As the nineteenth century was packing its bags in early 1898, Leo Tolstoy published the most outlandish book ever written on one of that century’s favorite subjects: art. Approaching his seventieth birthday, Tolstoy distilled in What Is Art? the moralistic bile that had been rising in him for two decades and spewed it over virtually the entire artistic culture of his century—and of modern times. He spared almost nothing, including his own great works. For he had come to believe most of it exemplified “false art,” perpetrating a variety of social evils and depriving Western civilization of the necessary virtues of true art. “Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement,” he cried, bent on awakening modernity from its complacency; “art is a great matter.”

What Is Art? deserves reading by anyone attentive to the uses and abuses of art.

Eccentric and lucid, cranky and brilliant, funny and fierce, What Is Art? resounds with the effusions of a moral convert who has spurned the life he once led and now burns with imperious convictions. But What Is Art? is much more than this. Notwithstanding its bizarreries and precepts that could persuade no one but the most artistically hidebound, What Is Art? deserves reading by anyone attentive to the uses and abuses of art. If you can resist slamming the book shut before taking in Tolstoy’s full case for and against art, you will be nodding assent that “art is a great matter”—while pondering a defense of art against Tolstoy. And now, as our century readies its own departure—amid the fault-lines of postmodernism that cleave history, the tide of popular culture that threatens to sweep everything before it, and persistent controversies over the future of the classical arts and the mandate of artistic freedom— you can also read What Is Art? for what it says about our fin de siècle as much as for what it said about Tolstoy’s.

Tolstoy wrote What Is Art? twenty years after suffering the spiritual crisis that broke his literary career in two. His magisterial fiction unfurling a panorama of history and probing the tangles of human relations came before. Afterwards, charged by fresh moral zeal, came a series of short, often magnificent, didactic tales and the novel Resurrection, along with a stream of hortatory essays reinterpreting Christianity, berating Western culture, and idealizing a Christian, pacifist, peasant society. Although Tolstoy had another dozen years to live after What Is Art? appeared, it crowned his labors as a cultural critic.

Soon translated into many languages, What Is Art? immediately sent reverberations across Europe (conveniently charted by William B. Edgerton in an article of 1978, “The Critical Reception Abroad of Tolstoy’s What Is Art?”). It did not win Tolstoy many friends. The book was written by “an opinionated, impassioned moralist and at the same time a narrow-minded man,” charged the French critic Emile Faguet. “The inevitable obsolescence of an old man’s taste in art,” jabbed George Bernard Shaw (who nonetheless found some merit in it). And Rainer Maria Rilke dismissed the book as “a disgraceful and silly pamphlet.”

Such an unfriendly reception was not altogether new to Tolstoy. His hostility to his times and his fervent spirituality had already provoked the prolific litterateur Max Nordau to include a full chapter on “Tolstoism” in that infamous diatribe against the artistic and intellectual movements of the late nineteenth century entitled Entartung (1893), published in English as Degeneration (1895). Nordau makes a nice companion to Tolstoy, since Degeneration and What Is Art? go after many of the same perceived villains. But Nordau, a physician and future Zionist leader, waged his battles as a partisan of liberal causes and progressive scientific civilization (albeit not large cities). Drawing on the Darwinian theories of the criminologist Cesare Lombroso, Nordau defined “degeneration” as a “severe mental epidemic” symptomatic of “an exhausted central nervous system” caused by “the vertigo and whirl of our frenzied life” and manifested in a variety of twisted ideas and baffling artistry. And he classed “Tolstoism” as a degenerate “mental aberration” of “weakness and despondency” that “assumes the form of pessimism” and inclines to a wan “mysticism” akin to that of Symbolism and Wagnerism (two of Tolstoy’s own primary targets). Although Nordau would have endorsed many of Tolstoy’s complaints in What Is Art?, he would quickly have tallied its prescriptions among the symptoms of Tolstoy’s own degeneracy.

Tolstoy never mentions Max Nordau in What Is Art? But despite their many allied loathings, Tolstoy would have scorned Nordau’s theories as highfalutin pseudo-science that obscures the malaise of modern culture and misses the point of art. Tolstoy needed no theory of “mental epidemic” to grasp the causes of modern culture’s troubles. He simply looked at what is now often called the “artworld”—the social and economic facts, the institutional arrangements, and the ideological underpinnings of the dominant artistic culture. These observations disclosed to his tendentious eye what art actually does to people caught up in that world, and how art would function differently outside of it, as well as how art can either advance human life or drive civilization into the dust—and how the modern artworld is heading civilization straight there.

