Course Notes – Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Every Fall, I teach an upper-division course on Aesthetics, which includes topics belonging to the philosophy of art, proper – like whether ‘art’ can be defined – as well as topics that are a part of what one might call the philosophy of art criticism – such as whether our evaluative judgments about works of art admit of rational justification.  The course is always populated by a good number of Art and Design students – who can receive elective credit towards the BFA, for taking the course – which greatly improves classroom discussion, insofar as many, if not most philosophy majors are relatively ignorant when it comes to art and its history and criticism.

One of the consistent favorites in the course, among philosophy and art majors alike, is the theory of art developed by Leo Tolstoy, in his book, What is Art? first published in 1896.  A staple in Aesthetics courses, the book is not typically read in its entirety, but rather, the focus is limited to several key sections, in which the heart of Tolstoy’s theory is presented.  The most relevant excerpts are here:

The complete text is available here:

One of the things that students admire about Tolstoy’s theory is that it assigns to art an essential social role.  Living at a time and in a place where funding of the arts and arts education is given the lowest possible priority, students find it refreshing to hear someone say that “[art is] one of the conditions of human life,” “as important as the activity of speech itself,” and that without it, “men would be like wild beasts.”  Yes, Tolstoy thinks art is that important.

According to Tolstoy, what the artist does is communicate his emotions to the people in his audience and in doing so, evoke those same emotions in them.  Art is thus, as Tolstoy describes it, “infectious.”

Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that 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.

But what is the connection between this idea and the notion that art is essential for human life; that without it, we would descend into barbarism?  Art, because it communicates and evokes common emotions among people, creates communities around shared sensibilities and feelings.  An illustration of this that resonates with students is the way in which communities form around shared musical tastes.  Indeed, so strong may this connection be that it may create tribes, complete with common forms of dress, manners of speaking, and even social and political views – think, for example, of Punks or  Metalheads or Goths.

To create communities around commonly shared sensibilities and feelings is to engender empathy, and empathy is one of the chief ways by which we develop sympathy for others.  If one understands another person – if one can identify with what he or she values and feels – we are more likely to find ourselves caring about them.  This is why if one wants to create the opposite effect – that is, to sow antipathy for someone or some people – the most effective way is to render them distant, alien, unrecognizable; to show that they are not like us or, in the most extreme cases, that they are not even human.  This too is most effectively achieved by way of art, and especially, the kind that we see in wartime propaganda.  It is unlikely that the Nazis could have so effectively convinced their population to accept and even participate in the destruction of their Jewish fellow citizens and neighbors, for example, without tabloids like Der Sturmer, which pumped a steady stream of anti-Semitic caricatures into the public consciousness.

In sympathy lie the roots of all moral behavior, and consequently, for Tolstoy, art is the engine of the good society.  “[It] is a means of union among men,” he writes, “joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity.”  Of course, as we’ve just seen, art also has the power to do the opposite, which is why Tolstoy is so concerned with saying not just what art is, but what makes art good or bad.

There are two senses of goodness and badness that we need to disambiguate.  One sense, call it the “internal” sense of goodness, is simply a matter of whether the artist successfully communicates and evokes the emotions that he set out to.   In this sense of goodness, Tolstoy says that the success of a work of art boils down to three essential elements:

The more individual the feeling transmitted the more strongly does it act on the receiver; the more individual the state of soul into which he is transferred the more pleasure does the receiver obtain, and therefore, the more readily and strongly does he join in it.

The clearness of expression assists infection, because the receiver, who mingles in consciousness with the author, is the better satisfied the more clearly the feeling is transmitted, which, as it seems to him, he has long known and felt, and for which he has only now found expression.

But most of all is the degree of infectiousness of art increased by the degree of sincerity in the artist.  As soon as the spectator, hearer, or reader feels that the artist is infected by his own production, and writes, sings, or plays for himself and not merely to act on others, this mental condition of the artist infects the receiver; and contrariwise, as soon as the spectator, reader, or hearer feels that the author is not writing, singing, or playing for his own satisfaction, — does not himself fell what he wishes to express – but is doing it for him, the receiver, a resistance immediately springs up, and the most individual and the newest feelings and the cleverest technique not only fail to produce any infection but actually repel.

