What is Art? (1899) by Leo Tolstoy

portrait of Leo Tolstoy

portrait of Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Is Art?What 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.

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).


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).

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).

tolstoy at park

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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