the First XRAY / Tolstoy on ART

June 3, 2009

posted by caroline picardxrayhand

excerpt from

“What is Art?” by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter Eight

originally published in 1896

But if art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen, how could it be that humanity for a certain rather considerable period of its existence (from the time people ceased to believe in Church doctrine down to the present day) should exist without this important activity, and, instead of it, should put up with an insignificant artistic activity only affording pleasure?

In order to answer this question it is necessary, first of all, to correct the current error people make in attributing to our art the significance of true, universal art. We are so accustomed, not only naively to consider the Circassian family the best stock of people, but also the Anglo-Saxon race the best race if we are Englishmen or Americans, or the Teutonic if we are Germans, or the Gallo-Latin if we are French, or the Slavonic if we are Russians, that, when speaking of our own art, we feel fully convinced, not only that our art is true art, but even that it is the best and only true art. But in reality our art is not only art (as the Bible once was held to be the only book), but it is not even the art of the whole of Christendom–only of a small section of that part of humanity. It was correct to speak of now-existing Chinese, Japanese, or Indian art shared in by a whole people. Such art, common to a whole nation, existed in Russia till Peter the First’s time, and existed in the rest of European society, having lost faith in the Church teaching, did not accept real Christianity but remained without any faith, one can no longer speak of an art of the Christian nations in the sense of the whole of art. Since the upper classes of the Christian nations lost faith in Church Christianity, the art of those upper classes has separated itself from the art of the res of the people and genteel art. And therefore the answer to the question, How could it occur that humanity, nor even any considerable portion of it, lived without real art, but only the highest classes of European Christian society, and even they only for a comparatively short time–from the beginning of the Renaissance to our own day.

And the consequence of this absence of true art showed itself, inevitably, in the corruption of that class which nourished itself on the false art. All the confused, unintelligible theories of art, all the false and contradictory judgements on art, and particularly the self-confident stagnation of our art in its false path, all arise from the assertion which has come into common use and is accepted as an unquestioned truth, but is yet amazingly and palpably false–the assertion (which is precisely similar to the assertion made by religious people of various Churches who consider that theirs is the only true religion) is quite arbitrary and obviously unjust, yet it is calmly repeated by all the people of our circle with full faith in its infallibility.

To the remark that if our art is the true art everyone should have the benefit of it, the usual reply is that if not everybody at present makes use of existing art the fault lies not in the art but in the false organization of society; that one can imagine oneself, in the future, a state of things in which physical labor will be partly superseded by machinery, partly lightened by its just distribution, and that the labor for the production of art will be taken in turns; that there is no need for some people always to sit below the stage moving the decorations, winding up the machinery, working at the piano or French horn, and setting type and printing books, but that people who do all this work might be engaged only a few hours per day, and in their leisure time might enjoy all the blessings of art.

That is what the defenders of our exclusive art say. But I think they do not themselves believe it. They cannot help think that fine art can arise only on the slavery of the masses of the people, and can continue only as long as that slavery lasts, and they cannot help knowing that only under conditions of intense labor for the workers can specialists–writers, musicians, dancers, and actors–arrive at that fine degree of perfection to which they do attain or produce their refined works of art; and only under the same conditions can there be a fine public to esteem such productions. Free slaves of capital, and it will be impossible to produce such refined art.

But even were we to admit the inadmissible and say that means may be found ny which art (that art which among us is considered to be art) may be accessible to the whole people, another consideration presents itself showing that fashionable art cannot be the whole of art, viz., the fact that it is completely unintelligible to the people. Formerly men wrote poems in Latin, but now their artistic productions are as unintelligible to the common folk as if they were written in Sanskrit. The usual reply to this is that if the people do not now understand this art of ours it only proves that they are undeveloped, and that this has been so at each fresh step forward made by art. First it was not understood, but afterward people got accustomed to it.

“It will be the same with our present art; it will be understood when everybody is as well educated as we are–the people of the upper classes–who produce this art,” say the defenders of our art. But this assertion is evidently even more unjust than the former, for we know that the majority of the productions of the art of the upper classes, such as various odes, poems, dramas, cantatas, pastorals, pictures, etc., which delighted the people of the upper classes when they were produced, never were afterward either understood or valued by the great masses of mankind, but have remained what they were at first–a mere pastime for rich people of their time, for whom alone thy ever were of any importance. It is also often urged, in proof of the assertion that the people will some day understand our art, that some productions of so-called “classical” poetry, music or painting, which formerly did not please the masses, do–now that they have been offered to them from all sides–begin to please these same masses; but this only shows that the crowd, especially the half-spoiled town crowd, can easily (its taste having been perverted) be accustomed to any sort of art. Moreover, this art is not produced by these masses, nor even chosen by them, but is energetically thrust upon them in those public places in which art is accessible to the people. For the great majority of working-people, our art, besides being inaccessible on account of its costliness, is strange in its very nature, transmitting as it does the feelings of people far removed from those conditions of laborious life which are natural to the great body of humanity. That which is enjoyment to a man of the rich classes is incomprehensible as a pleasure to a workingman, and evokes in him either no feeling at all or only a feeling quite contrary to that which it evokes in an idle and satiated man. Such feelings as form the chief subjects of present-day art–say, for instance honor, patriotism, and amorousness–evoke in a workingman only bewilderment and contempt, or indignation. So that even if a possibility were given to the laboring classes in their free time to see, to read, and to hear all that forms the flower of contemporary art (as is done to some extent in towns by means of picture galleries, popular concerts, and libraries), the workingman (to the extent to which he is a laborer and has not begun to pass into the ranks of those perverted by idleness) would be able to make nothing of our fine art, and if he did understand it, that which he understood would not elevate his soul but would certainly, in most cases, pervert it. To thoughtful and sincere people there can, therefore, be no doubt that the art of the upper class never can be the art of th whole people. But if art is an important matter, a spiritual blessing, essential for all men (“like religion,” as the devotees of art are fond of saying), then it should be accessible to everyone. And if, as in our day, it is not accessible to all men, then one of two things: either art is not the vital matter it is represented to be or that art which we call art is not the real thing.

The dilemma is inevitable and therefore clever and immoral people avoid it by denying one side of it, viz., denying that the common people have a right to art. These people simply and boldly speak out (what lies at the heart of the matter), and say that the participators in and utilizers of what, in their esteem, is highly beautiful art, i.e. art furnishing the greatest enjoyment, can only be “shone Geister*,” “the elect,”as the romanticists called them, the “Ubermenschen,” as they are called by the followers of Nietzsche; the remaining vulgar herd, incapable of experiencing these pleasures, must serve the exalted pleasures of this superior breed of people. The people who express these views at least do not pretend and do not try to combine the incombinable, but frankly admit what is the case–that our art is an art of the upper classes only. So essentially art has been, and is, understood by everyone engaged in it in our society.

*i.e. “men who are able to percieve the beautiful”

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