What Is Art?What Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Leo Tolstoy was one of the most radical thinkers of our modern age and one of the greatest creative geniuses of World Literature. Most of us first come into contact with Tolstoy through his great novels and stories such as “Anna Karenina,” “War and Peace,” and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” in which he shows himself to be a consummate creative artist and “Worldsmith,” bringing his world and characters to life with incredible veracity and vitality, rivaling life itself. In his later years Tolstoy went through a crisis of despair and renewal of faith, having contemplated suicide at the meaninglessness and fruitlessness of all he had done in life, including his writing.

Towards the end of his life two notable works, amoung many others, emerged from this period of crisis yielding his maturer reflections on both the nature of art and literature in “What is Art?” and on the search for meaning in life and ‘true religion” in “A Confession.” The results in both cases were startling, radical and profoundly upsetting to conventional society. Before his death his newer radical spirituality made him world reknown, alternatively in the eyes of the beholders, as either a modern saint and prophet or a dangerously subversive senile lunatic.

Thus his radical interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus as an exemplar of a universal non-sectarian spirituality centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Neo-Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as “The Kingdom of God Is Within You,” were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.

In the realm of Literature and Art, particularly in “What is Art?” he radically redefined the function of art as not in the production of aesthetic pleasure, saleable cultural or aesthetic commodities, shibboleths of acquired culture and status or even beauty, but rather in the greater calling of art and literature, in his view, as an aid to authentic spirituality in effectively uniting all people in a universal brotherhood or sisterhood of the soul, and in ever deeper connectedness with the cosmos, humanity, limitless life and the infinite. That is, art and literature must above all be a form of spiritual communion which brings all human souls together in heart, soul and mind and which brings them through such communion into an ever deeper relationship with the ultimate source and infinite powers of life and the cosmos. If they fail in bringing about this universal communion, common brotherhood and spiritual linking and bonding to life and the world, no matter what their technical or aesthetic merit, they have failed as art, effectively negating the claims of “l’art pour l’art” or “art for art’s sake” of the Aestheticists such as Wilde. Instead he introduced an artistic ethic of “art for life’s sake” and “art for the soul’s sake.”

In the realm of religion and spirituality Tolstoy was a radical iconoclast, rejecting almost all forms of traditional and institutional religion as poisionous perversions and betrayals of true spirituality, much as he felt Jesus found himself opposed to the corruptions of the Temple in his time. In “A Confession” Tolstoy set forth his vision of “true religion” or authentic spirituality:

“The principles of this true religion are so appropriate to man that as soon as people discover them they accept them as something they have known for a long time and which stand to reason.

The principles are very simple, comprehensible and uncomplicated. They are as follows:

That there is a God who is the origin of everything;
That there is an element of this divine origin in every person, which he can diminish or increase through his way of living;
That in order for someone to increase this source he must overcome his passions and increase the love within himself;
That the practical means of achieving this consist in doing to others as you would wish them to do to you.

All these principles are common to Brahmanism, Hebraism, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Mohammedanism. (If Buddhism does not provide a definition of God, it nevertheless recognises that with which man unites and merges as he reaches Nirvana. And that something is the same origin which the other religions recognise as God.)

‘But that is not a religion,’ say the men of today, accustomed as they are to regarding the supernatural, i.e. the absurd, as the main sign of religion. ‘It is anything else you like, philosophy, ethics, rationalisation, but not religion.’ According to their way of seeing things, religion must be ridiculous and incomprehensible (credo quia absurdum). Yet it was from just these very religious principles, or rather as a consequence of their being propagated as religious doctrines, that through a long process of distortion, all the religious miracles and supernatural events were drawn up, which are now considered basic characteristics of any faith. To claim that the supernatural and irrational form the basic characteristics of religion is much the same as noticing only the rotten apples and then claiming that the basic features of the fruit named apple are a flaccid bitterness and a harmful effect produced in the stomach.

Religion is the definition of man’s relationship to the origin of everything, and of the purpose acquired as a result of this relationship, and of the rules of conduct that follow from this purpose. And the religion common to all, the basic principles of which are alike in all practices, fully satisfies these demands. It defines man’s relationship to God as of a part to a whole. From this relationship follows man’s purpose, which lies in increasing his spiritual qualities, and man’s purpose leads to the practical rules of the law: do to others as you would have them do unto you.”

Thus Tolstoy was a “fundamentalist” in a radically inverted sense. He called humanity back to the simple “fundamentals” of a living and authentic spirituality, not to the “dead fundamentalsm” of adherence to institutional dogmas, literal and inflexible so-called interpretations of a dead scripture perverted by clerics, submission to falsely appropriated authority of priests and mullahs, or an institutional heirarchy geared more towards preservation of unjust relations of power, property ownership, sexual ownership and institutionalized violence in class relationships and the state than to any form of spirituality.

“True religion is that relationship, in accordance with reason and knowledge, which man establishes with the infinite world around him, and which binds his life to that infinity and guides his actions.” he stated. “Reason is the power man possesses to define his relationship to the universe. Since the relationship is the same for everyone, thus religion unites men.Union among men gives them the highest attainable well-being, on both the physical and the spiritual level.”

