Leo Tolstoy – “What Is Art?”

In his treatise What Is Art? Leo Tolstoy both debunks the previously held academic pretensions which sought to define art while also proposing a compelling theory to replace them. Tolstoy argues that much of what is considered to be art is judged as such on the capricious whims of an elite rather than reasoned principles, that the taste for art precedes the appreciation, and that the critical community proposes their various aesthetic theories, the most prevalent ones being the proposition that art is a conduit for some sort of transcendent and godly essence of beauty and secondly, the argument that that which gives pleasure is art, simply to justify their arbitrary tastes; for Tolstoy art is considered art because it is consistent in character to a critically consensual “art canon” (167) of historically transient tastes in defiance of any standard or set of operative rules. In other words, Tolstoy argues that art was in his time judged as art just because it was labeled as art, a contention which still is carried today, the modern art world filled with pieces which are given consideration simply because rich patrons seduce the attention of so-called art experts and critics. The author sardonically claims that “no matter what insanities appear in art, when once they find acceptance among the upper classes of our society a theory is quickly invented to explain and sanction them. (167)” Such is the case in modern times, with psychobabble justifying the most clearly unintelligible toddler and elephant art; we are forced to convince ourselves that such pieces are art, rather than be compelled through empathy to have at once resonate within us.

In place of the theory of an art of beauty, which fails in that historically what is considered beautiful is fleeting (168), and the theory of an art of pleasure, which fails in that every man has different tastes which cannot be succinctly elucidated false (i.e. there is no universal quality in art which pleases, 168), is a theory of art based on effective empathy and communication. For Tolstoy for art to be art “the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings the author has felt” (170) and “a means of union among men,” (171) so that the human being “can himself hand on to his contemporaries the thoughts he has assimilated from others. (171)” In this sense art is a compelling form of communication which serves a didactic purpose, empathizing with others so as to help them become more aware of the human community, and I think Tolstoy would argue, nobler through a tender sharing of spirit. Without this “capacity to receive the thoughts of the men who preceded them and to pass onto others their own thoughts, men would be like wild beasts” (171) and as a result grow “hostile” toward one another, unable to authentically communicate feelings, and become suspicious of them.  In his concluding words Tolstoy warns against classifying just anything which communicates emotion through empathy as being art, instead calling for only items of “special importance” to be entitled as such. This qualification is for Tolstoy what creates “good art” as opposed to “art,” that work which communicates some worthwhile and important notion (171). In this fashion Tolstoy would have, I think, interpreted something like the Statue of Liberty as an ideal piece of art, its purity evoking feelings of fraternity, liberality and liberty in the viewer, the same feelings the French freemasons must have felt when crafting it as a gift to a fledgling state in quest to embody those very qualities. By Tolstoy’s theory of art the works of Jacques-Louis David are also considered art objects, and furthermore can be considered to be important art. The Oath of the Horatii is one such piece.

The painting from 1784, a seminal piece of neoclassical art, depicts a story from Book I of Livy involving a feud between the then city states of Rome and Alba during 669 B.C.E. In order to spare a greater measure of bloodshed between the two communities, an agreement is made where both respective communities are to dispatch three warriors to fight to the death in a ceremonial duel, settling the matter. The painting depicts the oath of duty by the Horatii brothers, in contrast to the lamentations of the women, one of whom is betrothed to one of the brothers of Alba destined to fight to the death.

Regardless of the historical story matter, it is clearly a depiction of men heroically preparing to sacrifice for a greater good, even as their wives pain from the possibility of their deaths, they know they must soldier on for a purpose greater than themselves. The father figure does not relent in honoring the decision of the community, and is depicted as looking upward to perhaps evoke the divine endorsement of such a pact while simultaneously contemplating the gravity and lawfulness of the sacrifice; the artist seems to be trying to communicate that what is being done is righteous (albeit painful) not only through the resolute and heroic depictions of those engaged in the oath, but by the father’s faith in the heavenly approval of it. The painting communicates a powerful but not grandiose or masturbatory sense of patriotism and of fraternity, of the feeling of contentment in serving the state for a lawful and righteous purpose, the wisdom in knowing the difference between what is within our control and out of it, and having the courage to pick the right choice, even while we might want to retreat to the soft embraces of loved ones instead. The men involved in the oath are depicted as emotionless: they are not lusting for battle, but prepare to engage in it, without passion, knowing the bounds of their duty and bond, and following it with resolute determination regardless of the horrible death which might result, perhaps so that the ones who lament now will not suffer a worse fate in a endless struggle to come.

The piece also stylistically helps to convey emotion, following what would later become the conventions of neoclassical art. By deemphasizing the form of the art itself, the decor and background, using washed out colors, eliminating brushstrokes and isolating the figures in dramatic, self-explanatory and illuminated gestures, David avoids drawing attention to himself and rather focuses on conveying the feeling of patriotism and civic duty. The story and the symbolic significance of the story is “important” (to use Tolstoy’s language) rather than merely “art for art’s sake,” and the subject matter is clearly communicated by the artist by his evocation of compelling symbols and gestures.  Much to Tolstoy’s approval, the piece is akin to language, akin to a letter, containing an explicit expression of the artist’s inclinations, emotions and convictions. This piece is in great contrast to the Baroque art which precedes it, a self lauding and decadent exercise in explosive color, grandeur, decadence and prettiness, whose pieces rarely communicated what the artist was feeling and to which few viewers could empathize with. With The Oath of the Horatii is a window into Jacques-Louis David’s moral core, his interpretation of what it means to be a citizen and his feelings about the proper conduct of a human being, it is a tool which can be used to ennoble the human spirit, create a union between men in a world of ideas, and to lift us from a barbaric infancy, a life of “wild beasts.”

Source: Aesthethics. Susan Faegin. Oxford Readers. 1997.