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Reflections on Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” Relevant to Our Time

Tolstoy’s polemical tract What is Art? took him more than fifteen years to write and contains his mature reflections on the place of art and science in human life. He wrote the work, he tells us, late in his life after returning to it repeatedly, perfecting and correcting it like a work of art born of long labors, finally deciding to publish it in as perfect a form as he could accomplish. The work might be described as a polemic against all current theories and forms of art in relation to Russia. But Tolstoy’s polemic is not limited to an attack on the arts in Russia, as he makes clear, since Russia has adopted these arts (and the aesthetic theories accompanying them) in their entirety from modern Europe. At first it might seem that the work is confined to a comprehensive and destructive criticism of all the fine arts of which the Nineteenth Century was proud, culminating in a plea for a new truly humane art of the future.

The great European nations of the Nineteenth Century, England, France, and Germany, flush with empire and wealth, celebrated themselves for their progress in natural science, dominion, humanity, opulence, and artistic culture. The unlimited cultivation and public attraction to the arts was thought to be proof of the superior aesthetic sensibility and taste of the new European nations, of the bourgeoisie, complemented by an endless variety of academic doctrines which confirmed these opinions to their public consumers. The Nineteenth century saw the complete variety of the arts supported and cultivated by national governments, produced on a scale unknown in any former age, with all the powers of wealth, divisions of labor, and technology at their service.[1] Newspapers and magazines, ephemeral periodicals of all kinds, informed the public about these productions and told them what they wanted to think of them.

The new styles in art and the new “scientific” theories of “aesthetics” were not merely the expression of artistic-intellectual trends for Tolstoy, but part of a whole outlook on human life and politics rooted in European history (referring back to the Renaissance) and the Enlightenment. The new European dispensation was allegedly a progressively enlightened epoch, the inheritor of all ages, but with the whole reading public indulging itself in the belief that its own accomplishments had also surpassed those of all previous ages in knowledge, sensibility, and taste. The Nineteenth Century believed itself already in full possession of the promises of the popularized European Enlightenment, as announced by men such as Condorcet, to bring about progressively the best societies composed of the most civilized and cultured human beings. At the same time it had come to amuse itself with its limitless knowledge of histories and cultures. Its theories of art and its immense artistic productions were believed to be the crowning testimony to the supreme vision, accomplishments, and pleasurable cosmopolitan life of the Epoch.

This bombastic description captures something of the collective mania of the upper and comfortable middle classes in all the European nations of the nineteenth century. Tolstoy’s attack on the cultural life of Nineteenth Century Europe and its conceited opinions is therefore not merely his own alternative “social theory of art”, nor a new “aesthetic doctrine”; nor is it an edifying tract for the improvement of religion and morals, but rather a work of political, philosophic, religious bearing which overturns the regime-forming prejudices and passions, the “world views” of modern man.

Tolstoy knows that his polemic runs so contrary to the self-congratulatory prejudices and amusements of the age and its collective intellectual conceits that his criticisms will not receive much of a hearing, if at all. Above all, the emotional, intellectual, and even physiological effects of the arts and sciences themselves as they are produced en masse and incessantly indulged in, will make it difficult if not impossible for the vast majority in Tolstoy’s age, for whom this work is intended, to understand and feel with his work. Their insensibility and conceit are not due to any lack of “culture” or intelligence. In fact, it is precisely the intelligent and cultivated who are least likely to have the capacity to be transformed by Tolstoy’s work.  Nevertheless, he deems it of vital importance to mankind’s humanity that he express himself and convey his thought and emotion: this too coincides perfectly with his purified definition of art.

In Russia the political and spiritual (religious) censors only allowed the book’s publication once it had been thoroughly adulterated to support Russian patriotism and the Russian Orthodox Church against the West. In the West because of the liberty of the press it was published uncensored in translation. However, despite the liberty of publication Tolstoy’s critiques and teaching are likely to be drowned out; the noisy, flattering, and self congratulating prejudices which celebrate the popular entertainments appear to justify the supremacy of modern life. The complete array of overdeveloped and over-refined arts belonging to the prosperous commercial and industrial societies, assisted by the sciences, make monuments to themselves and seem unassailable. Tolstoy’s treatise is meant for such societies, to pry them open to look in upon themselves and experience their inner nihilism. It is written in a simple style, accessible to anyone who can read and who is familiar with the urban enlightened democratic age. The work requires no specialized academic or professional training in expertly acknowledged fields of philosophy or the fine arts. The work is radically anti-academic and anti-scholarly, and it speaks candidly to a sincere and humane common sense, almost as though Tolstoy were having an honest discussion with any intelligent well-meaning companion. His tone, although polemical, is not bitter but benevolent.

While making many references to famous works and theories Tolstoy reveals the heartless emptiness, rudderless confusion, and degraded drifting of the critics, academics, and advertisers. Tolstoy opens a horrendous abyss for the reader through the use of reason and artistic examples explained and retold with the utmost simplicity and sincerity. He awakens the reader’s conscience and speaks to his sense of humanity, and finally makes him fear for the goodness and happiness of his soul. It is precisely this simplicity of style and clarity that allows Tolstoy to get to the roots of what art is, eschewing all the obscurity, empty sophistication, and lofty-sounding critical analysis and praise of the modern age. Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” contains within it artistically written descriptions, examples, or experiences which comply perfectly with his requirements for a rebirth of genuine art, preparing the way for it in the reader’s thoughts and emotions. Tolstoy creates a yearning for genuine and wholesome forms of art. His work is therefore an epoch making revolutionary work in that it destroys and re-evaluates everything, theoretical and practical, which stands in the way of a genuine understanding and sincere feelings integral to the purposes of true art.

