men in evening dress; men and women taking liberties with each other, or dancing the “can-can,” etc., etc. My companion the artist, a maiden lady of irreproachable conduct and reputation, began deliberately to look at these pictures. I could not let my attention dwell on them without ill effects. Such things had a certain attraction for me, and tended to make me restless and nervous. I ventured to suggest that the subject-matter of the pictures was objectionable. But my companion (who prided herself on being an artist) remarked with conscious superiority, that from an artist’s point of view the subject was of no consequence. The pictures being very well executed were artistic, and therefore worthy of attention and study. Morality had nothing to do with art.

Here again is a problem. One remembers Plato’s advice not to let our thoughts run upon women, for if we do we shall think clearly about nothing else, and one knows that to neglect this advice is to lose tranquility of mind; but then one does not wish to be considered narrow, ascetic, or inartistic, nor to lose artistic pleasures which those around us esteem so highly.

viiAgain, the newspapers last year printed proposals to construct a Wagner Opera House, to cost, if I recollect rightly, £100,000—about as much as a hundred laborers may earn by fifteen or twenty years’ hard work. The writers thought it would be a good thing if such an Opera House were erected and endowed. But I had a talk lately with a man who, till his health failed him, had worked as a builder in London. He told me that when he was younger he had been very fond of theater-going, but, later, when he thought things over and considered that in almost every number of his weekly paper he read of cases of people whose death was hastened by lack of good food, he felt it was not right that so much labor should be spent on theaters.

In reply to this view it is urged that food for the mind is as important as food for the body. The laboring classes work to produce food and necessaries for themselves and for the cultured, while some of the cultured class produce plays and operas. It is a division of labor. But this again invites the rejoinder that, sure enough, the laborers produce food for themselves and also food that the cultured class accept and consume, but that the artists seem too often to produce their spiritual food for the cultured only—at any rate that a singularly small share seems to reach the country laborers who work to supply the bodily food! Even were the “division of labor” shown to be a fair one, the “division of products” seems remarkably one-sided.

Once again: how is it that often when a new work is produced, neither the critics, the artists, the publishers, nor the public, seem to know whether it is valuable or worthless? Some of the most famous books in English literature could hardly find a publisher, or were savagely derided by leading critics; while other works once acclaimed as masterpieces are now laughed at or utterly forgotten. A viiiplay which nobody now reads was once passed off as a newly-discovered masterpiece of Shakespear’s, and was produced at a leading London theater. Are the critics playing blind-man’s buff? Are they relying on each other? Is each following his own whim and fancy? Or do they possess a criterion which they never reveal to those outside the profession?

Such are a few of the many problems relating to art which present themselves to us all, and it is the purpose of this book to enable us to reach such a comprehension of art, and of the position art should occupy in our lives, as will enable us to answer such questions.

The task is one of enormous difficulty. Under the cloak of “art,” so much selfish amusement and self-indulgence tries to justify itself, and so many mercenary interests are concerned in preventing the light from shining in upon the subject, that the clamor raised by this book can only be compared to that raised by the silversmiths of Ephesus when they shouted, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” for about the space of two hours.

Elaborate theories blocked the path with subtle sophistries or ponderous pseudo-erudition. Merely to master these, and expose them, was by itself a colossal labor, but necessary in order to clear the road for a statement of any fresh view. To have accomplished this work of exposure in a few chapters is a wonderful achievement. To have done it without making the book intolerably dry is more wonderful still. In Chapter III. (where a rapid summary of some sixty æsthetic writers is given) even Tolstoy’s powers fail to make the subject interesting, except to the specialist, and he has to plead with his readers “not to be overcome by dullness, but to read these extracts through.”

Among the writers mentioned, English readers miss the names of John Ruskin and William Morris, especially as so much that Tolstoy says, is in accord with their views.

ixOf Ruskin, Tolstoy has a very high opinion. I have heard him say, “I don’t know why you English make such a fuss about Gladstone—you have a much greater man in Ruskin.” As a stylist, too, Tolstoy speaks of him with high commendation. Ruskin, however, though he has written on art with profound insight, and has said many things with which Tolstoy fully agrees, has, I think, nowhere so systemized and summarized his view that it can be readily quoted in the concise way which has enabled Tolstoy to indicate his points of essential agreement with Home, Véron, and Kant. Even the attempt to summarize Kant’s æsthetic philosophy in a dozen lines will hardly be of much service except to readers who have already some acquaintance with the subject. For those to whom the difference between “subjective” and “objective” perceptions is fresh, a dozen pages would be none too much. And to summarize Ruskin would be perhaps more difficult than to condense Kant.