The other sense, call it the “external” sense of goodness, gets at the question of whether or not the emotions being expressed are themselves worthy of expression, to what degree and in what way.  This, strictly speaking, is not an aesthetic mode of evaluation, but a moral one, and it makes sense, given the crucial sociocultural role that Tolstoy assigns to art, that this conception of good and bad art receives the bulk of his attention.

Tolstoy’s view is that the greatest art, in this sense, is always religious art, something that would seem obviously false, unless one understands that Tolstoy means ‘religious’ in a distinctive and atypical sense.  He is not speaking, strictly, of actual religious cults – of institutionalized religions – but of a way of seeing, which is why he speaks of religious perception, rather than of religion per se.

In every period of history, and in every human society, there exists an understanding of the meaning of life which represents the highest level to which men of that society have attained, — an understanding defining the highest good at which that society aims.  And this understanding is the religious perception of the given time and society.

Given this definition of ‘religious’, it follows that our religious feelings are our best feelings, as they are our feelings about what would constitute our own betterment and ultimately, our perfection (regardless of whether it is possible to achieve).  And since art’s role is to communicate our feelings and evoke those feelings in others, our best art is going to be that which expresses our best, noblest feelings, which are, as we’ve just seen, what Tolstoy calls “religious.”

Students sometimes worry that this suggests that art must always be positive and can never be dark or transgressive, but as I point out, depending on the circumstances in which the artist finds him or herself, dark and transgressive emotions may be positive.  If a society is intolerant or corrupt, then the moral thing is to oppose and attempt to reform it, and for this, artists expressing sentiments of resistance and change are exactly what is called for.

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  1. Hi Dan, my feelings about the importance of art (really any creative act) have grown over the years. As strong as Tolstoy’s? Not sure, but it certainly is one of the most defining capacities of humans (as a species), alongside the deep and complex nature of our communication skills (language).

    While I am somewhat sympathetic to the internal/external division Tolstoy made about how a work might be evaluated, there are some problems which keep me from fully embracing it.

    First, I would think it might be better put that the internal is what criteria an artist might use when weighing satisfaction about a work of theirs, and the external being what others would use when weighing satisfaction with a work by someone else.

    More important, it relies too much on the accuracy of communication from artist to audience (for internal), and a bit vague on how one would apply the rule betterment or best feelings, given the diverse and changing nature of societies (for external).

    Often enough works of art are misunderstood by audiences and loved all the same for an alternative meaning which can be taken from them. That might depress the artist, but does that really reduce the art if it can be taken that way? And what about totally false interpretations (based on not understanding words or codes)? What about pieces of music with both sound and words? Music can be loved across cultures without the words ever being understood (and so perhaps a different meaning taken). And maybe more interesting is when an artist, on receiving (usually positive) feedback from audiences based on a different interpretation, come to look at the art differently themselves… and appreciate it for the meaning others saw in it, even if it was not their original intent.

    And audiences change. Perhaps a work misses communication with an audience at one time, only to be appreciated decades or centuries later. Does it’s external value fluctuate? What if it is only meaningful (but very much so) for a sub-culture? Whose view of it being “best” gets considered more important? Since you brought up Nazi propaganda, it could very well be that many people in Germany felt such things (or things thought to promote “aryan” German greatness like Wagner) were exhibiting “best feelings”, while dismissing what German Jews were creating (and enjoyed within their culture) as “degenerate”. Does Tolstoy have a way of deciding between the two? Or would it be like most historical issues… decided by the winner?

    Finally, don’t works have to be placed in a… well… aesthetic context? If everyone is aiming to produce the “best feelings” the homogeneity of art might make people become less attracted to a new piece (already seen/heard it!). This is separate from the point you made of certain times requiring transgressive or dark art to serve some social purpose. What about creating contrasts for purely aesthetic purposes?


  2. I should make it clear Dwayne that I don’t accept Tolstoy’s theory myself. It is, however, one of the more popular theories with the students.

    As for your last question, Tolstoy certainly thinks that aesthetic values are always in the service of — instrumental to — emotional ones.


  3. In relation to an issue raised in the previous thread I have been rereading some bits of Karl Popper’s work. In the context of the OP (and Tolstoy’s question) I thought these remarks of Popper’s were interesting (and amusing).