In this brief essay I want to bring Tolstoy’s great work to our attention once again as something necessary and in fact urgently needed for our age. Everything Tolstoy teaches and conveys about the arts pertains to our progressive cosmopolitan age of science, commerce, and democratic equality. The intellectual and artistic movements Tolstoy diagnosed, and of which he tried to warn his readers with a sense of horror, came to have their full political effects during the course of the Twentieth Century. An appreciation of this work, to allow it to have its proper impact for us today, would require us to transpose it onto ourselves. This would force us to reflect on the causes for the perpetual supply and limitless superficial variety of ruinous and degrading forms of art (or what Tolstoy teaches us are pseudo-art) that we see all around us in our time.

But for those of us too who take refuge in the art of the past, in particular in the arts of those supposedly great masters of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, extending back into the Renaissance or even Antiquity, Tolstoy’s work is most needful. While we sense the degeneracy of our time, we perhaps pride ourselves on our more healthy and refined tastes, or on our appreciation for the bygone depths of lost noble, beautiful, or pious sentiments. However, the whole range of “classical” European art is blown away by Tolstoy as though by a hurricane; and almost nothing is left standing. In this respect Tolstoy’s work is akin to the works of Nietzsche in forcing the awareness of his own nihilism on civilized modern man, and there is good reason to think that this particular treatise is intended to counteract and oppose the Nietzschean movement he saw emerging.[2] After a serious engagement with his book it becomes impossible for anyone with an intellectual conscience to relapse indulgently into vain escapism or into nostalgic snobbery for the art of the past.

Tolstoy’s “polemic” is literary, philosophic, and historical in character while being in the service of what he calls the true “religious consciousness of the age.” It therefore addresses the serious reader about matters important to him as a human being and cannot be interpreted by means of any biographical, scholarly, or academic treatment of this work. Such an academic perspective, as we learn from Tolstoy himself, would destroy the capacity to think and feel along with him through the progressive stages of this work. If one is not moved by his work in the realm of feeling one has not understood it. His brief but exhaustive examinations of all the European schools of aesthetics and their founding intellectual luminaries leave them all critically destroyed in the early chapters. Tolstoy does not attempt to dispute with the scholars and academics in the universities who for the most part have lost all touch with life and the genuine problems of human existence, God, and human happiness. On one level he treats the philosophic doctrines with contempt mixed with sadness, but on another level he paints for us a comedy of a sophistic and self-absorbed crowd of garrulous would-be public philosophers whose confused and obfuscating theories lead to relativism, effete forms of hedonism, and vulgarity.

Tolstoy’s intended reader is one who is aware of the popular culture of the Nineteenth Century, who has been exposed to it, and who may even have some familiarity with the fashionable ideas with which it is explained and advertised. Tolstoy’s reader is an urbanite, but one who is somehow still open to a self-critical reflection on his tastes and life. He might be an aspiring artist or one who seeks an understanding of his pleasures. Tolstoy’s argument, he knows, will appear paradoxical, absurd, and even insane to the vast majority of the cultured urban crowd.

Tolstoy begins the work with a biographical episode full of artistry. He takes us into a dress rehearsal of one of those great romantic operas of the Nineteenth Century which transports us to faraway lands and peoples whose subject culminates in romantic love. No such opera exists in the repertoire, and yet it could be almost any German, Italian, or French opera from the whole epoch. Every major detail in this carefully drawn episode is meaningful and evokes the emotions of sadness, laughter, disgust, and even anger. Just as a visit to an abattoir might ruin one’s appetite, Tolstoy’s observations paint a deplorable and absurd picture that destroys all the false illusions and affecting sensations of the opera as a place where one forgets oneself in a stimulating diverse spectacle. The grand pretenses of opera are annihilated by his descriptions. The preparations for this spectacle are slavish and stultifying, requiring the labors of hundreds or thousands of people all for the sake of an incredible amusement. The labors expended on the opera have no higher useful purpose for life than the entertainment of the wealthy classes, for the sake of their pleasurable self-forgetting, vanity, or diversion from boredom. Tolstoy makes palpable the unnatural lives of all involved from the lowly workmen to the insolent, cruel, and vain conductor, all of whom pursue their jobs from disparate motives of survival, gain, the insatiable cravings for fame or applause, and the need to perpetuate soft, urban, luxurious lives. The members of the orchestra are all reduced to nothing better than workers of machines doing repetitive and tedious labor.

The exotic theme of Tolstoy’s imaginary opera rehearsal is simplistic in a stupid (rather than naïve) manner, and it is a love story where a barbarian king of India becomes a minstrel; an desirable Indian princess falls hopelessly in love with the minstrel until it is revealed to the happy surprise of all that he is actually the king. The singer is elevated to the premiere place of the lover, and the insipid drama revolves around our wanting to see the princess freely paired with a minstrel. All was done for the sake of the princess, to win her in disguise. None of these characters have any meaning to the lives of the audience, and have nothing to do with love of any kind. The exotic theme is merely a costume display for a worldly (culturally flavored) ambiance, and has no national or political substance; it merely flatters the worldly conceits of its audience while giving a borrowed exotic spice for arousal.