As to William Morris, we are reminded of his dictum that art is the workman’s expression of joy in his work, by Tolstoy’s “As soon as the author is not producing art for his own satisfaction,—does not himself feel what he wishes to express,—a resistance immediately springs up” (p. 154); and again, “In such transmission to others of the feelings that have arisen in him, he (the artist) will find his happiness” (p. 195). Tolstoy sweeps over a far wider range of thought, but he and Morris are not opposed. Morris was emphasizing part of what Tolstoy is implying.

But to return to the difficulties of Tolstoy’s task. There is one, not yet mentioned, lurking in the hearts of most of us. We have enjoyed works of “art.” We have been interested by the information conveyed in a novel, or we have been thrilled by an unexpected “effect”; have admired the exactitude with which real life has been reproduced, or have had our feelings touched by allusions xto, or reproductions of, works—old German legends, Greek myths, or Hebrew poetry—which moved us long ago, as they moved generations before us. And we thought all this was “art.” Not clearly understanding what art is, and wherein its importance lies, we were not only attached to these things, but attributed importance to them, calling them “artistic” and “beautiful,” without well knowing what we meant by those words.

But here is a book that obliges us to clear our minds. It challenges us to define “art” and “beauty,” and to say why we consider these things, that pleased us, to be specially important. And as to beauty, we find that the definition given by æsthetic writers amounts merely to this, that “Beauty is a kind of pleasure received by us, not having personal advantage for its object.” But it follows from this, that “beauty” is a matter of taste, differing among different people, and to attach special importance to what pleases me (and others who have had the same sort of training that I have had) is merely to repeat the old, old mistake which so divides human society; it is like declaring that my race is the best race, my nation the best nation, my church the best church, and my family the “best” family. It indicates ignorance and selfishness.

But “truth angers those whom it does not convince;”—people do not wish to understand these things. It seems, at first, as though Tolstoy were obliging us to sacrifice something valuable. We do not realize that we are being helped to select the best art, but we do feel that we are being deprived of our sense of satisfaction in Rudyard Kipling.

Both the magnitude and the difficulty of the task were therefore very great, but they have been surmounted in a marvelous manner. Of the effect this book has had on me personally, I can only say that “whereas I was blind, now I see.” Though sensitive to some forms of art, I was, when I took it up, much in the dark on questions of æsthetic xiphilosophy; when I had done with it, I had grasped the main solution of the problem so clearly that—though I waded through nearly all that the critics and reviewers had to say about the book—I never again became perplexed upon the central issues.

Tolstoy was indeed peculiarly qualified for the task he has accomplished. It was after many years of work as a writer of fiction, and when he was already standing in the very foremost rank of European novelists, that he found himself compelled to face, in deadly earnest, the deepest problems of human life. He not only could not go on writing books, but he felt he could not live, unless he found clear guidance, so that he might walk sure-footedly and know the purpose and meaning of his life. Not as a mere question of speculative curiosity, but as a matter of vital necessity, he devoted years to rediscover the truths which underlie all religion.

To fit him for this task he possessed great knowledge of men and books, a wide experience of life, a knowledge of languages, and a freedom from bondage to any authority but that of reason and conscience. He was pinned to no Thirty-nine Articles, and was in receipt of no retaining fee which he was not prepared to sacrifice. Another gift, rare among men of his position, was his wonderful sincerity and (due, I think, to that sincerity) an amazing power of looking at the phenomena of our complex and artificial life with the eyes of a little child; going straight to the real, obvious facts of the case, and brushing aside the sophistries, the conventionalities, and the “authorities” by which they are obscured.

He commenced the task when he was about fifty years of age, and since then (i.e., during the last twenty years) he has produced nine philosophical or scientific works of first-rate importance, besides a great many stories and short articles. xiiThese works, in chronological order, are—

My Confession.

A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology, which has never been translated.

The Four Gospels Harmonized and Translated, of which only two parts, out of three, have as yet appeared in English.

What I Believe, sometimes called My Religion.

The Gospel in Brief.

What are we to do then? sometimes called in English What to do?

On Life, which is not an easy work in the original, and has not been satisfactorily translated.[1]

The Kingdom of God is within you; and

The Christian Teaching, which appeared after What is Art? though it was written before it.

To these scientific works I am inclined to add The Kreutzer Sonata, with the Sequel or Postscript explaining its purpose; for though The Kreutzer Sonata is a story, the understanding of sexual problems, dealt with explicitly in the Sequel, is an integral part of that comprehension of life which causes Tolstoy to admire Christ, Buddha, or Francis of Assisi.

