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Tolstoy’s Aesthetics. “The business of art consists precisely in making understandable and accessible that which might be incomprehensible and inaccessible in the form of reason” [10:81]. Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1828-1910. Overview of Tolstoy’s Aesthetics:. A. What is Art?
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Tolstoy’s Aesthetics “The business of art consists precisely in making understandable and accessible that which might be incomprehensible and inaccessible in the form of reason” [10:81]. Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1828-1910
Overview of Tolstoy’s Aesthetics: A. What is Art? B. Aesthetic Experience. C. Aesthetic Value. D. Aesthetic Judgment. E. What is True and Great Art. F. Questions for Reflection. G. Bibliography.
His work, What is Art? developed over 15 years. It was published in 1897. • His thoughts on art is very thoughtful, critical, and at times both novel and paradoxical.
A. What is Art? In chapter 5 of What is Art? Tolstoy writes: “To call up in oneself a feeling once experienced and, having, called it up in oneself, to transmit it by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, images expressed in words, so that others experience the same feeling-in this consists the activity of art. Art is that human activity which consists in one’s person consciously transmitting to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and experiencing them [5:39-40].”
B. Aesthetic Experience • Tolstoy contends that aesthetic experience is the experiential union between the artist and the recipient; it is a common bond of feeling. • When in this state, the recipient feels as if the work is one’s own and that what it expresses is what one longs to express; it is a replication of emotion.
B. Aesthetic Experience • This “quality of infectiousness” is what distinguishes true art from its counterfeit. • This sharing is almost “involuntary, like radiation or an “electrical spark” [16:131]. • The stronger the “infection” (the replication of emotion), the more successful the art work is. • “For its instantaneous effects on the receiving end, then, every successful work of art must be painstakingly fine-tuned, bit by bit. Infection is a craft.” Emerson, “Tolstoy’s Aesthetics,” 239.
“A Sign” or “Filament” Notes: The desire to share is “almost involuntary”; you can’t help it. Even though it begins with an “electrical spark” the “sign created” is “consciously structured.” This existential need creates the material grounds for sharing the experience with another person Art begins with a personal experience so strong that we FEEL the need to confirm it, call it up, and fix it “IN SIGNS.” 1st Psychological Event 2nd Psychological Event
“A Sign” The Replication of Emotion 3rd Psychological Event Aesthetic Experience occurs when there is a common bond of feeling. The stronger the infection, the more successful the art work is.
Does the unity between people brought about by the spark of infection result in loss of identity? • Caryl Emerson notes: “The unity between people brought about by the spark of infection does not result in our amalgamation, loss of identity, or even necessarily in our casual agreement; such unity is measured, above all, by an increase in mutual tolerance and love. Art destroys separation-but emphasizes individuality. What is more, infection by art is not some irreversible chemical fusion that takes place between two bodies once and for all. People are unified (and love is released) in exceptional moments” [pg. 245].
Does the unity between people brought about by the spark of infection result in loss of identity? • Caryl Emerson continues: “Although our organisms must be susceptible and receptive in a general way, of course, as with any infection we are not susceptible in the same away each time, nor for the same length of time. ‘Since each person is unlike all others,’ Tolstoy writes, ‘one person’s feeling will be [felt as] particular for every other person, and the more particular the feeling is-the more deeply the artist has dipped into his own nature-the more heartfelt and sincere it will be” (15:122) [pg. 245].
C. Aesthetic Value: 3 Conditions: • The extent of the infectiousness of the artwork reveals the extent of value: 1. Primary value “caught” by recipient is sincerity. 2. The degree of individuality of the feeling transmitted. 3. The beauty (i.e., clarity) of expression.
C. Aesthetic Value: 3 Conditions: 1st and Primary value is sincerity. It is a sincerity that is “caught” by recipient is sincerity. • This value contradicts modern art’s emphasis on “art for art sake only.”
C. Aesthetic Value: 3 Conditions: 2nd Condition: The degree of individuality of the feeling transmitted: • This value makes it improbable that exactly the same effects could be produced in some other way-something that instrumentalist theories are often accused of making possible.
C. Aesthetic Value: 3. Conditions: 3rd Condition: The beauty (i.e., clarity) of expression. How does the internal organization assist to this end? Tolstoy does not say. Remember, Tolstoy argues that ideas and feelings are separable, if not in their substance then at least in the treatment a person accords them-for ideas can be disputed and manipulated. In contrast, by the time we register a feeling, it has already occurred.
D. 4-Fold Aesthetic Judgment: True Counterfeit Counterfeit Good Bad True/Counterfeit Axis: Standard of success is simply communicative; if it is true it infects. The true artist is a conduit and enabler. Good/Bad Axis: Religious, reflecting an ethical ideal endorsed by a certain people in a given historical time or place, or universal, accessible at all times to everyone in all cultures, without exception [16:131-32]. Does the art piece point us to a the highest moral end or does it diminish morality.
Aesthetic Judgment: True Counterfeit 1st device: Mimesis or borrowing when they do not have emotional experiences of their own. To copy prior works in a passive mechanical way is always bad. 1. The standard of success is simply communicative; if it is true, it infects (replicates).
Caryl Emerson notes: “The Russian word ‘iskrennost’ (sincerity), Tolstoy’s central requirement for authentic art, is built off of iskra, ‘a spark’: That which flashes momentarily and either catches fire or dies. The artistic effect either takes, or fails to take.” “Tolstoy’s Aesthetics,” 244.
