The Charlotte News



According To Tolstoy:

A Definition Of Art

By W. J. Cash

Site ed.note: Cash often wrote editorials in this philosophical vein; here, he agrees with Tolstoy's notion that art is that which will infect feeling in the observer. Thus, presumably, anyone offended by his article of the previous week, "College-Bred Balloons", in which he incidentally, and somewhat superciliously, takes a swipe at swing music, need not have been. For it would appear that swing music--and its latter day derivative, fused with blues, folk, country, and gospel strains, that thing yet to be invented in Cash's time, now called rock music--would, for the most part, qualify as art under Tolstoy's view and properly so. And in a more reflective mood, divorced from his declaiming of poseurs, Cash would likely have agreed--at least as long as the listener could explain reasonably to Cash why he or she was moved, (and not simply that one was moved because it made one move). For in the final analysis, Cash was not supercilious; his subjective tastes tended certainly toward classical and not popular art. Neverttheless, he went, by his own admission, to see "dozens of movies" each year--and plainly, the movies available for viewing in theatres in North Carolina--or virtually anywhere in America--in the Thirties did not include the likes of "M", maybe not even "Petrified Forest", or any great amount of high art. But, more generally, he was simply inclined toward--at times consumed by--educating his fellows in their gloomy surroundings, usually little educated in the fine arts, with some notion of critical process--whether the process was directed at the popular pablum or a Hemingway novel or a Botticelli painting. And to educate thusly, one must sometimes insult in a general, as opposed to personal, way just to engage the attention of the higher critical processes of the mind. So next time you have an irresistible impulse, (under the M'Naughton test), to listen to Garth Brooks or Celine Dion, think about Tolstoy's definition, as rendered below by Cash, and consider: Is it or ain't it?


AN essay which everybody who has any concern with the arts ought to read and re-read at recurrent intervals is old Count Leo Tolstoy's "What Is Art?"

A good many learned dunces are still in the habit of denouncing it--as virtually all men did when it first appeared along back at the beginning of the 20th century--as a preposterous piece of nonsense quite unworthy of the author of "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace." But that is only the conclusive proof that they are learned dunces.

What they charge against him comes to this: that he says that for art to be really art at all, it must be (1) comprehensible to the commonest peasant; and (2) it must be an instrument for the teaching and propagation of his (Tolstoy's) own peculiar religio-ethical notions. But such charges prove not merely that they are dunces, but even that they are such dunces as are quite unable to read.

What he really says--and says with perfect clarity--is something altogether different from that. Art, as he has it, resides precisely in the power of infection--in the power, that is, with which the writer or the painter or the composer is able to transmit his feelings to others. And this power of infection, as he makes abundantly plain, itself resides exactly in what is called form--that is, in the power of the artist to hit upon the infinitely nice combination of words or lines and pigments or notes and harmonies which, out of all the billions of possible combinations, will best move his feelings over into others.

"If a work is a good work of art," he says in one place, "then the feeling expressed by the artist--be it moral or immoral--transmits itself to other people. If it is transmitted to others, then they feel it..." And again: "If a man is infected by the author's condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art... And not only is infection the sure sign of art, the degree of infection is also the sole measure of excellence in art." And once more: "The stronger the infection the better is the art, as art, speaking now apart from its subject matter, that is not considering the quality of the feelings it transmits." And finally: "Infection is only obtained when the artist finds those infinitely minute degrees of which a work of art consists, and only to the extent to which he finds them."

I think it is by far the best statement of what art, as such, actually consists in, that I have ever heard of.

But having defined art, Tolstoy goes on to consider the questions as to what art is good and what is bad from the social viewpoint. And first of all, he lays down the proposition that good art from this viewpoint is art whose general effect is moral and not immoral. It is a definition that I think nobody in his right mind need quarrel with. For plainly art does not exist in a vacuum. Plainly, the notion that still sometimes floats around, as a heritage from exploded German nonsense, that this art is something disembodied, to be contemplated apart from life, is not true. Plainly our novels and our pictures do determine, in the long run, the very context and color of our feelings.

The only question, of course, is--what morality? And whose morality? For, even within the conventional realm which Tolstoy began by repudiating, there is no agreement as to what is moral and what isn't. Within our western world alone, we have not one conventional morality, but ten thousand conventional moralities. And when one gets outside the conventional realm into the field of the play of intelligence on ethical notions--we run into infinity.

Tolstoy, like the rest of us simply preferred his own moral notions, and argued for them. Hence all the confusion about "What Is Art?" Under his view that the primitive Christian peasant is the only truly moral type, he came around to arguing that the only art which was good for society was such as could easily be comprehended by the simplest of these peasants, and which transmitted the sentiments of brotherly love which he believed (not without a great deal of improbability) to be the secret at the heart of these peasants.

But that is only Tolstoy's notion about reality and you need not agree with a word of it if you don't care to. The central thing in the essay is first, his incomparable clarifying of the actual nature of art; secondly, his masterful establishment of the proper relation between art and social morality; and thirdly, what I have not yet mentioned, that which is perhaps the finest feature of the whole essay, his headlong and thoroughgoing attack on pseudo-art and the cult of art-worship.

As he shows quite plainly--and as nobody before him had had the courage to say--the world is horribly cluttered up with works which, under no view of the matter, can be reckoned as authentic art despite the fact that thousands of people dutifully profess to be struck down before them--works which either because the conditions under which they originally were effective no longer exist, or because they were produced by artists out to make a living or to please some wealthy patron--are quite incapable of transmitting any feeling to any normal human being.

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