These ten works treat of the meaning of our life; of the problems raised by the fact that we approve of some things and disapprove of others, and find ourselves deciding which of two courses to pursue.

Religion, Government, Property, Sex, War, and all the relations in which man stands to man, to his own consciousness, and to the ultimate source (which we call God) from whence that consciousness proceeds—are examined with the utmost frankness.

xiiiAnd all this time the problems of Art: What is Art? What importance is due to it? How is it related to the rest of life?—were working in his mind. He was a great artist, often upbraided for having abandoned his art. He, of all men, was bound to clear his thoughts on this perplexing subject, and to express them. His whole philosophy of life—the “religious perception” to which, with such tremendous labor and effort, he had attained, forbade him to detach art from life, and place it in a water-tight compartment where it should not act on life or be re-acted upon by life.

Life to him is rational. It has a clear aim and purpose, discernible by the aid of reason and conscience. And no human activity can be fully understood or rightly appreciated until the central purpose of life is perceived.

You cannot piece together a puzzle-map as long as you keep one bit in a wrong place, but when the pieces all fit together, then you have a demonstration that they are all in their right places. Tolstoy used that simile years ago when explaining how the comprehension of the text, “resist not him that is evil,” enabled him to perceive the reasonableness of Christ’s teaching, which had long baffled him. So it is with the problem of Art. Wrongly understood, it will tend to confuse and perplex your whole comprehension of life. But given the clue supplied by true “religious perception,” and you can place art so that it shall fit in with a right understanding of politics, economics, sex-relationships, science, and all other phases of human activity.

The basis on which this work rests, is a perception of the meaning of human life. This has been quite lost sight of by some of the reviewers, who have merely misrepresented what Tolstoy says, and then demonstrated how very stupid he would have been had he said what they attributed to him. Leaving his premises and arguments untouched, xivthey dissent from various conclusions—as though it were all a mere question of taste. They say that they are very fond of things which Tolstoy ridicules, and that they can’t understand why he does not like what they like—which is quite possible, especially if they have not understood the position from which he starts. But such criticism can lead to nothing. Discussions as to why one man likes pears and another prefers meat, do not help towards finding a definition of what is essential in nourishment; and just so, “the solution of questions of taste in art does not help to make clear what this particular human activity which we call art really consists in.”

The object of the following brief summary of a few main points is to help the reader to avoid pitfalls into which many reviewers have fallen. It aims at being no more than a bare statement of the positions—for more than that, the reader must turn to the book itself.

Let it be granted at the outset, that Tolstoy writes for those who have “ears to hear.” He seldom pauses to safeguard himself against the captious critic, and cares little for minute verbal accuracy. For instance, on page 144, he mentions “Paris,” where an English writer (even one who knew to what an extent Paris is the art center of France, and how many artists flock thither from Russia, America, and all ends of the earth) would have been almost sure to have said “France,” for fear of being thought to exaggerate. One needs some alertness of mind to follow Tolstoy in his task of compressing so large a subject into so small a space. Moreover, he is an emphatic writer who says what he means, and even, I think, sometimes rather overemphasizes it. With this much warning let us proceed to a brief summary of Tolstoy’s view of art.

“Art is a human activity,” and consequently does not exist for its own sake, but is valuable or objectionable in proportion as it is serviceable or harmful to mankind. xvThe object of this activity is to transmit to others feeling the artist has experienced. Such feelings—intentionally re-evoked and successfully transmitted to others—are the subject-matter of all art. By certain external signs—movements, lines, colors, sounds, or arrangements of words—an artist infects other people so that they share his feelings. Thus “art is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings.”

Chapters II. to V. contain an examination of various theories which have taken art to be something other than this, and step by step we are brought to the conclusion that art is this, and nothing but this.

Having got our definition of art, let us first consider art independently of its subject-matter, i.e., without asking whether the feelings transmitted are good, bad, or indifferent. Without adequate expression there is no art, for there is no infection, no transference to others of the author’s feeling. The test of art is infection. If an author has moved you so that you feel as he felt, if you are so united to him in feeling that it seems to you that he has expressed just what you have long wished to express, the work that has so infected you is a work of art.

In this sense, it is true that art has nothing to do with morality; for the test lies in the “infection,” and not in any consideration of the goodness or badness of the emotions conveyed. Thus the test of art is an internal one. 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 that moved the man who expressed it. We all share the same common human nature, and in this sense, at least, are sons of one Father. To take the simplest example: a man laughs, and another, who hears, becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another, who hears, feels sorrow. Note in passing that it does not amount to xviart “if a man infects others directly, immediately, at the very time he experiences the feeling; if he causes another man to yawn when he himself cannot help yawning,” etc. Art begins when some one, with the object of making others share his feeling, expresses his feeling by certain external indications.

