Tolstoy's "What Is Art?" Essay

1053 words - 4 pages


Leo Tolstoy compares art to speech by mentioning that art is a form of communication. The communication that Tolstoy writes about in “What Is Art?” is of two types, good and bad. According to Tolstoy, good art is what carries humanity towards perfection (Tolstoy 383). It is this movement forward in humanity that is emphasized by Tolstoy. Tolstoy informs his readers that speech is what teaches knowledge from human history, but art is what teaches the emotions of mankind’s past. As knowledge becomes obsolete in society it is replaced by new and more relevant information. Tolstoy asserts that emotions act the same way. The purpose of art is to express new and more relevant feelings to humankind. The new feelings are for the betterment of humanity, allowing a progression of morality in society.
It is instructive to the reader to point out that Tolstoy's usage of the word “art” speaks of a wide sphere of artistic expressions. Among these expressions are literature, poetry, painting, sculptures and music. According to Tolstoy, it is art that brings mankind together and allows for the commonalities in humanity to be emphasized. Tolstoy describes these commonalities as man's need for union with God and with one another. Good art, for Tolstoy, is art that expresses itself through religious perception. This religious perception is how the culture of its current time views its most important values. This is similar to William Wordsworth’s ideas for literature. It is important to Wordsworth that the author of the work express emotions that the common man can relate to. It is fundamental to Tolstoy, as with Wordsworth, that the work be accessible and understandable to all people. This is why Tolstoy supposed that music is the greatest of all mediums to unite humanity. An example of artistic simplification is given when he speaks about the pure beauty of melody. It is when the artist begins to add nuances and harmonies to the melody that the work becomes inaccessible to the unlearned ear, thus isolating a portion of the audience. When works of art are created to express the universality of humankind they are more beneficial to it. As an example, this view is dissimilar to the view if Dante, who believed that the language of a work should be elevated. Tolstoy argues the more details that are given in the work the more opportunities for disconnection from its message the audience has (391).
Accessibility is important for Tolstoy, but it is also important that the work be instructive and beneficial. It is in this idea of instruction that one can find similarities with Plato. Tolstoy, like Plato, does not emphasize the work of the artist, but how the work relates with the world around it. If the work is not good than it is useless. Again, what Tolstoy means by “good” is the work speaks to humankind's need for unity. It is the importance of unity, with God and one another, which supersedes all other ideas in art for Tolstoy. Again, it is...

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