Tolstoy’s argument, bearing obvious affinities to the long tradition of moralistic art theory reaching back to Plato, goes like this. Scanning the cultural landscape, Tolstoy saw vast human and economic resources expended “to satisfy the demands of art.” And, ticking off a list of related institutions and pursuits, he describes an artworld we have come to know well: “In every large town enormous buildings are erected for museums, academies, conservatories, dramatic schools, and for performances and concerts. Hundreds of thousands of workmen—carpenters, masons, painters, joiners, paperhangers, tailors, hairdressers, jewelers, molders, typesetters—spend their whole lives in hard labor” to further art. Abetting all of this, he adds, governments and private benefactors subsidize the arts, and the press publicizes “new works of art, … discussed in the utmost detail by critics and connoisseurs.” Only the military “consumes so much energy as this.” Moreover, “as in war, the very lives of men are sacrificed.” For, owing to the modern professionalization of art, “hundreds of thousands of people devote their lives from childhood to learning to twirl their legs rapidly (dancers), or to touch notes and strings very rapidly (musicians), or to draw with paint and represent what they see (artists), or to turn every phrase inside out and find a rhyme to every word.” And those exertions amount to nothing less than the “stunting of human life”—which Tolstoy sardonically illustrates through an opera rehearsal whose abusive conductor, brutalizing regimen, and absurd drama reduce the performers to dispirited, bickering, pathetic drudges.

These bleak observations of the artworld prompted Tolstoy to ask: “Is it true that art is so important that such sacrifices should be made in its name?” Rummaging through books of philosophy for an answer, and putting this question to habitués of the artworld, he obtained merely comfortable yeas supported by unconvincing notions of “what is meant by art and especially what is good art.” Then, behind the easy affirmations and the loose definitions, Tolstoy detected the influence of an idea that had implicitly sanctioned these “sacrifices,” but that he believed could never wholly justify them. That idea is aestheticism.

Scanning the cultural landscape, Tolstoy saw vast human and economic resources expended “to satisfy the demands of art.”

Tolstoy had in mind not the overt doctrine of art-for-art’s-sake identified with his contemporaries Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, but the underlying Western artistic tradition since the Renaissance, which had uprooted the arts from their traditional religious and social grounds and had given them an autonomy sustained by aesthetic theory from the eighteenth century onward. Aestheticism has become the air we breathe, Tolstoy says, thanks to the gathering assumption that “artistic enjoyment is good because it is enjoyment” and “enjoyment is good because it is enjoyment.” But enjoyment could no more be the essential and true purpose of art, he declares, contriving a facile analogy, than “that the purpose and aim of food is the pleasure derived when consuming it.” Any art created for this false purpose therefore has to be “false art.” And false art corrupts whomever it seduces with the wiles of “artistic enjoyment.”

Breathing the fire of his anti-hedonic morality, Tolstoy blames the evil folly of false art, first, on the secular lassitude and lasciviousness of “upper class life,” and, second, on the ascending modernist aesthetics of adventurous formalism that he found utterly incomprehensible. Both of these traditions have bastardized art, he says, rendering it exclusive and elitist, sensual and sensationalist, intellectual and arcane, while removing it from common life and harnessing it to the aimless pleasures and careerist rewards of the artworld. And with every step in “the direction art has taken,” it has strayed farther from its original path and deprived human beings of art’s invaluable life-serving purposes.

To save humankind from the depredations of “false art,” Tolstoy summons civilization to the banner of true art. True art has nothing much to do with aesthetics. It has everything to do with social life. “Art is one of two organs of human progress”— along with language—he says. “By words man interchanges thoughts, by the forms of art he interchanges feelings.” That makes art an “indispensable means of communication,” which forges an emotional “union among men,” and “without which mankind could not exist.” This is Tolstoy’s concise answer to the question “What is art?”

Equating art with emotional communication, or “infection” by feelings, as Tolstoy puts it, was hardly a path-breaking proposition. The idea had been around at least since Aristotle’s musings on catharsis. But Tolstoy reduces emotional “infection” to a thumping dogma that he wields to banish anything else that art might do and to batter everything in the reigning artistic culture. True art infects us spontaneously, he says, with “the simple feelings of common life, accessible to everyone without exception” and leading to the highest emotion, “the brotherhood of man.” Any artwork that fails to infect us this way is false. If it ignores elemental emotions, it is false. If we have to learn to like it, it is false. If it plays upon sensationalism or sensuality, it is false. If it unites only “habituated” or “perverted” devotees, it is false. When true art thrives, social bonds strengthen, culture flowers, and human beings flourish. When false art rules, social bonds wither, culture falters, and human beings lose their very humanity. No wonder Tolstoy insisted “art is a great matter.”

