EN112 Tolstoy’s What is Art? After reading Leo Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?”, answer Writing About the Text #2 on p. 270 in a well organized post of 250-300 wor

EN112 Tolstoy’s What is Art? After reading Leo Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?”, answer Writing About the Text #2 on p. 270 in a well organized post of 250-300 words that includes 2-4 paragraphs. G
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COUNT LEO TOLSTOY (1828-1910) is the author of what many consider the two
greatest novels ever written: War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). Born
into a noble family, Tolstoy followed the typical career path of a young aristocrat
in czarist Russia. This included nearly failing in his early studies, dropping out of
college, racking up huge gambling debts, joining the army, and later marrying and
starting a family.
officer and later as a world traveler, Tolstoy had the opportunity to
experience both the best and the worst of European culture. Through his friend-
ships with such influential French figures as the novelist Victor Hugo and the politi-
cal theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, he developed a strong interest in both prose
fiction and the plight of the poor. When he returned to Russia, he began to write.
His early novels were primarily autobiographical, but, by 1869, he had developed
his craft well enough to produce War and Peace.
As his social consciousness continued to develop, Tolstoy grew uncomfortable in
his roles as privileged aristocrat and famous author
. In 1881, deeply influenced by
both the New Testament and the writings of European socialists such as Proudhon,
Tolstoy experienced a religious conversion to “Christian anarchisma religion
largely of his own design that rejected the authority of secular governments and
advocated strict nonviolence, severe aestheticism, and care of the poor. Toward the
end of his life, much to the dismay of his wife and their thirteen children, Tolstoy
renounced the copyrights on his novels and changed his will to leave his estate
to his serfs.
to his serts.
From the time of his conversion until his death in 1910, Tolstoy spent much of
his time working the fields as a peasant and writing both fiction and nonfiction
promoting Christian anarchism. Tolstoy’s later works include The Death of Ivan Ilyich
a novella about a dying man who finds meaning in his life only in the min-
utes before his death, and The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), a meditation
on nonviolence that profoundly influenced Mohandas Gandhi (p. 550), with whom
Tolstoy briefly corresponded during the final months of his life.
The selection in this chapter is taken from the book-length essay What Is Art?
(1897), Tolstoy’s most complete elaboration of his post-conversion aesthetic theory.
In this selection, Tolstoy criticizes the popular belief among intellectuals that “great”
art must be incomprehensible to average people. Tolstoy argues quite the reverse;
only art that can be universally appreciated deserves to be called great.
(1886), a
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As soon as ever the art of the upper classes separated itself from universal art, a
conviction arose that art may be art and yet be incomprehensible to the masses. And
as soon as this position was admitted, it had inevitably to be admitted also that art
may be intelligible only to the very smallest number of the elect, and, eventually, to
two, or to one of our nearest friends, or to oneself alone, which is practically what
is being said by modern artists: “I create and understand myself, and if any one does
not understand me, so much the worse for him.”
The assertion that t may be good art and at the same time incomprehensible to
a great number of people is extremely unjust, and its consequences are ruinous to art
itself; but at the same time it is so common and has so eaten into our conceptions
that it is impossible sufficiently to elucidate all the absurdity of it
Nothing is more common than to hear it said of reputed works of art that they
are very good but very difficult to understand. We are quite used to such assertions,
and yet to say that a work of art is good but incomprehensible to the majority of
men is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good, but that most
people can’t eat it. The majority of men may not like rotten cheese or putrefying
grouse dishes esteemed by people with perverted tastes; but bread and fruit are only
good when they please the majority of men. And it is the same with
art may not please the majority of men, but good art always pleases
It is said that the very best works of art are such that they cannot be understood
by the mass, but are accessible only to the elect who are prepared to understand these
great works. But if the majority of men do not understand, the knowledge necessary
to enable them to understand should be taught and explained to them. But it turns
out that there is no such knowledge, that the works cannot be explained, and that
those who say the majority do not understand good works of art still do not explain
those works but only tell us that, in order to understand them, one must read, and
see, and hear these same works over and over again. But this is not to explain; it is
only to habituate! And people may habituate themselves to anything, even to the
very worst things. As people may habituate themselves to bad food, to spirits, tobacco,
and opium, just in the same way they may habituate themselves to bad art-and
that is exactly what is being done.