The operatic form itself is contrived and unnatural, where actors sing words that cannot be understood in modes that do not move the hearts of the audience. It has no relation to any life the audience can ever live. No lasting, unified, or authentic artistic effect is made, and it was not created out of any authentically artistic impulse, a true experience of feeling. Anyone familiar with the operas of the Nineteenth Century will recognize every opera in this ridiculous scene. By describing the human scenes behind the concealing spectacle Tolstoy arrives at the true motives and passions which sustain the frivolous amusement. The labor and suffering of the participants forms no community, but rather a wretched assemblage of people, men and women undifferentiated, working each for himself. There are no duties, but there are continual tasks, demanding, exhausting, repetitive, dreary, and stultifying. There is no common good and the members experience only vanity, greed, desire, and fear of reproach or punishment as motives. They do not have any respect for the conductor or belief in the greatness or meaningfulness of their vocation. It is a reflection of modern commercial society.[3]

This episode impresses upon the reader the harm done to all involved in the enterprise, and to the unsociable, individuating, servile tasks to which each must tend repeatedly. Each becomes a specialist in an occupation that makes him stupid, “dull to all the serious phenomena of life”. The entire assemblage of workers, musicians, actors, and conductors is dehumanized too in that no genuine art can reflect or inform their professional lives: and since their profession takes up the greatest efforts and time of their existence, their lives are drained of human meaning. Tolstoy’s description might seem uncharitable or unfairly narrow minded to us who value professionalism, specialization, or entertainment. But Tolstoy was as harsh a critic of such lives dedicated to senseless labor, and a deeper more philosophic critic than Marx.

At this point I feel compelled to quote  and comment using Tolstoy’s own words:

“I know that the majority of people who are not only regarded as intelligent but are indeed intelligent, capable of understanding the most difficult scientific, mathematical and philosophical reasonings, are very rarely capable of understanding a most simple and obvious truth, if it is such as requires that they admit that a judgement they have formed about something, sometimes with great effort, a judgement they are proud of, which they have taught to others, on the basis of which they have arranged their entire life – that this judgement may be wrong. And therefore I have little hope that the arguments I am presenting about the perversion of art and taste in our society will be, not accepted, but even seriously discussed, and yet I must speak out to the end what I have been ineluctably brought to by my study of the question of art.[4]

This disarming statement anticipates the reaction of practically all of Tolstoy’s contemporaries in the Nineteenth Century, especially those who take an interest in or have a concern with cultural affairs. Tolstoy knows that questioning the reality and value of the empire of Art in the Nineteenth Century is akin to questioning the truth of the Crucifixion and Salvation in the Twelfth Century: the difference is that Art in the Nineteenth does not relate to the fundamental problems of human existence; it does not ask or seek an answer to the fundamental questions of human life, to determine the meaning of life; it has no relation to God, embodies the beliefs of no morality, creates no communal customs, conveys no sentiments that form a community (family or country) with a common destiny, and fails to communicate a mutually experienced moral feeling of common humanity. Tolstoy knows that for most of his intelligent readers these critical reflections will appear paradoxical and even insane; but they are the lost. They have lost the capacity to think along with him, or to be touched by his poetic (artistic) prose. The armies of entertainment-workers described above are the twin of the idle wealthy classes for whom the opera is a vain and self-forgetting amusement, to say nothing of those for whom it is only a (self-forgetting) shopping venue for sexual commerce.

On the one hand, the dehumanizing effects of undignified and specialized wage labor or of turning men from the time of childhood into highly trained entertainers for the amusement of the wealthy results in the destruction of genuine human society.[5] A simulacrum of community is created. Men work together, but they are unconnected by any true order, hierarchy, or scale of Good and Evil, for a higher moral purpose that sanctifies all of life, anchored to God or related to the gods. On the other hand, there exists the wealthy idle group of flattered consumers who form neither a genuine caste (an aristocracy of birth, with ancestral honor in deeds done for a king or for sacred purposes) nor a true society: they are an aggregate, a “cultured crowd”, or a herd; and all of their over-refined pleasing adornments of Art cannot form them into a true society. Such are the gravest effects of the new empire of Nineteenth Century art, namely, their destruction of the inner life of man and dissolution of the distinctive human capacity for forming common bonds of thought and feeling, rooted in attitudes toward ultimate and eternal questions. To this extent, as Tolstoy says outright, the Nineteenth Century arts degrade man to the lowest moral level possible, and actually beneath that level, beneath good and evil, as it were. Through the question of art Tolstoy is revealing the quality of true human unity as opposed to modern aggregates which make uses of simulacra or counterfeits of art: and the most salient characteristic of modern human aggregates is a certain kind of unbelief or atheism.

Like Nietzsche, Tolstoy sees that modern man is essentially atheistic in a certain way, although the need for religion is often evinced in specific degraded ways, usually in private or perverse forms of superstition or fanaticism. Tolstoy considers this the salient facet of modern human life, its atheistic disposition. Although he is obviously aware of the decisive importance of the Enlightenment in this development, he prefers to trace modern unbelief back to the Renaissance when the Church undermined itself spiritually. The plethora of theories of “aesthetics”, a new philosophic inquiry, emerged after the Enlightenment, and became the new arena of disputation in the same way that Theology was once-upon-a-time disputed in ages when Christianity was the bond of society. The new theories of aesthetics attempt to supply modern man with something he has lost as a result of his atheistic opinions, to supply something super-human, edifying, and sublime; but they dare not speak of Scripture or the God of prophecy because they no longer believe in Miracles, Revelation, or verbal inspiration.