To save humankind from the depredations of “false art,” Tolstoy summons civilization to the banner of true art.

Finally, in a burst of optimism, Tolstoy heralds a time when true art will prevail. Rooted in generic human experience and communicating genuine feelings, this art will be universally accessible folk art and art forms born of social life, such as masses, marches, and birthday tunes, as well as edifying moralistic tales like his own. “The art of the future will thus be completely distinct, both in subject matter and in form, from what is now called art,” he confidently predicts. “Open to everyone,” it will shed the baggage of the modern professional artworld laden with economic sacrifices and human exploitation, elitism, and intellectualism, and usher in “the brotherhood of man.”

By this stage, most readers have parted company with Tolstoy. No one who admires the power of art to transcend the immediate communication of feelings and expand the very range of the emotions, the senses, the imagination, and the intellect will contentedly follow Tolstoy to the campfire for peasant songs. And yet, only the most adamant aesthete would deny that art can yield some of the adverse consequences Tolstoy lamented. When we invite art to challenge and change us, even for the better, we assure that art will divide us to some degree, and may even arguably do us harm. And everyone acquainted with obsessive artists has probably asked a version of Thomas Mann’s pained question in “Tonio Kröger”—one of Mann’s numerous excursions into the perils and paradoxes of aesthetics—“What more pitiable sight is there than a life led astray by art?”

By the same token, we need not share Tolstoy’s lamentations to see in the artworld of our times much that had worried Tolstoy, and to let his thoughts at least give us pause. For in the century since What Is Art?, virtually every social fact and artistic tendency that Tolstoy bewailed has doubled and redoubled. Art schools, museums, performing arts centers, symphony orchestras, opera companies, theater and dance troupes, and diverse arts organizations have proliferated, attracting patrons to the arts, enticing young people to become artists, and weaving the arts ever more tightly into the fabric of modern life. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of modernism, seeming to prize art over ordinary life and to remove human content from art (which Ortega y Gasset descriptively rather than pejoratively labeled “the dehumanization of art” in his eminent essay of that title in 1925), largely conquered the artistic landscape. And some of the consequences of modernism unfolded much as Tolstoy had expected in cultural fractiousness and intellectual pretentiousness (including the rise of a tepid aesthetics of the “interesting,” which he had belittled for masking art’s emotional aridity).

Were Tolstoy to attend Yasmina Reza’s Art, the prize-winning hit Broadway play of 1998, he would shake his head knowingly at this dramatization of the social havoc that the modernist artistic culture could wreak. A near allegory of What Is Art?, the play opened in New York (following runs in Paris and London) one hundred years to the month after the complete What Is Art? came out in March 1898. Dramatizing an ardent conversation among three friends over a classic modernist white-on-white painting that one of them has purchased for a hefty sum, the play swirls around many of Tolstoy’s bristling themes: the egotistical pretensions of artists and their acolytes, the aesthetics of modernism, the intellectualization of art, the elitism of taste, the economics and ideologies of the artworld, and the severing of human bonds by conflicting judgments of modern art. After the painting has literally brought the friends to blows, a reconciliation occurs, culminating in an imaginative acceptance of the painting by its severest critic—who invents a comforting narrative for its colorless abstraction. The artwork that had divided the friends, unraveling the ties that had long held them together, unites them anew.

Most playgoers leave the theater smiling at Art’s erudite comedy of modern art and resilient friendship. But Tolstoy would not likely exit smiling. Although he would applaud the play’s send-up of modernism, he would rue the denouement as another triumph of dehumanizing aestheticism, another victory of artificial taste, another submission of human relations to false art and false feeling. Tolstoy’s idiosyncrasies aside, taking a cue from a scene of the play in which the painting’s owner thrusts a book at his critical friend and charges him to “read Seneca,” the urbane philosopher of Stoic composure, for clues to both the painting and life, one could say that the clever philosophical play deepens and darkens if you “read Tolstoy.”