Normal human beings possess this faculty to be infected by the expression of another man’s emotions. For a plain man of unperverted taste, living in contact with nature, with animals, and with his fellow-men—say, for “a country peasant of unperverted taste, this is as easy as it is for an animal of unspoiled scent to follow the trace he needs.” And he will know indubitably whether a work presented to him does, or does not, unite him in feeling with the author. But very many people “of our circle” (upper and middle class society) live such unnatural lives, in such conventional relations to the people around them, and in such artificial surroundings, that they have lost “that simple feeling, that sense of infection with another’s feeling—compelling us to joy in another’s gladness, to sorrow in another’s grief, and to mingle souls with another—which is the essence of art.” Such people, therefore, have no inner test by which to recognize a work of art; and they will always be mistaking other things for art, and seeking for external guides, such as the opinions of “recognized authorities.” Or they will mistake for art something that produces a merely physiological effect—lulling or exciting them; or some intellectual puzzle that gives them something to think about.

But if most people of the “cultured crowd” are impervious to true art, is it really possible that a common Russian country peasant, for instance, whose work-days are filled with agricultural labor, and whose brief leisure is largely taken up by his family life and by his participation in the affairs of the village commune—is it possible that he xviican recognize and be touched by works of art? Certainly it is! Just as in ancient Greece crowds assembled to hear the poems of Homer, so to-day in Russia, as in many countries and many ages, the Gospel parables, and much else of the highest art, are gladly heard by the common people. And this does not refer to any superstitious use of the Bible, but to its use as literature.

Not only do normal, laboring country people possess the capacity to be infected by good art—“the epic of Genesis, folk-legends, fairy-tales, folk-songs, etc.,” but they themselves produce songs, stories, dances, decorations, etc., which are works of true art. Take as examples the works of Burns or Bunyan, and the peasant women’s song mentioned by Tolstoy in Chapter XIV., or some of those melodies produced by the negro slaves on the southern plantations, which have touched, and still touch, many of us with the emotions felt by their unknown and unpaid composers.

The one great quality which makes a work of art truly contagious is its sincerity. If an artist is really actuated by a feeling, and is strongly impelled to communicate that feeling to other people—not for money or fame, or anything else, but because he feels he must share it—then he will not be satisfied till he has found a clear way of expressing it. And the man who is not borrowing his feelings, but has drawn what he expresses from the depths of his nature, is sure to be original, for in the same way that no two people have exactly similar faces or forms, no two people have exactly similar minds or souls.

That in briefest outline is what Tolstoy says about art, considered apart from its subject-matter. And this is how certain critics have met it. They say that when Tolstoy says the test of art is internal, he must mean that it is external. When he says that country peasants have in the past appreciated, and do still appreciate, works of the highest art, he means that the way to detect a work of xviiiart is to see what is apparently most popular among the masses. Go into the streets or music-halls of the cities in any particular country and year, and observe what is most frequently sung, shouted, or played on the barrel-organs. It may happen to be



“We don’t want to fight,

But, by Jingo, if we do.”

But whatever it is, you may at once declare these songs to be the highest musical art, without even pausing to ask to what they owe their vogue—what actress, or singer, or politician, or wave of patriotic passion has conduced to their popularity. Nor need you consider whether that popularity is not merely temporary and local. Tolstoy has said that works of the highest art are understood by unperverted country peasants—and here are things which are popular with the mob, ergo, these things must be the highest art.

The critics then proceed to say that such a test is utterly absurd. And on this point I am able to agree with the critics.

Some of these writers commence their articles by saying that Tolstoy is a most profound thinker, a great prophet, an intellectual force, etc. Yet when Tolstoy, in his emphatic way, makes the sweeping remark that “good art always pleases every one,” the critics do not read on to find out what he means, but reply: “No! good art does not please every one; some people are colorblind, and some are deaf, or have no ear for music.”

It is as though a man strenuously arguing a point were to say, “Every one knows that two and two make four,” and a boy who did not at all see what the speaker was driving at, were to reply: “No, our new-born baby doesn’t know it!” It would distract attention from the subject in hand, but it would not elucidate matters.

xixThere is, of course, a verbal contradiction between the statements that “good art always pleases every one” (p. 100), and the remark concerning “people of our circle,” who, “with very few exceptions, artists and public and critics, ... cannot distinguish true works of art from counterfeits, but continually mistake for real art the worst and most artificial” (p. 151). But I venture to think that any one of intelligence, and free from prejudice, reading this book carefully, need not fail to reach the author’s meaning.