    “… I believe that ‘What is?’ or ‘What are?’ questions or, in other words, all verbal or definitional questions, should be eliminated. ‘What is?’ or ‘What are?’ questions I regard as pseudo-questions; they do not all seem to be so pseudo, but I do think they all are pseudo-questions. Questions such as, ‘What is life?’ or ‘What is matter?’ or ‘What is mind?’ or ‘What is logic?’ I think should not be asked. They are typically unfruitful questions.

    “So I think we should also discard the question, ‘What is truth?’ My first reason (just mentioned) for discarding the question ‘What is truth?’ one may call ‘anti-essentialism’. My second reason is even more important. It is that we should altogether avoid, like the plague, discussing the meaning of words. Discussing the meaning of words is a favourite game of philosophy, past and present: philosophers seem to be addicted to the idea that words and their meaning are important, and are the special concern of philosophy… Now I have been taught by the experience of a lifetime in this field that one should always try to … keep to assertions, to theories, and the question of their truth. One should never get involved in verbal questions or questions of meaning, and never get interested in words. If challenged by the question of whether a word one uses really means this or perhaps that, then one should say: ‘I don’t know, and I am not interested in meanings; and if you wish, I will gladly accept your terminology.’ This never does any harm. One should never quarrel about words, and never get involved in questions of terminology. One should always keep away from discussing concepts. What we are really interested in, our real problems, are factual problems, or in other words, problems of theories and their truth. We are interested in theories and how they stand up to critical discussion…”

    There’s a story about a Cambridge seminar during which Wittgenstein allegedly threatened Popper with a poker. I can imagine Wittgenstein turning in his grave at these words – and reaching for a poker again if one was at hand.


  4. “One should never get involved in verbal questions or questions of meaning, and never get interested in words”


    And this could be one of the single stupidest things ever uttered by a philosopher. Or does Popper think that “theory” and “truth” have only one possible use, such that their meaning is so obvious that “what is?” questions can be avoided? Oh, and by the way, it makes an enormous difference what account one gives of such things, so Popper’s claim that one can simply grant one’s interlocutor whatever meanings he wants without “doing any harm” is equally stupid. The whole paragraph, frankly, is surprising for its smug glibness, given how silly it is.

    Wittgenstein’s was the far superior, more penetrating intellect and it surprises me not at all that the two didn’t get along. For those who are interested in the incident, a book was written about it not long ago. it is actually very funny and fascinating too, as it goes pretty substantially into the backgrounds of the two men.

    The whole issue, of course, is off-topic. Just as we don’t invoke general skepticism when someone talks about science, so we don’t invoke skepticism about meaning, when someone talks about art.


  5. “The whole paragraph, frankly, is surprising for its smug glibness…”

    Yes, it’s no wonder that he was unpopular amongst his colleagues. I think he had a genuine gift for aggravating people (and he enjoyed exercising it).

    Wittgenstein’s Poker is certainly worth reading.


  6. I haven’t come across a biography. I have got the impression from various sources that he was much more popular amongst scientists (and the general public) than amongst philosophers. I don’t really know much about his personal relationships but I do know that there was a lot of tension between him and various members of the Vienna Circle. I remember something one of Carnap’s friends wrote which described Popper very unsympathetically as always getting worked up in discussions and Carnap always staying calm and reasonable. I think Popper felt excluded to some extent. He was not a true member of the Circle for example (you had to be invited) and so felt himself to be on the outer, on the fringes. Likewise in terms of academic appointments: took a position in New Zealand; then London (not Oxford or Cambridge). There was a lot of snobbery back then, and though Popper’s family was respectable he left school early for some reason and worked for a while at menial jobs and was involved in Marxist activism. He trained as a cabinet-maker before going back to academic study.


  7. A good read. Interesting how this model would fit in with modern advertising – quite aside from the politics of aestheticization.

    While reading around, I was struck by Eagleton’s: “The aesthetic is simply cognition viewed in a different light, caught in the act, so that, in this little crisis or revelatory breakdown of our cognitive routines, not what we know but that we know becomes the deepest, most delightful mystery…”

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  8. I’ve long been suspicious of the 19th Century theories of art as a means to increase any morality, of artists as “legislators of the world,” which was a Romantic translation of one Christian aesthetic (popular in the 18th Century) that art’s primary value was moral education. My own view is that all the artist owes an audience is the truth of his or her own experience and imagination. Any ethic develops within the audience itself. Art includes an effort to control audience response, obviously, it has a rhetoric. But the audience must engage the rhetoric, and the audience is not powerless.