Moreover, it cannot be said that the majority of people lack the taste to esteem
the highest works of art. The majority always has understood, and still understands,
what we also recognize as being the very best art: the epic of Genesis, the gospel
parables, folk legends, fairy tales, and folk songs are understood by all. How can
it be that the majority has suddenly lost its capacity to understand what is high
in our art?
Of a speech it may be said that it is admirable, but incomprehensible to those
who do not know the language in which it is delivered. A speech delivered in
1. Genesis: the first book of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. Genesis
contains the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
< G online.vitalsource.com 20170406085..._fraud.docx Apple Disney ESPN Yahoo tofel Apple Bing Google Yahoo Forum Post #7 - Topic View Forum Posts 1-10 EN 112 03 - Intermediate Composit... Dashboard VitalSource: Reading the World: Ideas That Matter (Third Edition) LEO TOLSTOY. What Is Art? 267 C !!! O 目 Chinese may be excellent and may yet remain incomprehensible to me if I do not know Chinese; but what distinguishes a work of art from all other mental activity is just the fact that its language is understood by all, and that it infects all without distinction. The tears and laughter of a Chinese infect me just as the laughter and tears of a Russian; and it is the same with painting and music and poetry when it is translated into a language I understand. The songs of a Kirghiz? or of a Japanese touch me, though in a lesser degree than they touch a Kirghiz or a Japanese. I am also touched by Japanese painting, Indian architecture, and Arabian stories. If I am but little touched by a Japanese song and a Chinese novel, it is not that I do not understand these productions but that I know and am accustomed to higher works of art. It is not because their art is above me. Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone. The story of Joseph translated into the Chinese language, touches a Chinese. The story of Sakya Muni touches us. And there are, and must be, buildings, pictures, statues, and music of similar power. So that, if art fails to move men, it cannot be said that this is due to the spectators' or hearers' lack of understanding but the conclusion to be drawn may and should be that such art is either bad art or is not art at all. Art is differentiated from activity of the understanding, which demands prepara- tion and a certain sequence of knowledge (so that one cannot learn trigonometry before knowing geometry), by the fact that it acts on people independently of their state of development and education, that the charm of a picture, sounds, or of forms, infects any man whatever his plane of development. The business of art lies just in this to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible. Usually it seems to the recipient of a truly artistic impression that he knew the thing before but t had been unable to express it. And such has always been the nature of good, supreme art; the Iliad, the Odyssey, 4 the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the Hebrew prophets, the psalms, the gospel parables, the story of Sakya Muni, and the hymns of the Vedas all transmit very elevated feelings and are nevertheless quite comprehensible now to us, educated or uneducated, as they were comprehensible to the men of those times, long ago, who were even less educated than our laborers. People talk about incomprehensibility: but if art is the transmission of feelings flowing from man's religious perception, how can a feeling be incomprehensible which founded on religion, i.e., on man's rela- tion to God? Such art should be, and has actually always been, comprehensible to everybody because every man's relation to God is one and the same. And therefore 2. Kirghizs a central Asian people who live mainly in China and the Kyrgyz Republic. The Kirghiz were absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1876, about 20 years before Tolstoy wrote What Is Art! 3. Sakya Muni: another name for the Buddha. 4. The Tiad and the Odyssey: ancient Greek epic poems written in the seventh or eighth century ace and attributed to the poet Homer. 5. Vedas: ancient Sanskrit texts considered sacred to Hinduism. < G online.vitalsource.com 20170406085..._fraud.docx Apple Disney ESPN Yahoo tofel Apple Bing Google Yahoo Forum Post #7 - Topic View | Forum Posts 1-10 | EN 112 03 - Intermediate Composit... Dashboard VitalSource: Reading the World: Ideas That Matter (Third Edition) 268 THE ARTS of chastity. 