A point to be carefully noted is the distinction between science and art. “Science investigates and brings to human perception such truths and such knowledge as the people of a given time and society consider most important. Art transmits these truths from the region of perception to the region of emotion” (p. 102). Science is an “activity of the understanding which demands preparation and a certain sequence of knowledge, so that one cannot learn trigonometry before knowing geometry.” “The business of art,” on the other hand, “lies just in this—to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible” (p. 102). It “infects any man whatever his plane of development,” and “the hindrance to understanding the best and highest feelings (as is said in the gospel) does not at all lie in deficiency of development or learning, but, on the contrary, in false development and false learning” (pp. 102, 103). Science and art are frequently blended in one work—e.g., in the gospel elucidation of Christ’s comprehension of life, or, to take a modern instance, in Henry George’s elucidation of the land question in Progress and Poverty.

The class distinction to which Tolstoy repeatedly alludes needs some explanation. The position of the lower classes in England and in Russia is different. In Russia a much xxlarger number of people live on the verge of starvation; the condition of the factory-hands is much worse than in England, and there are many glaring cases of brutal cruelty inflicted on the peasants by the officials, the police, or the military,—but in Russia a far greater proportion of the population live in the country, and a peasant usually has his own house, and tills his share of the communal lands. The “unperverted country peasant” of whom Tolstoy speaks is a man who perhaps suffers grievous want when there is a bad harvest in his province, but he is a man accustomed to the experiences of a natural life, to the management of his own affairs, and to a real voice in the arrangements of the village commune. The Government interferes, from time to time, to collect its taxes by force, to take the young men for soldiers, or to maintain the “rights” of the upper classes; but otherwise the peasant is free to do what he sees to be necessary and reasonable. On the other hand, English laborers are, for the most part, not so poor, they have more legal rights, and they have votes; but a far larger number of them live in towns and are engaged in unnatural occupations, while even those that do live in touch with nature are usually mere wage-earners, tilling other men’s land, and living often in abject submission to the farmer, the parson, or the lady-bountiful. They are dependent on an employer for daily bread, and the condition of a wage-laborer is as unnatural as that of a landlord.

The tyranny of the St. Petersburg bureaucracy is more dramatic, but less omnipresent—and probably far less fatal to the capacity to enjoy art—than the tyranny of our respectable, self-satisfied, and property-loving middle-class. I am therefore afraid that we have no great number of “unperverted” country laborers to compare with those of whom Tolstoy speaks—and some of whom I have known personally. But the truth Tolstoy elucidates lies far too deep in xxihuman nature to be infringed by such differences of local circumstance. Whatever those circumstances may be, the fact remains that in proportion as a man approaches towards the condition not only of “earning his subsistence by some kind of labor,” but of “living on all its sides the life natural and proper to mankind,” his capacity to appreciate true art tends to increase. On the other hand, when a class settles down into an artificial way of life,—loses touch with nature, becomes confused in its perceptions of what is good and what is bad, and prefers the condition of a parasite to that of a producer,—its capacity to appreciate true art must diminish. Having lost all clear perception of the meaning of life, such people are necessarily left without any criterion which will enable them to distinguish good from bad art, and they are sure to follow eagerly after beauty, or “that which pleases them.”

The artists of our society can usually only reach people of the upper and middle classes. But who is the great artist?—he who delights a select audience of his own day and class, or he whose works link generation to generation and race to race in a common bond of feeling? Surely art should fulfill its purpose as completely as possible. A work of art that united every one with the author, and with one another, would be perfect art. Tolstoy, in his emphatic way, speaks of works of “universal” art, and (though the profound critics hasten to inform us that no work of art ever reached everybody) certainly the more nearly a work of art approaches to such expression of feeling that every one may be infected by it—the nearer (apart from all question of subject-matter) it approaches perfection.

But now as to subject-matter. The subject-matter of art consists of feelings which can be spread from man to man, feelings which are “contagious” or “infectious.” Is it of no importance what feelings increase and multiply among men?

xxiiOne man feels that submission to the authority of his church, and belief in all that it teaches him, is good; another is embued by a sense of each man’s duty to think with his own head—to use for his guidance in life the reason and conscience given to him. One man feels that his nation ought to wipe out in blood the shame of a defeat inflicted on her; another feels that we are brothers, sons of one spirit, and that the slaughter of man by man is always wrong. One man feels that the most desirable thing in life is the satisfaction obtainable by the love of women; another man feels that sex-love is an entanglement and a snare, hindering his real work in life. And each of these, if he possess an artist’s gift of expression, and if the feeling be really his own and sincere, may infect other men. But some of these feelings will benefit and some will harm mankind, and the more widely they are spread the greater will be their effect.