Modern man is somehow scientific, but Tolstoy must wait till the conclusion of What is Art? to address this crisis of science. Misguided, obfuscating, and nihilistic science establishes modern man’s horizon, and it is within that absence of a meaningful horizon that the arts find their new uses. Tolstoy knows that believers still exist, as do priests, and their Churches or sects. But these are only corroding vestiges giving way to the egalitarian and atheistic teachings of the Enlightenment; and Tolstoy speaks against these old, decayed, and obsolete remnants not as  the religious reformers like Luther or Calvin did, but with an entirely different concern. Religious beliefs of the past, places of worship, and ceremonies are experienced variously by individuals now but they no longer have the power to form the unifying bond of society. The arts, although they may sometimes make use of religious themes, moods, or allusions, are not essentially or truly religious. These simulacra or borrowings from religion, perhaps evoking nostalgia, are histrionic and cannot form an order of life giving man a clear meaning, purpose, and directedness to God. In fact, they suppress the powers of the soul or exhaust those powers which once-upon-a-time gave the religions their vitality and sincerity.

The pious moods or subjects elicited by or which serve as the basis of some Nineteenth Century art are entertainments for an audience of spectators, and are not forms of worship or prayer; they produce no conviction, contain no solemn wisdom, elicit no reverence.[6] The old religions and their ceremonies have lost their power to orient human life and must be abandoned, and religion must be recovered in a new mode, with reference to what Tolstoy calls “the religious consciousness of the age”. I am here drawing out what Tolstoy handles very subtly because he did not want to undermine his new interpretation of Christianity for modern man, after the disorder and breakdown caused by the Enlightenment. He never presents it in simply this manner: instead he calls the new religion “true Christianity”, which means the “true essence” of Christianity as accessible to modern man’s religious consciousness.[7]

Tolstoy avoids calling the trajectory of modern thought and art “nihilism” or “relativism” as doctrines deserving of some established historical reality and dignity; but this is today how we would recognize that which he describes in simple direct terms as “unbelief”, and in having no “meaningful” understanding of life and its purpose. Nietzsche anointed Nihilism as the dispensation of the modern age facing man, and used this to create a new godless horizon for man. Tolstoy is aware of the Nietzschean movement (as well as the Marxist movement) but he refuses to make History the realm of the chaotic or ineluctable forces driving man which must be formed by force of will. He therefore provides an alternative perspective on history, a “world view” which explains to his readers the origins of their wretched and perplexing European dilemma. Having undermined the opinion of the supremacy of the current age, he answers all the relevant questions about the origins of the Nineteenth Century’s qualities, the human causes of it and their effects – intellectual, moral, religious, and political. It would be pedantic and distorting to call this Tolstoy’s “doctrine of history” in What is Art? It is rather his historical description of the loss of belief in the higher classes of Europe, and their subsequent attempt to fill the void with specious, flattering, and gratifying (albeit sham) justifications of their privileges and high status.

Modern unbelief gave rise, Tolstoy teaches in What is Art?, to the sciences of “aesthetics”. The sciences of aesthetics were attempts after the Enlightenment to justify the arts and their accompanying pleasures for classes of people who had lost belief in God and had no longer any conception of the meaning of life. The university, rather than the Church, was the home of these doctrines and their professors; what we call the “humanities” is what Tolstoy calls the studies of the arts. Tolstoy traces out all the schools of aesthetics and provides what might be called a critical phylogeny and artistic typology of the history of aesthetics. He orders them in such a way as to reveal the decline which takes place among them in sequence into ever more vulgar and nihilistic doctrines. His narration of these doctrines is grouped by national origin and sect, and each takes on the character most distinctive of that nation among whom the particular genera arose. Therefore, the Germans developed very abstruse and sublime doctrines, unclear and mysterious, while the English developed aesthetic doctrines that were practical, material, utilitarian, primal, and physiological. The French doctrines appear to partake most of the effeminate refinements of the practical, material, utilitarian, and carnal.[8] All of the schools or doctrines and their progenitors are sophists of various kinds, as brilliant, learned, descriptive, or logical as any of them may be. In trying to orient the good, the true, and the beautiful they all invade or contradict one another, and Tolstoy overwhelms the reader with a confused chaos of doctrine-makers who tend toward two extreme and abstract (and hence inhuman) results.

The tendency of aesthetic doctrines leads in two disparate directions, namely: to mysterious, unclear, and insubstantial spiritual assertions about the meaning and purpose of art, on the one hand; or they lead to the practical, effectual, material, and sensuous stimulations of man’s organism – which are causes of “pleasure”. Insubstantial and ethereal abstractions about “beauty” or “God”, with no concrete human meaning, leave behind the carnal and sensuous aspects of the human organism. The objective of the aestheticians evaporates into sophisticated nothingness, while the subjective decays into materialistic pleasures or subjective emotions which cannot be defined generally.[9] The materialistic or emotional is subjective and personal, and therefore any description of taste as a standard becomes completely relativistic. The fatal result of establishing “aesthetics” on the basis of an idea of beauty, Tolstoy shows, divorced from a true religious consciousness and moral purpose, is a completely relativistic and therefore degrading doctrine of taste. Art becomes whatever pleases those who feel they are pleased by it.

