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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?

Tolstoy:

  • 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

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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.

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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?

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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).

Tolstoy:

  • The stronger the infection, the better is the art as art
  • the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:
  1. the individuality of the feeling transmitted
  2. the clearness with which the feeling is transmitted
  3. 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.

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We’re excluding a lot of art at this point.

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Beauty is subjective.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Is this art?

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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Skip on over:

Interpret This Poem

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Query This:

Intent vs Interpretation – Whose Vision is Right?

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Items of Interest:

What is Art? (excerpts) by Leo Tolstoy 

Philosophy Talk – What is Art?

National Gallery Of Art

What Is Art by Shelley Esaak

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. interesting thesis – but your post was too long!

    May 28, 2011
    • skippingstones #

      I’ve worried about that a bit on my blog in general. But I’ve decided to do what makes me happy, and what makes me happy is following my thoughts through to their conclusion.

      Thank you for visiting, and for being honest with your opinion. I may not take your advice, but I appreciate it.

      May 28, 2011
      • changingmoods #

        There’s no set blog length. Make it as long or as short as you want it. If people find it too long, they don’t have to read it. Keep on doing what you’ve been doing.

        May 28, 2011
        • skippingstones #

          Thank you for being honest with your opinion:)

          Whatever I may say, it feels good to be backed up. Believe it or not, I was actually thinking of you when I was trying to decide how to respond to her. I was thinking how you would say, “It’s my blog!” and that maybe I should take my cues from you (and your page about comments). I was also remembering that fangirl who was so rude to you in her comment and how you handled that. I’m not quite there yet, but it’s rolling around in my brain.

          Truly, thank you for commenting and reassuring me.

          May 28, 2011
          • I thought the length of this one was perfect, but I agree with changingmoods: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was as long as you wanted it to be and it allowed you to fully flesh out your argument and explore your thoughts. I thought War and Peace was perfect in length, though most people I know would love to go back in time and beg Tolstoy to cut out a few hundred pages. By the way, I don’t mention War and Peace as a subtle way of saying your post was super long. It just satisfies some weird desire for congruity. You were arguing with Tolstoy, so I thought, “Why not use him as an example ?”

            And to the point of your post, I suspect War and Peace, one of my five favorite books, affected me in ways Mr. Tolstoy neither intended nor imagined.

            June 21, 2011
          • Thanks! This bothered me for a while, but it’s fine now. And I didn’t think it was a subtle criticism :).

            Yeah, he wrote What is Art in his later years, so I don’t know. I didn’t have time to read all the research, so I never did see anything about how he viewed his own works. I was curious about it, though. I know he thought that only religious works could truly be considered art.

            PS: Now I can say that another writer compared my work to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I needn’t say how.

            June 21, 2011
  2. changingmoods #

    So let me rephrase the original question: is it enough to elicit any response, or does it have to be the right response?

    This is a puzzler. While the artist does have a visual that he or she wants to portray, those viewing that piece of art will have their own interpretation of the piece. And there’s nothing saying that one’s opinion is more important than another’s. I guess in this case everyone’s right!

    May 28, 2011
    • changingmoods #

      “…have a vision…,” I meant.

      May 28, 2011
      • skippingstones #

        haha, I didn’t even notice – I was thinking visual kind of worked, to

        May 28, 2011
    • skippingstones #

      I agree with you! I’ve had a lot of fun in doing my “Query Interviews”. A lot of times people say the same things, but they have just a little bit different of a take on it. My sister is someone who has surprised me a couple of times with her answers, and she tends to take things in a different direction than anyone else (so far). For the Intent vs Interpretation Query, she’s the only one who immediately said that she wants to know what the artist intended. She will have her own opinion, but having all of the information allows her to get a broader sense of the work. So she’s definitely an example of “everyone’s right” and how it doesn’t have to be one way or the other.

      May 28, 2011
  3. This question has come up a lot, from doing Art with Art History at A level to a Film and TV course at College, and just arguing with friends. Personally (and I guess that’s as definitive as you can get) I believe that good art elicits a response, and great art elicits a response intended by the artist. I don’t buy the idea that me going “That’s a load of rubbish” is a response that validates a piece of art. I’m dismissing it, not being enraged, disgusted or anything. Good art draws you in, makes you wonder, makes you contemplate. And by wonder, I don’t mean that you look and go “What the hell…?” So Tracy Emin and I don’t get along. Whether that’s her loss or mine is for you to judge.

    July 8, 2011
    • I had to Google her to find out, but I’d say definitely her loss. I agree that it’s all opinion. My personal opinion is that I don’t call a tent with names all over it art. I call it a craft project. But there are apparently lots of people out there who disagree with me. Maybe it’s just that I have a hard time characterizing it as art because I could duplicate it so easily, especially if I got my 4 year old niece to help out.

      All not kidding aside, engaging the audience seems to be the winner. Anyway, I can’t imagine any artist being satisfied with a non-committal “yeah, it’s okay”. I think there are some out there who intentionally perplex, but I don’t get that myself. I want people to be engaged in a way that they can really feel, I want them to have a memory, a new thought, a Wow…not be perplexed.

      Thanks for stopping by to chat!

      July 8, 2011

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