Art unites men. Surely it is desirable that the feelings in which it unites them should be “the best and highest to which men have risen,” or at least should not run contrary to our perception of what makes for the well-being of ourselves and of others. And our perception of what makes for the well-being of ourselves and of others is what Tolstoy calls our “religious perception.”

Therefore the subject-matter of what we, in our day, can esteem as being the best art, can be of two kinds only—

(1) Feelings flowing from the highest perception now attainable by man of our right relation to our neighbor and to the Source from which we come. Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” uniting us in a more vivid sense of compassion and love, is a ready example of such art.

(2) The simple feelings of common life, accessible to every one—provided that they are such as do not hinder progress towards well-being. Art of this kind makes us xxiiirealise to how great an extent we already are members one of another—sharing the feelings of one common human nature.

The success of a very primitive novel—the story of Joseph, which made its way into the sacred books of the Jews, spread from land to land and from age to age, and continues to be read to-day among people quite free from bibliolatry—shows how nearly “universal” may be the appeal of this kind of art. This branch includes all harmless jokes, folk-stories, nursery rhymes, and even dolls, if only the author or designer has expressed a feeling (tenderness, pleasure, humor, or what not) so as to infect others.

But how are we to know what are the “best” feelings? What is good? and what is evil? This is decided by “religious perception.” Some such perception exists in every human being; there is always something he approves of, and something he disapproves of. Reason and conscience are always present, active or latent, as long as man lives. Miss Flora Shaw tells that the most degraded cannibal she ever met, drew the line at eating his own mother—nothing would induce him to entertain the thought, his moral sense was revolted by the suggestion. In most societies the “religious perception,” to which they have advanced,—the foremost stage in mankind’s long march towards perfection, which has been discerned,—has been clearly expressed by some one, and more or less consciously accepted as an ideal by the many. But there are transition periods in history when the worn-out formularies of a past age have ceased to satisfy men, or have become so encrusted with superstitions that their original brightness is lost. The “religious perception” that is dawning may not yet have found such expression as to be generally understood, but for all that it exists, and shows itself by compelling men to repudiate beliefs that xxivsatisfied their forefathers, the outward and visible signs of which are still endowed and dominant long after their spirit has taken refuge in temples not made with hands.

At such times it is difficult for men to understand each other, for the very words needed to express the deepest experiences of men’s consciousness mean different things to different men. So among us to-day, to many minds faith means credulity, and God suggests a person of the male sex, father of one only-begotten son, and creator of the universe.

This is why Tolstoy’s clear and rational “religious perception,” expressed in the books named on a previous page, is frequently spoken of by people who have not grasped it, as “mysticism.”

The narrow materialist is shocked to find that Tolstoy will not confine himself to the “objective” view of life. Encountering in himself that “inner voice” which compels us all to choose between good and evil, Tolstoy refuses to be diverted from a matter which is of immediate and vital importance to him, by discussions as to the derivation of the external manifestations of conscience which biologists are able to detect in remote forms of life. The real mystic, on the other hand, shrinks from Tolstoy’s desire to try all things by the light of reason, to depend on nothing vague, and to accept nothing on authority. The man who does not trust his own reason, fears that life thus squarely faced will prove less worth having than it is when clothed in mist.

In this work, however, Tolstoy does not recapitulate at length what he has said before. He does not pause to re-explain why he condemns Patriotism—i.e., each man’s preference for the predominance of his own country, which leads to the murder of man by man in war; or Churches, which are sectarian—i.e., which striving to assert that your doxy is heterodoxy, but that our doxy is orthodoxy, make xxvexternal authorities (Popes, Bibles, Councils) supreme, and cling to superstitions (their own miracles, legends, and myths), thus separating themselves from communion with the rest of mankind. Nor does he re-explain why he (like Christ) says “pitiable is your plight—ye rich,” who live artificial lives, maintainable only by the unbrotherly use of force (police and soldiers), but blessed are ye poor—who, by your way of life, are within easier reach of brotherly conditions, if you will but trust to reason and conscience, and change the direction of your hearts and of your labor,—working no more primarily from fear or greed, but seeking first the kingdom of righteousness, in which all good things will be added unto you. He merely summarizes it all in a few sentences, defining the “religious perception” of to-day, which alone can decide for us “the degree of importance both of the feelings transmitted by art and of the information transmitted by science.”

