What is Art? Contradicting Tolstoy
In preparation for the next Query, I’ve been asking people this question about Art: “What do you think is more important, the perception of the audience, or the intent of the artist?” (Click here to see what people said.)
Yesterday, I posted a poem and asked readers to interpret its meaning. I know what the poet intended, but I can personally think of at least three different possible interpretations. In past discussions, some have said they don’t have a clue what it’s about, but they just don’t like it. Not because they can’t figure it out, but specifically because it makes them uncomfortable.
So let me rephrase the original question: is it enough to elicit any response, or does it have to be the right response?
In What Is Art?, Tolstoy had this to say:
- every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced … the art, and with all those who … receive the same artistic impression
- whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings
These are statements I can agree with – to a certain extent. It only makes sense that, in creating art, the artist is attempting to convey a feeling of some kind. In my own experience, the works of art that I have considered my favorites – whether they are paintings, photographs, books, movies, sculpture, operas, plays, poems, music, dance – are the pieces that have elicited from me the strongest emotions. But were the emotions I felt the same emotions that the artist was feeling?
I also like the idea of art creating a kind of union between the artist and the audience. I believe this happens quite often, that a person is drawn to the artist through the work. If I have a particularly strong reaction to the art, I tend to assume that relationship – that the artist and I think alike and feel alike. However, I can’t agree that, if a work does not cause this bond to form, then it is not true art. Additionally, I have to wonder in what way is the artist to feel this connection? I, for example, feel connected to readers of this blog only through means of the comments. If no one leaves a comment, how can I be sure that I accurately conveyed what I was feeling? How can I be sure that any reader felt anything at all? What mode of affirmation does an artist have without some form of contact with his audience? And without that affirmation, can the artist feel that he is in union with the audience?
- If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.
- There is one indubitable indication distinguishing real art from its counterfeit, namely, the infectiousness of art … And however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling … of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it).
- The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express
I have certainly felt that pop and spark of recognition, particularly in regards to written work. It feels silly saying so, but there have been books and articles I loved so much and identified with so closely that I almost forget I didn’t write them. It is as Tolstoy says, I feel as if that work were my own. Beyond that, I’ve found writing among my old papers that I can’t use, because I can’t remember writing it. The words sound like me, I think they’re mine, but I just can’t be sure that I didn’t copy it down because I connected with it.
Having said that, is feeling united with the work the same thing as being united with the artist? Just because I feel that the writing and sentiment could be my own does not mean that I am interpreting the work as the artist intended. If we’re keeping with literature, then probably I am. But what about a painting? I’ve never felt that way about a painting, primarily (I believe) because I can’t paint. Is it even possible for someone who can’t paint to lose themselves so completely in a painting that they forget they didn’t paint it themselves?
Tolstoy makes the argument, if I am interpreting as he intended, that the criteria for true Art is that the artist recreates his own emotions in the work, and those emotions are exactly and perfectly felt by the audience (infection).
- The stronger the infection, the better is the art as art
- the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:
- the individuality of the feeling transmitted
- the clearness with which the feeling is transmitted
- the sincerity of the artist
- The absence of any one of these conditions excludes a work from the category of art and relegates it to that of art’s counterfeits.
We’re excluding a lot of art at this point.
Tolstoy tells us that, because beauty is subjective, it cannot be the criteria we use to define what we consider to be Art. But isn’t interpretation subjective? Is it possible for any work of art to convey a single vision, a sole correct interpretation, one feeling? Again, he says the only true measurement of a piece of art is the union of feeling between the artist and the audience. That’s a mighty narrow window, and it makes no sense to me. For as many people as will share the exact same feeling that the artist felt, there will be as many others who do not. So if everyone does not share the exact same feeling (that the artist intended), then it must not be art.
Following Tolstoy’s conditions, any work created solely for profit cannot be considered a work of art. If a piece is created just for it’s own sake, then it is not art. If the specific intended feeling is not clearly conveyed, then it is not art. How does photography hold up under his criteria? How does acting or dancing? Is it possible to convey a single, clear feeling through dance? “If the work does not transmit the artist’s peculiarity of feeling and is therefore not individual, if it is unintelligibly expressed, or if it has not proceeded from the author’s inner need for expression — it is not a work of art.”
Beyond the fact that his opinions preclude nearly every work of art from being considered a work of art, I simply disagree with the implications Tolstoy’s views have on interpretation. I feel that the best part of art is that it is open to interpretation. As a member of the audience, I do not want to be boxed in with someone else’s feelings. Furthermore, I cannot be boxed in. My own personal experience, my paradigm , my opinion of the subject matter – these are what my interpretation will be based on, as much or more than the actual work itself. A painting of the sunset can be viewed and enjoyed because it is beautiful. We can appreciate the colors and admire the artist’s talent. We can all see the same painted sunset, but what we feel is an individual thing. It’s what makes that sunset beautiful to me (and to you and you and you) that counts. It is not what feeling the artist conveys, but rather what feeling his work evokes.
There is no possible way for me to feel exactly what the artist felt. There is no possible way for me to feel exactly what you feel.
One of the best papers I wrote in college was for an ethics course. I used Plato’s Republic as an interpretation guide for Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness At Noon. I interpreted the hell out of that book. It surprised me how accurate it seemed, how it really worked, how I could take one work and meld it so perfectly with another. Doesn’t mean my interpretation was “right”. I mean, really, do you think Koestler intended it that way? Neither do I. Sorry, Tolstoy, but I still think Darkness at Noon is a fine work of art.
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