Tolstoy gives us some examples of where this stupidity and vulgarity is headed: cuisine, perfumes, clothes, magic shows, acrobatics, and any trivial artifact or production which provides pleasure to the consumer can be called art. Worst of all are those consequences for the relations between the sexes: the amorous degrades into the merely sensual which descends rapidly into the depraved. Tolstoy narrates the logic of the necessary decadence of modern aesthetic theories and explains their necessarily degrading effects. The doctrines of beauty, because they do not relate art to feelings which emerge from the religious consciousness of the age, and because they do not determine the higher moral purpose of art in human life, are dehumanizing; they make men ever more asocial, and lead to sexual depravities, which means they destroy the family. This shocking result of Tolstoy’s simple and clear reasoning will undoubtedly appear incredible to his readers so that he must repeat and develop it many times over throughout the work. How is it possible that all the great “civilized” art of the Nineteenth Century, the Century of Progress and Grandeur of Taste in all the magnificent public arts of the theatre, culminating in the operas, – how is it possible that virtually all of it is not only worthless, but harmful to human life? Ideas have consequences, and the unbelief of the ruling and upper classes translates into a way of life and the uses of counterfeit art devoid of authentic human meaning.

The final stages of decline in aesthetics affirm that art is whatever pleases certain circles of people. A “circle” is not a people or a nation or any genuine form of community united by ideas of good and evil, God, and all the other moral relations of man. A “circle” is an aggregate that associates for pleasure and amusement, and perhaps for a certain feeling of self satisfaction. There is also a specific vanity to a “circle” by which it distinguishes itself: according to the popular Nineteenth Century artistic canon, the favorite authors of the cultured circle are cobbled together from the geniuses or masters of all historical ages, Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern, “Phidias, Sophocles, Homer, Titian, Raphael, Bach, Beethoven, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe et alia.”  Tolstoy’s disordered list  (and his “et alia”) reveals that the circle has no taste, no morality, no God, no genuine feeling for art whatsoever, but only a bourgeois garb of high culture for its amusement.[10]

Some of the works mentioned by the forenamed artists at best spoke directly to the religious consciousness of their time and communicated high moral feelings to the communities for whom they were written. But to have a conglomerate taste composed of all those works is to have no taste at all. Pagan, Christian, Protestant, Catholic, Tragic, Epic, sensual, pious, revolutionary, conservative, religious, atheistic – all these cannot produce a whole or consistent taste or belong to any “world view”. Since the aestheticians write in part to justify the snobbish tastes of certain circles, and since no morality can be endorsed by an agglomeration of all these contrary styles and religions or religious founders, it becomes (in the opinion of the aesthetician) “wrong to bring any moral requirements to art” – so that nothing need be excluded. One can have a diverse and luxurious smorgasbord of great works and great masters with which to fill up and provide diversion from one’s tedious existence. False and sophistic aesthetic theory corrupts taste and morals while justifying amusements devoid of any human meaning integral to its audience, sanctifying the learned snobbery of a circle of the cultured crowd.

At times Tolstoy’s conclusions are so shocking, paradoxical, and (we must suppose) offensive to his reader, that he must excuse himself by expressions such as “strange as it may sound”. But for those willing and able to follow through with Tolstoy’s beautifully reasoned and elegant prose, it provides a higher human pleasure. The preferences of the cultured crowd, with the assistance of a complicit relativistic aesthetic theory, come to be viewed as “infallible” because they are applauded, as was once-upon-a-time the Pope infallible. The infallibility of the crowd’s preferences for whatever fashions of performance please them, provided with a corrupt theory which speciously dignifies the crowd’s vain whims, justifies “the egoistic pleasures and immorality of existing art”. False ideas, Tolstoy shows, have fatal consequences: “aesthetic” doctrines of relativistic hedonism produce “people who stand at the lowest level of moral development” because they identify whatever their passions or urges dictate with what is good. Intellectually speaking, such theories also have consequences, since they make the understanding of the human meaning, purpose, and vital importance of art to human life “completely impossible”.

Tolstoy moves from the audiences and theorists to the contemporary artists themselves, and he discusses the last and latest trends in art. These bizarre trends explicitly celebrate solipsism, meaninglessness, and ugliness. Here too the demands of true art, its purpose, aim, origin, and effects, are neither met nor even attempted. The exact contrary is attempted. The Symbolists and Décadents celebrate incoherence, solipsism, and depravity. Their works are without any emotive effect whatsoever, except for boredom, insatiable vanity, and insolent snobbery over the bourgeois masses from whom the “artists” would like to distinguish themselves as a separate higher caste who, scornfully, can live as they please.

Tolstoy is not claiming that at every level of society the decadent affects and depraving pleasures of the modern arts are yet equally spread or universally effective. But that is the danger at which he shudders and toward which the modern movement is tending. The upper classes think that the improvement of the lower and laboring classes would be for them to live the life of the upper classes, to have their idleness, and to enjoy their arts and pleasures – and in the best case to be free from labor. The false and counterfeit forms of modern art (false because they do not fulfill the moral purposes of true art, and counterfeit because they do not arise out of a true religious consciousness) are dehumanizing and cause many forms of depravity: their effects obliterate the capacity, the potential to be effected by the modest effects of genuine art. The “softening and fertilizing” effects of art give way to coarseness, sensuality, brutality, and cruelty so that men become ever more heartless and savage, although they still live within the structures of what appears to be a civil society. Tolstoy predicts what we today are perplexed by when looking back: it is often said that the horrors and atrocities of the Twentieth Century are an enigma when one considers the high state of culture towards the end of the Nineteenth Century in Europe.