“The religious perception of our time, in its widest and most practical application, is the consciousness that our well-being, both material and spiritual, individual and collective, temporal and eternal, lies in the growth of brotherhood among men—in their loving harmony with one another” (p. 159).

And again:

“However differently in form people belonging to our Christian world may define the destiny of man; whether they see it in human progress in whatever sense of the words, in the union of all men in a socialistic realm, or in the establishment of a commune; whether they look forward to the union of mankind under the guidance of one universal Church, or to the federation of the world,—however various in form their definitions of the destination of human life may be, all men in our times already admit that the highest well-being attainable by men is to be reached by their union with one another” (p. 188).

xxviThis is the foundation on which the whole work is based. It follows necessarily from this perception that we should consider as most important in science “investigations into the results of good and bad actions, considerations of the reasonableness or unreasonableness of human institutions and beliefs, considerations of how human life should be lived in order to obtain the greatest well-being for each; as to what one may and ought, and what one cannot and should not believe; how to subdue one’s passions, and how to acquire the habit of virtue.” This is the science that “occupied Moses, Solon, Socrates, Epictetus, Confucius, Mencius, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, and all those who have taught men to live a moral life,” and it is precisely the kind of scientific investigation to which Tolstoy has devoted most of the last twenty years, and for the sake of which he is often said to have “abandoned art.”

Since science, like art, is a “human activity,” that science best deserves our esteem, best deserves to be “chosen, tolerated, approved, and diffused,” which treats of what is supremely important to man; which deals with urgent, vital, inevitable problems of actual life. Such science as this brings “to the consciousness of men the truths that flow from the religious perception of our times,” and “indicates the various methods of applying this consciousness to life.” “Art should transform this perception into feeling.”

The “science” which is occupied in “pouring liquids from one jar into another, or analyzing the spectrum, or cutting up frogs and porpoises,” is no use for rendering such guidance to art, though capable of practical applications which, under a more righteous system of society, might greatly have lightened the sufferings of mankind.

Naturally enough, the last chapter of the book deals with the relation between science and art. And the conclusion is that:

xxvii“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 being united together, and to set up, in place of the existing reign of force, that kingdom of God, i.e. of love, which we all recognize to be the highest aim of human life.”

And this art of the future will not be poorer, but far richer, in subject-matter than the art of to-day. From the lullaby—that will delight millions of people, generation after generation—to the highest religious art, dealing with strong, rich, and varied emotions flowing from a fresh outlook upon life and all its problems—the field open for good art is enormous. With so much to say that is urgently important to all, the art of the future will, in matter of form also, be far superior to our art in “clearness, beauty, simplicity, and compression” (p. 194).

For beauty (i.e., “that which pleases”)—though it depends on taste, and can furnish no criterion for art—will be a natural characteristic of work done, not for hire, nor even for fame, but because men, living a natural and healthy life, wish to share the “highest spiritual strength which passes through them” with the greatest possible number of others. The feelings such an artist wishes to share, he will transmit in a way that will please him, and will please other men who share his nature.

Morality is in the nature of things—we cannot escape it.

In a society where each man sets himself to obtain wealth, the difficulty of obtaining an honest living tends to become greater and greater. The more keenly a society pants to obtain “that which pleases,” and puts this forward as the first and great consideration, the more puerile and worthless will their art become. But in a society which sought, primarily, for right relations between its members, an abundance would easily be obtainable for all; and when “religious perception” guides a people’s art—beauty xxviiiinevitably results, as has always been the case when men have seized a fresh perception of life and of its purpose.

An illustration which Tolstoy struck out of the work while it was being printed, may serve to illustrate how, with the aid of the principles explained above, we may judge of the merits of any work professing to be art.

Take Romeo and Juliet. The conventional view is that Shakespear is the greatest of artists, and that Romeo and Juliet is one of his good plays. Why this is so nobody can tell you. It is so: that is the way certain people feel about it. They are “the authorities,” and to doubt their dictum is to show that you know nothing about art. Tolstoy does not agree with them in their estimate of Shakespear, therefore Tolstoy is wrong!

But now let us apply Tolstoy’s view of art to Romeo and Juliet. He does not deny that it infects. “Let us admit that it is a work of art, that it infects (though it is so artificial that it can infect only those who have been carefully educated thereunto); but what are the feelings it transmits?”

That is to say, judging by the internal test, Tolstoy admits that Romeo and Juliet unites him to its author and to other people in feeling. But the work is very far from being one of “universal” art—only a small minority of people ever have cared, or ever will care, for it. Even in England, or even in the layer of European society it is best adapted to reach, it only touches a minority, and does not approach the universality attained by the story of Joseph and many pieces of folklore.

