What is Art? (1899) by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy writes: ''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.''

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Portrait of Leo Tolstoy (Photo: Wikipedia)

cg fewstonWhat Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is Art? (1899) by Leo Tolstoy is one of those books that adds insight into already opaque and vague topics, such as art, beauty, and writing. The book is quite short at just 18 chapters, and in my edition some 112 pages, plus an additional 14 pages of Appendixes, and well worth the time to take to read and study it.

The book, with chapters one through five, begins a bit dull. Tolstoy attempts, like many before and after him have tried to do, to define and clarify what exactly is Art and Beauty, and he struggles at it, often going in circles. He does, however, come very close to answering the question ”What is Art” by the end of the book.

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In Chapter two, Tolstoy writes: ”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” (p 11).

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Leo Tolstoy ~ Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Russian Novelist (1828-1910)

Tolstoy, here, is talking about clarity through word choice, or diction. And he uses some great examples found in French poets later in the book that help to visualize what Tolstoy means.

But what Tolstoy eventually, and adamantly, states as a sort of litmus test is whether or not the art, whether in music, writing, or theatre, transmits an infection of feeling from creator to recipient.

By chapter 15 Tolstoy has found his answer: ”There is one indubitable indication distinguishing real art from its counterfeit, namely, the infectiousness of art…If a man is infected by the authors condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art; but if there be no such infection, if there be not this union with the author and with others who are moved by the same work–then it is not art. And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art” (81-82).

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A little later, Tolstoy provides four conditions in the various degrees of what should decide the merit of a work of art, and these include: 1) subject matter; 2) individuality; 3) clearness; 4) sincerity (p 83).

In the previous chapters, namely chapter eleven, Tolstoy focuses on ”subject matter” a great deal, and blames the upper-classes for ruining art. Here he does not withhold his condemnation:

”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” (p 58).

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Leo Tolstoy ~ Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Russian Novelist (1828-1910)

Tolstoy later concludes that idleness is not advantageous for those creating art and suggest that artists work and mix with all stages of life and hardships in order to create the most infectious art imaginable. And much of this art, Tolstoy refers to as ”peasant art”.

In Chapter twelve, Tolstoy defines the three conditions that help to cause counterfeit art. The last of these is ”schools of art” (p 64). This ties in the still relevant question: can we teach creative writing in schools?

And I tend to agree with Tolstoy when he explains:

”No school can evoke feeling in a man, and still less can it teach him how to manifest it in the one particular manner natural to him alone…The one thing these schools can teach is how to transmit feelings experienced by other artists in the way those artists transmitted them. And this is just what the professional schools do teach; and such instruction not only does not assist the spread of true art, but, on the contrary, by diffusing counterfeits of art, does more than anything else to deprive people of the capacity to understand true art” (p 67).

Tolstoy then touches on the answer he was needing to help explain this point-of-view, and it has to do with the state of infection discussed more extensively in later chapters.

But when he refers to the schools which teach music, he writes: ”Infection is only obtained when an artist finds those infinitely minute degrees of which a work of art consists, and only to the extent to which he finds them. And it is quite impossible to teach people by external means to find these minute degrees; they can only be found when a man yields to his feeling…All this is found only by feeling. And therefore schools may teach what is necessary in order to produce something resembling art, but not art itself. The teaching of the schools stops there where the well bit begins–consequently where art begins” (p 68).

Tolstoy, in my mind, comes as close as any one who has tried to explain the definition of art and how it can be created. And from my lessons from past writing mentors, I have often heard, deep in the feelings I held about the nature of fiction, I felt the truth behind the words and the very nature of what Tolstoy discussed in this book.

What is Art? is a short, but weighty read since Tolstoy digs deep into the reasons why his present society, which resembles many instances of modern society today, as to why some creations are considered art and others are not. A strong recommend.

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Leo Tolstoy ~ Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Russian Novelist (1828-1910)

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cg fewston

The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a been member of the Hemingway Society, Americans for the Arts, PEN America, Club Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a been Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London. He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Fathers Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystics Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America (2020); A Time to Forget in East Berlin (2022), and Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being (2023).