Aesthetic Judgment: True Counterfeit 2nd device: To describe in photographic art without concern for their spiritual or transfiguring experience is also a counterfeit (e.g., realistic art). 2. The replication of emotion in the recipient must be immediate & unmediated.
Aesthetic Judgment: True Counterfeit 3. The result of true art is to make us experience an event of life more deeply, without having to analyze it or struggle with it. 3rd device: Do not convey feelings but strive for a certain effect (e.g., horror stories, erotica) “crisis ethics” (i.e., focus on murder, crime which dull the cultivation of the practical virtues of everyday living and downplay what is more valuable.
Aesthetic Judgment: True Counterfeit 4th Device: No ideas should be in art for ratiocination interferes with infection for three reasons: a. Mental effort has to be applied to determine “message” this diminishes infection or replication of emotion. b. We have to guess about the meaning of an artwork; this divides rather than unites the audience; c. Those educated fosters discrimination for those who don’t have a discerning learning ability/background. Summary (3-fold): The standard of success is simply communicative; if it is true, it infects: The replication of emotion in the recipient must be immediate & unmediated. Its happy result is to make us experience an event of life more deeply, without having to analyze it or struggle with it.
Aesthetic Judgment: Good Bad Does the art piece foster degeneracy or/and paradox (no resolution)? Does the art piece convey perverted tastes? Does the art piece promote hostility toward what is most noble? The art piece will be less contagious than good art. Does the art piece cause us to “stumble” and bring no resolution? If we have to speculate, then it is bad art. Bad art will not stand the test of time. Does the art piece point us to a the highest moral end or does it diminish morality. Good art will be more contagious than bad art. Good art promotes “love your brother.” It has a moral aim. Good art will stand the test of time.
Consider the following: “The business of art,” Tolstoy insists, “consists precisely in making understandable and accessible that which might be incomprehensible and inaccessible in the form of reasoning” (10:81). “The stronger the infection, the better the art is as art, regardless of its content-that is, independently of the worth of the feelings it conveys” (15:121).
Consider the following: Caryl Emerson notes: “True/counterfeit and good/bad: these two axes of judgment must be applied to every human product that claims to be art. Tolstoy was aware of the difficulties involved in making aesthetic discriminations, especially for social classes whose tastes had been perverted. ‘false works’ can superficially appear to be better constructed, more interesting and worthy than true ones [14:114]… While authentic (that is, contagious) bad art will always be around and inevitably will infect us, we should strive wherever possible to create conditions for the right sorts of infection to occur.
E. What is Great and True Art? • Great and true art must “not stumble. It may of course show signs of conflict, grief, disappointment, failure, but it must not endorse a radical multi-directionality-that is, it cannot posit as its endpoint an evil or impossible paradox (that would be ‘getting nowhere’), no matter how swift, interesting, or well-crafted the journey.” Caryl Emerson states in his Cambridge Companion article on “Tolstoy’s Aesthetics,” 238.
E. What is Great and True Art? Emerson observes: “If a work of art portrays struggle, it must show us a way out. The responsibility of art to ‘get us there,’ and where in fact that final place is, are among the most ancient concerns of moral philosophy. Tolstoy belongs with those philosophers who do not believe that art can be explained by a poetics.” Caryl Emerson, “Tolstoy’s Aesthetics,” 238.
E. What is Great and True Art? Emerson observes: It is rather, an indispensable part of organic life, in Tolstoy’s literal understanding of that phrase: it has life-bearing functions, whose proper metabolic activity is essential to the health of each individual organism and to the health of the social body as a whole. Art, Tolstoy writes, is the ‘spiritual organ of human life, and it cannot be destroyed.’” Caryl Emerson, “Tolstoy’s Aesthetics,” 238.
E. What is Great and True Art? 2. Great and true art are those pieces that express/conforms with the highest religious perceptions of our age: the Christian ideal of the union and brotherhood of man as opposed to art which is socially divisive or elitist fails in its true function and so is counterfeit/bad art. Art that promotes hedonism does not survive this test.
E. What is Great and True Art? • Art is justified on moral grounds because moral values have supremacy over all others (this is his starting point). In fact, Tolstoy rejects art that it self-justifying or that its value is in any way self-evident. For Tolstoy, beauty has no objective worth and should never displace the demands of morality-for morality has a universal, common standard whereas beauty does not. Therefore, art that infects in a morally correct direction is good art.
F. Questions for Reflection: • Should a theory of art presuppose a moral starting point and ultimate end or goal? • If aesthetic experience is the experience of the recipient and artist being united through the art piece, then how does one evaluate the quality of infectiousness (which distinguishes true art from its counterfeit)? What does it mean to say the “stronger the infection, the better the art, as art?” How do we know this is right?
F. Questions for Reflection: • Can mere replication of an emotion give rise to enough of those rich, differentiated relations and alternative worlds that are among art’s most precious contributions to life? • What does it mean to transmit a feeling to another person, with intent to infect? Feelings, after all, arise from private inner experience? • Can emotions be confidently separated from thoughts? Certainly great works of art are an inspiring mix of both ideas and feelings?
G. Bibliography: • A Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, Edited by Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge University Press, 2002). • A Companion to Aesthetics: Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, edited by David Cooper (Malden, MA.: Blackwell, 1992, 1995), 429-30. • Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Books, 1995). • What is Art? and Essays on Art, trans. Aylmer Maude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930).