“Humanity can only be saved from disaster when it frees itself from the hypnotic influence the priests hold over it, and from that into which the learned are leading it. In order to pour something into a full vessel one must first empty it of its contents. Likewise, it is essential to free people from the deception they are held in, in order for them to adopt the true religion: a relationship with God, the source of all things, which is correct and in accord with the development of humanity, together with the guidance for conduct that results from this relationship.”

Thus, Tolstoy, in our modern world would on his principles condemn almost all forms of institutional and traditional religion as perversions of true spirituality. He would condemn, most probably, the authority of the Pope and of the mullahs alike as false idolatry of human institutions necessarily corrupt and corrupting. He would condemn the worship even of a single scripture, be it Bible, Koran or Sutra as a false idol falsely appropriated in interpretation by a clergy more interested in social power than any authentic experience and vital connection with the living spirit of God or the infinite, and falsely closed to further evolution of its canon from the ongoing living spirit of God in the living universe. He would condemn as false and corrupt Jews in Israel who worship a Jewish state, or Jewishness as a “Golden Calf” idol improperly substituted for the true God encountered in the living spirit by Moses, as he would condemn the imposition of the dogmas of “Hindutva: in India.

Needless to say, such radical spiritual convictions won Tolstoy no “friends in higher circles” except perhaps the Highest Friend. But the same might be said of Jesus, who, like Rushdie suffered a “fatwah” from the Sanhedrim and Rome for his social disruptions and outspokenness.

Tolstoy’s views on art and literature are thus seen to harmonize and elaborate on his views of spirituality. Tolstoy defines art and literature as an expression of a feeling or experience in such a way that the audience to whom the art is directed can share that feeling or experience and which consequently brings them together in spiritual brotherhood or sisterhood, a form of spiritual communion. True art for Tolstoy, is communication and sharing of feelings between human souls. Its characteristics are: 1) the individuality of the feeling; 2) clarity, and 3)(and foremost) sincerity.

Art and literature do not belong to any particular class or elite of society. To limit the subject matter of art to the experiences of a particular class of society is to deny that art can be important for all of society. Tolstoy criticizes the belief that art is only relevant to a particular class of society, saying that this is a misconception which can lead to obscurity and decadence in art.

According to Tolstoy, good art and literature are intelligible and comprehensible. Bad art is unintelligible and incomprehensible. The more that art restricts itself to a particular audience or subculture, the more obscure and incomprehensible it becomes to people outside that particular audience. Good art is not confusing and incomprehensible to most people. To the contrary, good art can communicate its meaning to most people readily, because it expresses its meaning in a way which can be understood by everyone.

Tolstoy claimed that professionalism, esotericism and elitism causes a lack of sincerity in the artist, and argues that if an artist must earn a living by producing art, then the art which is produced is more likely to be false and insincere. Tolstoy also claimed that interpretation or criticism of art is irrelevant and unnecessary, because any good work of art is able to express thoughts and feelings which can be clearly understood by most people. Tolstoy argues that any explanation of such thoughts and feelings is superfluous, because art ultimately communicates feelings and experiences in a way that issues from the aesthetic or literary experiece itself, which cannot be expressed by any words or superimposed extrinsic analysis.

Tolstoy described the process by which this spiritual communion or spontaneous spiritual brotherhood is brought about using a metaphor, ironically, of “infectiousness.” “There is one indubitable sign distinguishing real art from its counterfeit—namely the infectiousness of art. If a man without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint, on reading, hearing or seeing another man’s work experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and others who are also affected by that work, then the object evoking that condition is a real work of art. And however poetic, realistic, striking or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author)and with others who similarly experience and are infected by it.”

Thus, Tolstoy excludes many forms of art from what he considers to be “good” art, because he believes that “good” art must communicate some form of religious experience. For example, he refers to the music of Bach and Mozart, the comedies of Molière, the poetry of Goethe and Hugo, and the novels of Dickens and Dostoyevsky as examples of “good” art. However, he refers to the poetry of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, the plays of Ibsen, and the music of Wagner and Liszt as examples of “bad” art, and most surprisingly even includes, in a fit of contrarianism, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, even with its “Ode to Joy” from Schiller, in the category of “bad art.”

Was Tolstoy then a prophet and saint of spirituality and of art, or was he a dangerous senile anti-social madman? I invit you to judge for yourself after reading “What is Art?” and “A Confession.” Like all good literature, his works present us with a plateful of abiding and vital questions, and we must test our digestion of them in the eating. Like all good World Literature, Tolstoy provides nourishment even in his questions, whether we accept his answers or no. And the questions are universal and of profound interest and significance to the peoples of all nationalities, religions, cultures, genders and social classes.

Tolstoy’s works were also of relevance and influence in the composition of the novel Spiritus Mundi, by the present author Robert Sheppard, as its protagonist Sartorius faces a similar crisis to Tolstoy’s mid-life crisis in the “Confession” when he like Tolstoy contemplates despair, failure and meaninglessness at mid-life, contemplating suicide on his fiftieth birthday. You are invited to find out the outcome of his crisis by reading “Spiritus Mundi,” available at the links below.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Spiritus Mundi, Book I: The Novel:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

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About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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