On Tolstoy’s Vision of Art

 

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Tolstoy’s preliminary study of aesthetics led him to conclude that there was no such discipline, because it failed to define the qualities and laws of art which could in turn be applied to artistic productions by way of accepting or rejecting them. According to him, the conception of art has been erroneously based on the conception of beauty. Tolstoy then propounded his own definition of art. Tolstoy describes art as a predominantly human activity and hence it must have a clear purpose and aim, discernible by the aid of reason and conscience. Most importantly, however, is his definition of art as a transmission of sincere emotion from an artist to a viewer. In What is Art? (1898), Tolstoy stipulates that every true artist has the intention to communicate and to incite his own emotions in his audience; the artist is one who, “by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, [so] that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them” (681).

Tolstoy writes, “If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art”. It only makes sense that, in creating art, the artist is attempting to convey a feeling of some kind. And, truly, Tolstoy’s view is certainly unchallenged in the music field. The art of music has always been about the transfer of feelings and emotions to the listener. Le Quattro Stagioni by Vivaldi elicits a profound musical expression and each of its four sections perfectly animates the four seasons of the year. Chopin, a victim of the Polish Great Emigration, created his works in a perfect harmony so to synchronise them with his inner state of nostalgia and, surely, the listener is completely empowered by those feelings of loss and agony. I must agree with Tolstoy that good music art is the medium where emotions become truly reciprocal between musician-listener. However, what of the other arts, then, like literature, or the visual arts?

Indeed, because Tolstoy views also art as a dangerous coercion of sentiments, his theory fundamentally maintains that a spectator is helpless in the face of art. However, Tolstoy’s vision of art as an overpowering disease places the viewer in an incapacitated role, receiving the artist’s emotions and remaining necessarily inactive. For Tolstoy, an observer stands before a piece of art and is overcome “against [his] will” by a wave of feeling that can influence and contaminate him (682). Is art, then, only to do with the artist and leave aside the audience as a mere proof of art’s success or failure? Is it plausible that the theory aims at exalting good artists whilst making its recipients mere lab rats, subjected to a kind of experiment during the evaluation of art? It certainly seems so. Even though art (as the dissemination of sincere feelings) creates milieu for the mutual sympathy between artist and viewer, it seems to have a one-way direction. As a result, the subject appears to have become functionless, lethargic, inactive. But is it really so?

Literature, undoubtedly, has the power to contaminate the reader with various feelings and emotions. Tolstoy’s character, for example, Anna Karenina certainly succeeds to force upon the readership the true pain and sorrow of tragic woman. However, it could also be observed that the reader does not merely receives that emotion; he identifies with it. And here, it seems to me, Tolstoy’s theory, in the context of the literary arts, becomes clearer and once again acceptable. Through the communication of feelings art does not becomes a mere hedonistic entertainment. The emotional parallelism of artist and audience results in their shared ideological, cultural, even conceptual understanding. In the same manner, this proves true for the visual arts. Good paintings, movies, plays, they all believe in what they represent and the sincerity underlining those works is warmly embraced by the viewer.

This could explain why Michelangelo’s religious paintings, sculptures, and architecture are ranked among the most famous in ever existed. His ever-increasing devotion to Catholicism proves the sincerity which Tolstoy deems essential to truly good art. Despite the endless brunt of negative criticism pointed against Tolstoy’s vision, the idea of art as a medium for the transmission of true feelings is, surely, carefully considered and profoundly aesthetical. Tolstoy’s ‘feeling’ has a highly complex and extremely equivocal nature and, to my mind, in order to be fully grasped and accurately applied to art, requires the same patience and perseverance through which ‘Beauty’ became the hallmark of art.

 

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