Tolstoy denies this. According to Tolstoy the arts and theories of the Nineteenth Century are the very source of the rapid decline in European societies and their slide into moral depravity; there is a straight line leading from that dehumanized condition to the horrors and atrocities of the future, committed against one’s fellow man and neighbor or against foreigners. Tolstoy predicts that the emerging doctrines which point to the future, which extol unlimited egotism, will encourage superstitious, sexual, and patriotic manias.[11] Moreover, he anticipates that the amorous bourgeois themes of the earlier Nineteenth Century art will give way to depictions of sexual lust and pornography, as found in the Symbolists and Décadents. In a book replete with examples of dehumanizing decay, whose causes are carefully explained, the lowest stratum is arrived when art becomes a mass produced commercially motivated enterprise, providing the material for either propaganda (political, superstitious, or progressive) or for arousing and satisfying the passions of a corrupted urbanized mob.[12] Three main feelings dominate this latter kind of degenerate art: vanity, lust, and tedium, in varying combinations and proportions, as they are accessible to “the most banal and ordinary people”. Sexual lust is aroused as the predominant feeling, as sensuality is “accessible to not only to all people but to all animals.” Those obsessed by sexual lust manufacture works that arouse and satisfy erotic manias, whose themes celebrate adultery, promiscuity, and depravity. They project these obsessions onto the entire world, as if they were essential to the human race. In turn, the rest of the artistic world in Europe and America fashionably imitate these artists.[13] The danger here involves the potential to contaminate the moral instincts of the leading nations of the world with perverted feelings and images that destroy the capacity for all familial sentiments.

Tolstoy teaches, contrary to what is usually thought today, that taste can be permanently ruined by exposure to bad, depraved, or counterfeit art, and that such productions deceive and pervert taste beyond all rectification. And since man’s humanity depends on true art, the modern crisis is the impending dehumanization of man. If these late and lowest forms of dehumanizing pseudo-art spread over the planet by technological means, the fate of mankind is at stake. It is no wonder that Tolstoy suggests that it would be better with Socrates (in the Republic) to throw out all the arts rather than allow this to happen. As a consequence of this Tolstoy encourages the banishment and destruction of all bad and corrupting art. The word “decadence” for Tolstoy was not the cry of some old pious or moralistic reactionary. His moral efforts on behalf of art unite him with the universal good of humanity.

Tolstoy provides hope and consolation for modern man in this work by continually clarifying what true art is and pointing to a restoration of it in the future. He opens the way for a truly humanizing art of the future, and makes many astonishing promises, almost miraculous and utopian, which may arise from a recovery of genuine art. The polemic is restorative and provides fertile examples for those who might feel the genuine need to create true art or to understand the meaning of art in human life for all peoples in all ages. The question of the moral purpose of art in the life of man and for mankind must be answered because art is one of the conditions of a truly human life. Art is distinctively human, not animal, and it is only through art that genuine human community across generations can be created and sustained. Tolstoy provides a trans-cultural and trans-historical explanation for what art is that allows one to understand too the specific meaning of art among the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and other peoples in their distinctiveness throughout history, in their relation to life and death. Tolstoy’s teaching addresses an age in which the equality of human beings is generally believed and felt and in which popular atheism has undermined all particular ideas of the gods.

However, he also reserves a special place for the great and profound artist who can form a horizon in harmony with the religious consciousness of the age and whose work makes felt the meaning and purpose of life and death. Although Tolstoy speaks of this only once, he speaks of it with an unobtrusive modesty, only increasing the power of such expression.[14] What the great artist has felt, experienced, and understood is communicated through his work and becomes the defining possession of the people for whom it is intended. Homer and the writings of the Prophets or Psalms are given as examples of genuine art by Tolstoy, works which are thoroughly incompatible in spirit with one another. We are here given a glimpse into the natural purpose of life for the rarest and greatest of men, those who have had an authentic experience of truth and whose works somehow complete them. In the deepest sense What is Art? is therefore an autobiographical work of what Tolstoy himself intended, reaped from, and accomplished by his artistic labors.

Tolstoy repeatedly emphasizes that all genuine art must be in harmony with the “religious consciousness of the people” at a given time. In Tolstoy’s and our time there is also a belief in progress and in the advancement of mankind. The inner truth and naturalness of Christianity is the brotherhood and equality of all men and a love for mankind expressed in compassion. In the late modern age art which does not correspond to this religious consciousness cannot be genuine or humanizing. Many in our time will resist this conclusion because they embrace the false or nihilistic ideas about art. Not all genuine art has to contain a religious subject per se, but it must convey feelings that infect others in accord with their common religious consciousness.[15] The value of art depends on “people’s understanding of the meaning of life, on what they see as good and evil in life”, which is determined “by what are called religions”. All true art must be religious in this sense, it must correspond to the religious “world view” of the people for whom it is created. A true modern art in harmony with the religious consciousness of the age will therefore convey the inner truth and naturalness of “true Christianity”. Readers familiar with Nietzsche will immediately recognize the anti-Nietzschean purpose of this work. Nietzsche did everything in his power to oppose egalitarianism, which Tolstoy accepts as the principle belief underlying the religious consciousness of the age. It is of the utmost importance for us to understand the bearing of this great disagreement.