But perhaps the subject-matter, the feeling with which Romeo and Juliet infects those whom it does reach, lifts it into the class of the highest religious art? Not so. The feeling is one of the attractiveness of “love at first sight.” A girl fourteen years old and a young man meet at an xxixaristocratic party, where there is feasting and pleasure and idleness, and, without knowing each other’s minds, they fall in love as the birds and beasts do. If any feeling is transmitted to us, it is the feeling that there is a pleasure in these things. Somewhere, in most natures, there dwells, dominant or dormant, an inclination to let such physical sexual attraction guide our course in life. To give it a plain name, it is “sensuality.” “How can I, father or mother of a daughter of Juliet’s age, wish that those foul feelings which the play transmits should be communicated to my daughter? And if the feelings transmitted by the play are bad, how can I call it good in subject-matter?”

But, objects a friend, the moral of Romeo and Juliet is excellent. See what disasters followed from the physical “love at first sight.” But that is quite another matter. It is the feelings with which you are infected when reading, and not any moral you can deduce, that is subject-matter of art. Pondering upon the consequences that flow from Romeo and Juliet’s behavior may belong to the domain of moral science, but not to that of art.

I have hesitated to use an illustration Tolstoy had struck out, but I think it serves its purpose. No doubt there are other, subordinate, feelings (e.g. humor) to be found in Romeo and Juliet; but many quaint conceits that are ingenious, and have been much admired, are not, I think, infectious.

Tried by such tests, the enormous majority of the things we have been taught to consider great works of art are found wanting. Either they fail to infect (and attract merely by being interesting, realistic, effectful, or by borrowing from others), and are therefore not works of art at all; or they are works of “exclusive art,” bad in form and capable of infecting only a select audience trained and habituated to such inferior art; or they are bad in subject-matter, transmitting feelings harmful to mankind.

xxxTolstoy does not shrink from condemning his own artistic productions; with the exception of two short stories, he tells us they are works of bad art. Take, for instance, the novel Resurrection, which is now appearing, and of which he has, somewhere, spoken disparagingly, as being “written in my former style,” and being therefore bad art. What does this mean? The book is a masterpiece in its own line; it is eagerly read in many languages; it undoubtedly infects its readers, and the feelings transmitted are, in the main, such as Tolstoy approves of—in fact, they are the feelings to which his religious perception has brought him. If lust is felt in one chapter, the reaction follows as inevitably as in real life, and is transmitted with great artistic power. Why a work of such rare merit does not satisfy Tolstoy, is because it is a work of “exclusive art,” laden with details of time and place. It has not the “simplicity and compression” necessary in works of “universal” art. Things are mentioned which might apparently be quite well omitted. The style, also, is not one of great simplicity; the sentences are often long and involved, as is commonly the case in Tolstoy’s writings. It is a novel appealing mainly to the class that has leisure for novel reading because it neglects to produce its own food, make its own clothes, or build its own houses. If Tolstoy is stringent in his judgment of other artists, he is more stringent still in his judgment of his own artistic works. Had Resurrection been written by Dickens, or by Hugo, Tolstoy would, I think, have found a place for it (with whatever reservations) among the examples of religious art. For indeed, strive as we may to be clear and explicit, our approval and disapproval is a matter of degree. The thought which underlay the remark: “Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, even God,” applies not to man only, but to all things human.

What is Art? itself is a work of science—though xxximany passages, and even some whole chapters, appeal to us as works of art, and we feel the contagion of the author’s hope, his anxiety to serve the cause of truth and love, his indignation (sometimes rather sharply expressed) with what blocks the path of advance, and his contempt for much that the “cultured crowd,” in our erudite, perverted society, have persuaded themselves, and would fain persuade others, is the highest art.

One result which follows inevitably from Tolstoy’s view (and which illustrates how widely his views differ from the fashionable æsthetic mysticism), is that art is not stationary but progressive. It is true that our highest religious perception found expression eighteen hundred years ago, and then served as the basis of an art which is still unmatched; and similar cases can be instanced from the East. But allowing for such great exceptions,—to which, not inaptly, the term of “inspiration” has been specially applied,—the subject-matter of art improves, though long periods of time may have to be considered in order to make this obvious. Our power of verbal expression, for instance, may now be no better than it was in the days of David, but we must no longer esteem as good in subject-matter poems which appeal to the Eternal to destroy a man’s private or national foes; for we have reached a “religious perception” which bids us have no foes, and the ultimate source (undefinable by us) from which this consciousness has come, is what we mean when we speak of God.


Wickham’s Farm,
Near Danbury, Essex,
23rd March 1899.