This historic footage shows Tolstoy's 80th birthday at Yasnaya Polyana, taken in 1908. His wife, Sofya, can be seen picking flowers in the garden, and his daughter Aleksandra is shown sitting in the carriage in the white blouse. YouTube video

What Is Art?

Revisiting a forgotten classic

By Brooke Allen

 

"People speak of the art of the future, meaning an especially refined new art, which is supposed to develop out of the art of one class of society, now considered the highest art. But such a new art of the future cannot and will not be. Our exclusive art of the upper classes ... has reached a dead end. There is no going further on the path it has followed."

Are these the words of some disgusted patron at the New Museum or the Tate Modern, wanting his money back? A visitor, perhaps, to Mass MoCA or the Hessel Museum at Bard College? No: the author is Leo Tolstoy, the book is “What Is Art?,” and it’s 1898. The grumpy Tolstoy, already fed up with modernity, has yet to see his first Picasso. His bugbears – the artists he accuses of having brought art to a dead end – are Baudelaire, Wilde, Pissarro, Verlaine, Wagner. He excoriates them all memorably, but his deconstruction of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen” is one of the great bad reviews of all time, worthy of being quoted at some length:

On stage, amid scenery supposedly representing a cave in the rocks, in front of some object supposedly representing a blacksmith’s apparatus, sat an actor dressed in tights and a cloak of skins, wearing a wig and a false beard, with weak, white, non-laboring hands (from his slack movements, and above all from his belly and lack of muscle, one could see that he was an actor), beating with a hammer such as never was upon a sword such as never could be, and beating in such a way as no one ever beats with a hammer, all the while opening his mouth strangely and singing something that could not be understood. Music from various instruments accompanied the strange sounds he produced. From the libretto one learned that this actor was supposed to portray a mighty dwarf who lived in the grotto and was forging a sword for Siegfried, whom he had brought up. One could tell he was a dwarf by the fact that the actor walked about all the time with his tight-clad legs bent at the knees ...

... If there is anything resembling the beginnings of music, these beginnings are so brief, so encumbered with complicated harmony, orchestration, effects of contrast, they are so obscure, so unfinished, and with all that the falsity of what takes place on stage is so repulsive, that they are hard to notice ... And the main thing is that the author’s intentions are heard and seen from the very beginning to the end, and in every note, so much so that one sees and hears not Siegfried or the birds, but only the limited, self-confident bad tone and bad taste of a German, whose ideas of poetry are absolutely false, and who wants, in the most crude and primitive fashion, to convey these false notions of poetry to me.

Jeff Koons’ monumental work, “Balloon Dog” (1994-2000): art that communicates, or art that is “thrust upon the public”? Photo providedMany will take exception to this; many more will agree, whether openly or in secret. There is certainly a great deal to disagree with in “What Is Art?,” but there is also much that will strike modern readers not only as true but as peculiarly prophetic: we have traveled so much farther along that dead end street than Tolstoy had, after all. If this is the way he felt about Wagner, what would he have thought of Schönberg? Reich? Cage? Or to change the medium, Pollock? Warhol? Damien Hirst? Ai Weiwei? Robert Wilson? Did he have a point, or was he a just a reactionary and a religious crank?

Tolstoy’s belief was that Western art made its wrong turn when it parted company with religion, during the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, all elements of society believed the same things; hence medieval artists were comprehended by everyone who viewed their work. During the Renaissance, the upper echelons of society ceased believing, little by little, in the Christian system. Though the masses continued to believe, the elite lost its faith not only in the dogma but in the essence of Christianity, with the result that the art of the upper classes began to separate from the art of the people; ever since that time “there have been two arts: the art of the people, and the art of the masters.”

And what did Tolstoy mean by religion, anyway? Is it theology, dogma, what we would nowadays call “spirituality,” or none of the above? Tolstoy was a Christian, if an unorthodox one – his personal creed derived mostly from the Sermon on the Mount – and he saw the society and values of his time as still being more or less Christian: nonviolence, the brotherhood of man, the importance of living for others instead of oneself, were fundamental values in Christian Europe, even if few people modeled their lives according to that spirit. But Tolstoy’s definition of “religion,” formulated in “What Is Art?,” was broad and nonspecific:

Religions are indicators of the highest understanding of life accessible at a given time in a given society to the best of the leading people, which is inevitably and unfailingly approached by all the rest of society. And, only because of that, religions have always served and still serve as a basis for evaluating people’s feelings. If their feelings bring people closer to the ideal to which their religion points, agrees with it, do not contradict it – they are good; if they move them away from it, disagree with it, contradict it – they are bad.

Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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