Although the career of modernism and of the artworld since his day would have confirmed most of Tolstoy’s anxieties, certain currents of late-twentieth-century culture might have offered him some encouragement. One of these is the postmodern reaction against modernist aesthetics and artistic hauteur. He predicted that such a reaction must come. The postmodern campaign of eclectic, anti-formalist aesthetics and populist accessibility in the arts virtually echoes several of Tolstoy’s most fervent complaints. But postmodernism’s jaded irony, nihilistic relativism, and artistic whimsy would give him new chills, down to the collective shrug of contemporary aesthetic theory that lets art be anything that anyone says it is. As the philosopher and critic Arthur Danto reports in After the End of Art (1997)—another coincidental centennial reprise on the central theme of What Is Art?—nowadays art “can be anything artists and patrons want it to be” because “nothing is any more true as art than anything else, nothing especially more historically false than anything else.” Danto’s “end of art” would, perhaps, signal to Tolstoy the end of culture. Or, Tolstoy might instead discern here the death merely of “false art,” after a century’s delay, clearing the ground for true art to take root at last.

The postmodern campaign of eclectic, anti-formalist aesthetics and populist accessibility in the arts virtually echoes several of Tolstoy’s most fervent complaints.

Whatever comes “after the end of art,” we can be sure of one thing. The future will belong very much to the swelling ubiquity of the popular arts and popular culture. And this is one prospect that we might expect the populist Tolstoy to be able to cheer for sure. The unifying tears of sadness and bursts of joy in movie theaters, the widely gratifying familiarity of television soap operas and sitcoms, the collective exuberance of rock concerts, the adoring mass-identifications with celebrities, the irresistible children’s fables of Disney, the wholesome thrills of families at theme parks, and so on, all reach us without elitist expectations or intellectual effort. And increasingly they dissolve the boundaries of customs, nations, and social class. Here Tolstoy would seem at home.

But our popular culture is not truly Tolstoy’s “art of the future.” Tolstoy knew the difference between traditional folk art and the modern popular arts. He championed folk art as the indigenous artistic expressions of a people’s common experience, usually linked to enduring ceremonial or other social practices, and serving social bonds. The modern popular arts may draw on common experience, but they transform it with sophisticated technologies that shape experience as much as they reflect it, and always to serve commercial ends. Folk art belongs to tribalism. Popular art belongs to capitalism.

Reiterating a conservative wariness--descending from Plato—of facile, morally indifferent artists, and anticipating many twentieth-century critics of popular culture, Tolstoy warned against any artworks that ingeniously play on the emotions through artistry or technology (although he welcomed benignly unifying devices outside of art like the telegraph and the telephone). For they do not “infect” us with genuine experiential feelings. They rather captivate us with contrived stimulation and “infect” us with any feelings they want. Sensations that feel like authentic emotions can turn out to be responses manipulated by adroit technicians of the arts. What else are movies and television, Tolstoy would say in the words of What Is Art?, than forms of “amusement art … manufactured to ready-made, prearranged recipe … by the armies of professional artists” who deploy imitative “borrowings” and mechanical “striking effects” to produce artificial “physiological effects” on audiences? If Tolstoy were to see the images and techniques of American popular culture pervading life from infancy to old age, taken into schools and churches, molding politics and morality, and embraced by peoples around the world, he might well concede that, as he had wished, the “art of the future” is “diffused among mankind” and forging a global unity. But he wouldn’t like it. For it would show him that synthetic “false art” and the mushrooming professional artworld, encompassing both high art and low, can indeed eclipse elemental, natural feelings, and that sheer “artistic enjoyment” can unify the world in its image after all.

A curmudgeonly opponent of modernism, and a moralistic adversary of aesthetics, Tolstoy gives us in What Is Art? an ideal of art that only diehards like himself could extol. But he also proves himself to be a thought-provoking observer of the social effects of art, a perceptive student of the modern synergistic commercial artworld, a cautionary voice against the aestheticism that blithely allows lives to be “led astray by art,” and a prescient critic of modern popular culture. Tolstoy knows our times better than we might guess. And he urges us to grasp the importance we grant to art in the lives we live, if not in the principles we espouse, prodding us to think about art as “a great matter” (not just as pleasure or a career) and to defend the best of its powers against its enemies. You cannot read What Is Art? without recognizing that these enemies include ideologues like Tolstoy himself, who would strangle art with morality. But neither can you read it without suspecting that the enemies also include— and nowadays more prodigiously and insidiously than ever—those who would trivialize art and exploit it for any purpose, oblivious to the detriment to art or life.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 4, on page 15
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