The other subjects for genuine art in harmony with the egalitarian life of man concern the lives of the laboring father and the mother within the context of her natural unspoiled household. This kind of art will appear insipid and boring to those accustomed to the insane, stupid, or histrionic monstrosities of modern drama, or it will seem monotonous and limited to those inured to perverse sexual intrigues, morbidly fascinating crimes, or other absurd and corrupting stories. Tolstoy provides five simple, clear, touching examples of art which elicit familial sentiments that  form an emotional bond which all can experience.[16] The familial art is more feminine and relates to the love, care, tenderness, joy, and fear felt for the well being of one’s own children, extending to compassion for the sufferings of the children of others.[17] These examples affirm the goodness of man and of life. Human closeness to the animals is also depicted in ways that atone for our dependence on them, and the desire to do no harm. Self-sacrifice and self-denial would also become virtues in harmony with this new religion, which is by no means a self-abnegating asceticism but serves life on earth. The masculine form of art concerns the life of the laboring man in all of life’s vicissitudes:

The life of the laboring man, with its infinitely diverse forms of labor and the dangers connected with it on the sea or under the ground, with his travels, dealings with proprietors, superiors, comrades, with people of other confessions and nationalities, his struggle with nature, wild animals, his relations with domestic animals, his labors in the forest, the steppe, the fields, the orchard, the kitchen garden, his relations with his wife and children, not only as close and dear people but as co-workers, helpers, replacements in his work, his relation to all economic questions, not as subjects of discussion or vanity, but as questions vital for himself and his family, with his pride in self-sufficiency and service to others, with his pleasure in time off, and all these interests pervaded by a religious attitude towards these phenomena.[18] Tolstoy here describes the modern husbandman in all his tribulations, cares, and adventures as though he were a new kind of Odysseus whose depiction affirms the goodness of life, nature, and the one God for all mankind.

The conclusion of What is Art? confronts, in a brief but comprehensive and precise manner, the greatest obstacle to the restoration of art, the true source and cause of the modern crisis, science. Just as art had become thoroughly relativistic and thereby degraded by means of perverted theories, so science too is in crisis. Tolstoy identifies two types of science, the human science and the experimental science. We are familiar with these as the “social” and “natural” sciences. With the decay of traditional Christianity and the rise of unbelief science has been directed by its own ideals or the ideals of its practitioners who are part of the modern movement.[19] In the absence of a religious direction given to science, one which elucidates the purpose and meaning of human life, science is left to itself; and it is disoriented, bewildered, and equally nihilistic as art (which follows it in train). Experimental science studies “everything” indiscriminately, or it studies the causes of phenomena for the purposes of practical and profitable applications. Experimental science produces powers and harnesses natural energies but it cannot guide the use of that power. Part of science studies curious trivialities unconnected to the purposes of human life or the good which appear to be comforting distractions from the abyss. The humanly important part of science, the human or social sciences, are incapable of directing man, and in Tolstoy’s time these attempt to enshrine the permanency of the status quo, or whatever fraction of society is most powerful in shaping the leading public opinion.

True human science would confront the questions of religion, morality, and social life and “how human life should be arranged”.[20] The neglect of the fundamental questions of human life has left these great subjects to the “professors” who, Tolstoy boldly asserts, pervert them all. The social ideals generated by scientists for the future of man alienate man from nature and labor by which man sustains his existence. They project in “stupid fashionable books” fantasies of machines providing everything necessary for mankind by means of control over nature forces. The science-fiction dreams of the utilitarian “sociologists” (who fancy themselves humanitarians), in visions that remind us of Bacon’s New Atlantis, would perhaps allow for men to spend their idle time in amusing, distracting, arousing, and satiating themselves with the manufactured counterfeit arts of their depraved society. Tolstoy makes clear that genuine science would guide and order human life as directed by the “religious consciousness” of the age if it were healthy and concerned with the truly human good. Science cannot be supreme for man’s social existence, but must take its orientation by this “religious consciousness”. Science ought to study “how men should live in order to fulfill their destiny.” Experimental science is nihilistic and its practitioners believe that “social science” of any kind is “unscientific” and therefore impossible. In the gaping chasm of this abyss Tolstoy returns to true art for the salvation of man. Tolstoy re-evaluates the fruits of science and re-orients it along with true art to be in accord with the “religious consciousness of the age”.

The revaluation of science and art in this way gives art a new exalted and humanizing vocation. “The task facing art is enormous”. Protecting and cherishing man’s humanity now become the tasks of art, and Tolstoy culminates his address in a series of prophetic promises of what art may accomplish in the future if it were to fulfill its destiny. One may call this a utopian vision of what art may accomplish to bring about “the brotherly union of men”; but Tolstoy calls it the “Kingdom of God” which is “the highest aim of human life”, in accord with the religious consciousness of the age. Tolstoy reminds the reader of all the moral miracles that art was able in the past to accomplish. He presents finally a vision to potential future artists and men, a kind of inspired hope, that ideals of peace and love for all mankind can indeed be brought about without violence by true art.

Art will provide, as Lessing once called it (in his re-interpretation of Revelation for an Enlightened age), a new “education of mankind”, but today that education will be for the union and brotherhood of men. This will be the new religious art of the future, on which man’s well-being and his humanity depend “in our time”. The reverence for art as the medium of man’s continual advancement and moral improvement when directed by the “religious consciousness of the age” provide new pious hopes in accord with that spirit. By clarifying what true art is and by showing what true science must do, and furthermore by conveying all the moral emotions and moods necessary for the reader to receive these teachings, and above all in showing the life, joy, and purpose of the great artist, Tolstoy has therefore done everything in his power in this work to accomplish the tasks of both true art and true science.



[1] Literature, poetry, drama, music, opera, dance, painting, sculpture, & architecture.

