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.