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Leo Tolstoy's Concept of Art as Communication of Feeling Leo Tolstoy's Concept of Art as Communication of Feeling
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-11-15 09:22:13
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“Those people who rejected all art were obviously wrong, because they rejected what cannot be rejected—one of the most necessary means of communication, without which mankind cannot live…Formerly, there was fear that among objects of art some corrupting objects might be found, and so all art was forbidden. Now, there is only fear lest they be deprived of some pleasure afforded by art, and so all art is patronized. And I think that the second error is much greater than the first and its consequences are much more harmful.”

                                                               --Leo Tolstoy (in What is Art)

The various conceptions of art we have so far surveyed have issued from philosophers. Indeed, nothing human is foreign to a philosopher worthy of that name, art being perhaps the most human and significant of human enterprises on a par with philosophy itself; in fact it precedes philosophy as communication of feelings. Art as communication of feeling and the revelation of Spirit (Geist) was particularly emphasized by the 19th century Romantics and particularly the philosopher Hegel whom we have previously briefly examined.

But there is another great Romantic who, while not being a professional philosopher, developed his own unique conception of art. He was an artist himself; a great literary mind: Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the author of such classic and insuperable novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He defended art as a social enterprise. He wrote an essay titled What is Art? Where he shows his concern for the justification of lavish expenditures for the production of art such as opera. There he argues that art remains important even amid extreme poverty and deprivation.

To defend art as social enterprise Tolstoy offers a definition and it is this: Through the use of such devices as color, sound, and movement, art communicates to its audience, a feeling or emotion that the artist has previously experienced. Which is to say that for Tolstoy art is a sort of language, a means of communication by which a person communicates his/her thoughts to another, a way to transfer information, a rational cognitive operation. With art it is different in that what is being transferred in art are not rational thoughts but emotions and feelings. The contrast here between the Cartesian rational “I think therefore I am” and the romantic Rousseaunian “I feel therefore I am” is quite obvious. When one listens to Beethoven’s ode to joy in his Ninth Symphony one experiences for oneself the composer’s deep sense of joy and yearning.

Tolstoy, as an artist himself, passionately argues for the superiority of this conception of art over those previously advanced by philosophers, especially to what relates to the social utility of art. Just as speech is important in that it permits humans to convey their thoughts and experiences to one another, art, in Tolstoy’s view, is no less important and central to human existence, for it makes accessible the feelings of other humans. That accession of feelings is vital to human solidarity because it allows one access to the felt experience of those in circumstances other than one’s own. This can be seen in Anna Karenina wherein Tolstoy, a man, is able, via art, to access the deeply felt experience of a tragic woman. But Tolstoy goes further than inter-gender communication. He also speaks of inter-eras communication: by making the best feelings of one age accessible to the next, art furthers the spiritual evolution of mankind. This is of course alien to modern cultural philistines and materialists interested in simply comparing and asserting the superiority of one age over the other with the criteria often being nothing else but economic and material prosperity, or worse, simply what is novel and eccentric.

Tolstoy is adamant in his rejection of the idea that whatever is generally accepted as art should be so considered.  It is his view that a genuine theory of art will provide solid criteria for discriminating genuine from spurious works of art and will challenge received assessment of the quality of works, especially when that assessment is done in the name of a mind-set that declares what arrives at the end of the evolutionary process as necessarily better than what preceded it; the mind set, that is, of “inevitable progress” which on closer look turns out to be “regress that was inevitable.” Indeed, we would not be too far from the truth in declaring that had Tolstoy lived in the later part of the 20th century he would have been rather skeptical of some modern art and would have declared the jury still out on it.


   
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Sand2008-11-15 10:18:18
From Wikipedia:
“Philistinism affords a contrast to Bohemianism, as the character of a smugly conventional bourgeois social group perceived to lack all the desirably soulful 'bohemian' characteristics, especially an artistic temperament and a broad cultural horizon open to the avant-garde. To the chosen few, the 'Philistines' embodied a smug, anti-intellectual threatening majority, in the 'culture wars' of the 19th century.”

In other words, a Philistine is one who denies the latest in artistic and cultural advances and keeps insisting that, insofar new and interesting viewpoints are concerned in modern art, the jury is still out.


Emanuel Paparella2008-11-15 11:25:02
The operative words in the above definition of philistinism are "the chosen few," meaning an anti-democratic, elitist view which contemptuously looks down its nose at those who cannot afford expensive opera seats and set the standards of aesthetic judgment out of sheer ignorance of the history of art and theory of art; even worse, they declare that there are no definition or standards from either artists (such as Tolstoy) or critic (such as Kennet Clark);precisely the definition of a cultural philistine who thinks that the latest is the non plus ultra, thows out the window what is past and reinvents the wheel thinking that he has made a great discovery!


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