10 目 the churches and the images in them are always comprehensible to everyone. The hindrance to understanding the best and highest feelings (as is said in the gospel) does not at all lie in deficiency of development or learning, but, on the contrary, in false development and false learning. A good and lofty work of art may be incom- prehensible, but not to simple, unperverted peasant laborers (all that is highest is understood by them)—it may be, and often is, unintelligible to erudite, perverted people destitute of religion. And this continually occurs in our society in which the highest feelings are simply not understood. For instance, I know people who consider themselves most refined and who say that they do not understand the poetry of love to one's neighbor, of self-sacrifice, or of So good, great, universal, religious art may be incomprehensible to a small circle of spoiled people but certainly not to any large number of plain men. Art cannot be incomprehensible to the great masses only because it is very good as artists of our day are fond of telling us. Rather we are bound to conclude that this art is unintelligible to the great masses only because it is very bad art, or even is not art at all. So that the favorite argument (naively accepted by the cultured crowd), that in order to feel art one has first to understand it (which really only means habituate oneself to it), is the truest indication that what we we are asked to understand by such a method is either very bad, exclusive art, or is not art at all. People say that works of art do not please the people because they are incapable of understanding them. But if the aim of works of art is to infect people with the emotion the artist has experienced, how can one talk about not understanding? A man of the people reads a book, sees a picture, hears a play or a symphony, and is touched by no feeling. He is told that this is because he cannot understand. People promise to let a man see a certain show; he enters and sees nothing. He is told that this is because his sight is not prepared for this show. But the man well knows that he sees quite well, and if he does not see what people promised to show him, he only concludes (as is quite just that those who undertook to show him the spectacle have not fulfilled their engagement. And it is perfectly just for a man who does feel the influence of some works of art to come to this conclusion concerning artists who do not, by their works, evoke feeling in him. To say that the reason a man is not touched by my art is because he is still too stupid, besides being very self-conceited and also rude, is to reverse the roles and for the sick to send the hale to bed. Voltaire said that "Tous les genres sont bons, hors le genre ennuyeux;"6 but with even more right one may say of art that tous les genres sont bons, hors celui qu'on ne comprend pas, or qui ne produit pas son effet? for of what value is an article which fails to do that for which it was intended? Mark this above all: if only it be admitted that art may be art and yet be unintel- ligible to anyone of sound mind, there is no reason why any circle of perverted people 6. Tous ... ennuyeux [translator's note]: All 7. Tous ... effet (translator's note): All styles styles are good except the boring style. are good except that which is not understood, or which fails to produce its effect. >
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LEO TOLSTOY – What Is Art?
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should not compose works tickling their own perverted feelings and comprehensible
to no one but themselves and call it “art,” as is actually being done by the so-called
The direction art has taken may be compared to placing on a large circle other
circles, smaller and smaller, until a cone is formed, the apex of which is no longer
a circle at all. That is what has happened to the art of our times.
1. What does Tolstoy see as the effect of separate art forms for the upper classes
and the lower classes? What is Tolstoy’s attitude toward the upper classes and the
intellectual elite?
2. What is the point of Tolstoy’s comparison between a work of art and a for item?
What deeper comparison does he make here about the purpose of art?
3. What is the difference between understanding something and habituating oneself to
something? What examples does Tolstoy use to illustrate this distinction?
4. What stories does Tolstoy use as examples of great art”? Do you agree with the
examples that he chooses?
5. What relationship does Tolstoy see between art and religion? Why does he believe
that “a good and lofty work of art” may be unintelligible to erudite, perverted
people destitute of religion”?

1. Both Tolstoy in What Is Art? and Mo Tzu in Against Music” (p. 236) criticize artistic
expression that can only be enjoyed by the elite. Yet Tolstoy is a strong advocate
of art, while Mo Tzu believes that music has no place in a society. What underly-
ing differences between the two men’s philosophies might be responsible for this
2. Mohandas Gandhi (p. 560) frequently cited Tolstoy as one of his greatest influences.
Can you see connections between Tolstoy’s view of art and Gandhi’s view of
economic justice?
3. Compare the underlying assumptions of Tolstoy’s What Is Art? with those of Hsun Tzü
in “Encouraging Learning” (p. 5). Does Tolstoy believe that education is necessary to
make people able to appreciate important things?
8. Decadents: a late nineteenth-century move
ment in art and literature including such fig-
ures as Charles Baudelaire in France and Oscar
Wilde in England—that focused on works of art
as completely divorced from ethical questions.
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