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Embed code for: Short Essay 1 (Tolstoy) final
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Meaning of the Arts
Essay in Support of Leo Tolstoy’s Aesthetic Theory
All “points” attributed to Tolstoy follow the system of numbers used in our class reading.
Leo Tolstoy defines art as a human activity in which “one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them” (3). The artist must be motivated by a desire to let others in on his feelings, he must express those feelings fully, and the viewer must gain such clear understanding of how the artist feels that he feels the same thing. Any work which does not meet his criteria is not art. He calls such attempted art “counterfeit” in point 37 (7). Productions that aren’t motivated by a feeling which needs to be transferred aren’t art.
Having identified the necessary conditions for art, he considers measuring quality of art. Good art can be measured by the fidelity of the feeling produced in the audience to the feeling the artist experienced. This really includes two points: the artist is driven to convey a genuine feeling, and the audience effortlessly experiences exactly the same feeling. Additionally, Tolstoy says that the individuality of the feeling transmitted makes art better, but he later says, in point 34, that sincerity of the artist is really the important ingredient, and will naturally lead to art which communicates whatever is unique about the artist’s experience (page 7).
Tolstoy stipulates at great length that art must be sincere and that it is only as good as it is sincere. A tempting objection to this theory of art is that art now requires an ingredient whose presence can’t be measured, or really disputed empirically in any way. To be useful, a definition should let us check instances against it to see if they comply. However, this objection is consistent with a corresponding objection about the fundamental concept of art theory: “Who’s to say what art is? How can we know for sure?” Yet, the fact that we can’t settle most cases empirically doesn’t doom our endeavor of defining art. We want to create a theory which defines some things as certainly art and some as certainly not art, even though irreconcilable disputes over proper applications of our theory will certainly arise. Following this line of thought, we should be very happy with Tolstoy’s approach. By making status as art dependent on sincerity of the artist, Tolstoy has created a condition which either is objectively satisfied or isn’t, yet can’t be proven as satisfied or not.
To see this theory “in action” let us consider some disputes within it. We might look at Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” which doesn’t feel emotional so much as documentary, the movie No Country for Old Men, which feels emotionally and symbolically packed but is difficult to unpack, or Schoenberg’s 12-tone symphonies which feel confusing. Intuition seems to lead us to label these works as art. How could Tolstoy explain all of them? They aren’t infectious, if even alive emotionally. Tolstoy might be forced to respond about each that a) we, the people who aren’t reached are a bad audience, and so we simply miss the art, which is definitely there for the community that understands the core idea (likely the case with Schoenberg), b) this is bad art, because it’s not infectious enough to spread the important feelings it contains (No Country for Old Men) or c) this really isn’t art, because it doesn’t have any emotion for us to perceive.
Regardless of our feelings about these specific artworks, this exercise demonstrates that Tolstoy’s theory of art functions as aesthetic theory must. Tolstoy assumes that an answer exists to “Is this art?”, establishes a large common ground and gives us reasonable grounds for dispute. We agree that there are rules governing art, but we disagree over applications. Tolstoy’s theory, like nearly-successful art, lets us understand each other’s vision—mostly.