[2] Tolstoy was well aware that Nietzsche’s doctrines would likely take spiritual possession of and convulse the Twentieth Century with all its dissoluteness, wars, and mass murder. The official ban on Nietzsche’s works in Russian was lifted in 1898, the year of publication of the corrected edition of “What is Art?” to which “important additions” had been made. Nietzsche’s works were also available in French well before 1898, and translations into Russian started to appear in 1892. In the realm of political economy Tolstoy similarly refers to the power of Marx’s works which he saw gaining control over the intellectuals, who hoped to breed the conditions for violent revolution by creating urban proletarian mobs. By 1900 the amalgams of Nietzsche’s and Marx’s thought had already begun in Russia. The Soviets were not “orthodox Marxists” because they had imbibed an elixir of power, will, and cruelty at the very inception of the Revolution. (See George Kline, “Nietzschean Marxism”, 1969). A successful variation on this amalgamation, so fateful for us, is discussed by Allan Bloom as the “Nietzscheanization of the Left or Vice Versa”, explained in his Closing of the American Mind.

[3] Cf. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First Part, 11; “On the New Idol”.

[4] What is Art?, Chapter XIV.

[5] As we shall see, even the capacity to experience the feeling for such a society becomes impossible in those depraved by pseudo-art.

[6] The need for variation, novelty, and ever-increasing stimulating or exciting effects or moods is clearly seen in the movement of Nineteenth Century popular “high” art from its beginnings. This can be found especially in the colossal displays of Wagner, and later in the music of Mahler. Pseudo-art requires change (to flee from boredom, one of its main purposes) and is subject to trends or fashions which rapidly come to be and are replaced as new ever-more exaggerated effects are continually needed. The tendency is to hypertrophic sentimentality and bombast. Ever-increasing effects are necessary because people become inured to effects which quickly lose the element of the unexpected; they cannot maintain interest. The explanatory power of Tolstoy’s analysis of how modern art is manufactured as an industry through specific techniques is clear, detailed, and irrefutable – but also rich in illustrative examples. He of course knows that the desire to develop great talents, earn rewards, and other ambitions motivate the composers. But they too, like their audiences, nay like their whole society, are histrionic, and do not form religions, peoples, or give meaning to humanity born of sincere feelings.

[7] Tolstoy calls “religious consciousness” what Nietzsche seems to have called “religiosity”.

[8] This reminds of Nietzsche’s description of the French: “The French have been only the apes and actors of these ideas, also their finest soldiers, also unhappily their first and most thorough victims: for through the Damnable Anglomania of ‘modern ideas’ the âme française has finally grown so thin and emaciated that today one recalls her sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, her profound passionate strength, her noble inventiveness, almost with disbelief.” (Beyond Good & Evil, sec. 253)

[9] At one stage of degeneration in Tolstoy’s narration of the history of aesthetics the “pleasure” which beauty provides is said to be free from “lust”. But ultimately this is untenable and all physiological effects that provide pleasure must be granted legitimacy, or must be acknowledged as equally “aesthetic”.

[10] The Bible, in particular the Psalms and writings of the Prophets as several times mentioned by Tolstoy as examples of genuine art, is conspicuously absent from this list.

[11] Consider Nietzsche: “If,  on  the  other  hand,  the doctrines  of sovereign  becoming, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider  true but deadly – are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become  normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people; in its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious  exploitation of the non-brothers, and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity may perhaps appear in the arena of the future.” (Use and Abuse of History for Life)

[12] Whether they live in the country or in the city is irrelevant if their passions and the substance of their pleasing amusements are the same. To teach them to “appreciate” the productions of refined false and counterfeit art (from an earlier decadent phase) merely turns them into a “cultured mob”. (What is Art? , chapter XIV.)

[13] Tolstoy uses the strongest moral expression of condemnation in the work, “sexual abominations”, in this context. The depravities of sex touch the core of man’s familial life which is the natural touchstone of man’s humanity for art. The familial relations are the locus of man’s feelings now, in this age, for the sacred. This justifies Tolstoy’s expression.

[14] What is Art?, chapter VI.

[15] Tolstoy would find revolting the histrionic and hypocritical expression of compassions such as we see and hear around us everywhere in our time. He explains that the dramatic effects of horrible and piteous suffering as are used in popular entertainments are experienced as pleasant because we are glad we are not in such terrible circumstances, “like what we experience in viewing an execution, or what the Romans experienced in their circuses.” (What is Art?, chapter XI.)

[16] What is Art?, chapter XIV.

[17] This sincere compassion is shown through the depiction of an act of maternal charity and care, a woman feeding a hungry and beggarly boy in her own home, with her own hands and her own cooking while her daughter looks on.

[18] What is Art?, chapter XI.

[19] Tolstoy speaks directly to the proselytizing atheists and rationalists of his time in Chapter XVI, “who invent various sorts of philosophical and aesthetic theories for themselves which conceal from them the meaninglessness and depravity of their lives”. By the very fact of trying to establish “a world outlook” they give testimony to the “religious consciousness of our time”, which is the equality, unity, and progress of the human race. Beginning from this point it would be fruitful to contrast Tocqueville’s thoughts about this same “consciousness” in his discussion of the poetic ideas inherent in modern democracy.

[20] Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics would be clear examples of teachings which attempt to meet Tolstoy’s demands for “social science”.


Also see “Marriage and Modernity in Anna Karenina“; “Vengeance is Mine: Levin’s Obscured Faith Journey in Anna Karenina“; and “Consciousness, Memory, and History in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.”

Richard BuckwalterRichard Buckwalter

Richard Buckwalter

Richard Buckwalter obtained his B.A. in Classics at the University of
Chicago, and his M.A. in Political Science at Boston College. He pursued
graduate research at the London School of Economics and Tilburg University, Netherlands. He was a Teaching Fellow at Harvard, and has taught at LSE and the University of Paris VIII (St. Denis). While living in Munich he studied with Heinrich Meier and Rémi Brague at the LMU. He is
currently an independent scholar living in Georgia, United States.

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