Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Books read in 2013: No. 48 -- What is Art?

by Leo Tolstoy

translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhansky

Started: Sept. 17
Finished: Oct. 1

Notes: This book is a collection Tolstoy put together of his essays and thoughts on art, and what constitutes true art or what we might consider high art. From my other readings about this author, it seems Tolstoy thought of true art's goal as one of being influential upon humanity in a positive aspect, specifically a Christian aspect, though Tolstoy's notions of Christianity weren't exactly orthodox (leaning toward a non-mystical anarchism). This translation, I expect, will allow Tolstoy to present his arguments on such matters. I much look forward to it as it was apparently a big influence on John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, one of my favorite books about writing.

Mini review: Good lord, I feel like I've just finished reading a 200-page blog rant by an old guy screaming about how music today is just awful and isn't anything like the good stuff we had back in the day. This isn't far from the truth. Tolstoy here spends a lot of time shitting all over art of his day, including the works of Wagner and Beethoven and Kipling, and then for good measure goes back in time to shit all over Shakespeare. At least he likes a few of the artists from his own period, such as Dickens. Personal taste aside, Tolstoy's definition of "true art" is so narrow as to almost be nonsensical. For him, true art  must contain the following: 1.) The artist must have had true feelings while creating his or her art, and must have either intentionally or unintentionally been trying to convey those feelings through the art, 2.) the art is only allowed to have two subject matters, showing reverence for God, or, showing the union or potential union of mankind in a brotherhood of all, and 3.) the artist must not have been a professional, ie. must not have been trained in art in a school or by a teacher, and the artist must not have been creating his or her art for money or any other kind of personal benefit (other than maybe a sense of happiness at sharing with others). That's it. Anything else is false art, bad art, or counterfeit art. I can't agree with him, which he predicts most people would not. While I could follow some of his reasoning, much of it had to do with the upper classes of his time seeming to have a monopoly on what is considered art, something which I think is not so relevant today. In the final chapter, Tolstoy even goes on to shit all over science, complaining about how much of it is useless other than what today we would call the social sciences, which he found important for the improvement of mankind. My problem with this book wasn't so much that I disagreed with its opinions as the almost vicious way Tolstoy expresses his thoughts on the subject matter. Page after page of old-man rant. It wore thin quickly. At least I'm finished with it. And I'd like to add that while I'm somewhat fascinated with Tolstoy as a writer and a philosopher, that doesn't mean I enjoy everything he wrote, nor that I approve of all his various opinions. There seem to be some who feel Tolstoy was a bit mad in his last years, and that's quite possible, though I tend to think it wasn't so much insanity taking hold of him as it was general grumpiness ... he was old, not in great health, and the world was passing him by ... plus there were all the religious notions he had which seemed to fill him with some despair and even anger. I'll read Tolstoy again, but it might be a while as I need a break.


Charles Gramlich said...

Wow. So Tolstoy was just a bit of an ass.

Ty said...

Ha! I hadn't quite thought of it that way, but yes, I suppose at least the older Tolstoy was something of an ass. He caused all kind's of headaches for the Russian government of his day, and more than a few of his close family members were often frustrated with him, especially his wife.