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He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.

cg fewston
cg fewston

Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being is a captivating new dystopian science fiction novel by CG Fewston, an author already making a name for himself with his thought-provoking work. Set in the year 2183, Conquergood is set in a world where one company, Korporation, reigns supreme and has obtained world peace, through oppression... The world-building in the novel is remarkable. Fewston has created a believable and authentic post-apocalyptic society with technological wonders and thought-provoking societal issues. The relevance of the themes to the state of the world today adds an extra wrinkle and makes the story even more compelling.”

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cg fewston

“A spellbinding tale of love and espionage set under the looming shadow of the Berlin Wall in 1975… A mesmerising read full of charged eroticism.”

Ian Skewis, Associate Editor for Bloodhound Books, & author of best-selling novel A Murder of Crows (2017)  

“An engrossing story of clandestine espionage… a testament to the lifestyle encountered in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War.”

“There is no better way for readers interested in Germany’s history and the dilemma and cultures of the two Berlins to absorb this information than in a novel such as this, which captures the microcosm of two individuals’ love, relationship, and options and expands them against the blossoming dilemmas of a nation divided.”

~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

A Time to Forget in East Berlin is a dream-like interlude of love and passion in the paranoid and violent life of a Cold War spy. The meticulous research is evident on every page, and Fewston’s elegant prose, reminiscent of novels from a bygone era, enhances the sensation that this is a book firmly rooted in another time.”

~ Matthew Harffy, prolific writer & best-selling historical fiction author of the “Bernicia Chronicles” series

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GOLD Winner in the 2020 Human Relations Indie Book Awards for Contemporary Realistic Fiction

FINALIST in the SOUTHWEST REGIONAL FICTION category of the 14th Annual National Indie Excellence 2020 Awards (NIEA)

“Readers of The Catcher in the Rye and similar stories will relish the astute, critical inspection of life that makes Little Hometown, America a compelling snapshot of contemporary American life and culture.”

“Fewston employs a literary device called a ‘frame narrative’ which may be less familiar to some, but allows for a picture-in-picture result (to use a photographic term). Snapshots of stories appear as parts of other stories, with the introductory story serving as a backdrop for a series of shorter stories that lead readers into each, dovetailing and connecting in intricate ways.”

~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“The American novelist CG FEWSTON tells a satisfying tale, bolstered by psychology and far-ranging philosophy, calling upon Joseph Campbell, J. D. Salinger, the King James Bible, and Othello.”

“In this way, the author lends intellectual heft to a family story, exploring the ‘purity’ of art, the ‘corrupting’ influences of publishing, the solitary artist, and the messy interconnectedness of human relationships.”

“Fewston’s lyrical, nostalgia-steeped story is told from the perspective of a 40-year-old man gazing back on events from his 1980s Texas childhood…. the narrator movingly conveys and interprets the greater meanings behind childhood memories.”

“The novel’s focus on formative childhood moments is familiar… the narrator’s lived experiences come across as wholly personal, deeply felt, and visceral.”

cg fewston
cg fewston

American Novelist CG FEWSTON


cg fewston

This is my good friend, Nicolasa (Nico) Murillo, CRC, who is a professional chef & a wellness mentor. I’ve known her since childhood & I’m honored to share her story with you. In life, we all have ups & downs, some far more extreme than others. Much like in Canada, in America, the legalization of marijuana has become a national movement, which includes safe & legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use & research for all.

“This is a wellness movement,” Nico explains. The wellness movement is focused on three specific areas: information, encouragement, & accountability.

In these stressful & unprecedented times, it makes good sense to promote & encourage the state or condition of being in good physical & mental health.

To learn more you can visit: Americans For Safe Access & Texans for Safe Access, ASA (if you are in Texas).

The mission of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) is to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research.


TEXANS FOR SAFE ACCESS ~ share the mission of their national organization, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which is to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research, for all Texans.


Stay safe & stay happy. God bless.


Nico Murillo Bio ~ Americans & Texans for Safe Access ~ Medical Cannabis



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