Art as Expression: Tolstoy

What is art?

"man, by receiving through hearing or seeing the expressions of another man's feelings, is capable of experiencing the same feeling which was experienced by the man who expresses his feeling. . . [A] man laughs, and another man feels happy; he weeps, and the man who hears this weeping feels sad; he gets excited and irritated, and another, looking at him, comes to the same state...It is on this property of men to be infected by the feelings of other men that the activity of art is based.



A boy, who, let us say, has experienced fear from having met a wolf, tells of this encounter and, in order to evoke in others the feeling which he has experienced, pictures himself, his condition before this encounter, the surroundings, the forest, his carelessness, and then the looks of the wolf, his motions, the distance between him and the wolf, and so forth. All this, if during the recital the boy again lives through the feeling experienced by him, infects his hearers, and causes them to go through everything through which the narrator has passed, is art. Even if the boy did not see the wolf, but frequently was afraid of him, and, wishing to evoke in others the feeling of fear experienced by him, invented the encounter with the wolf and told to it in such a way that by his recital the same feeling was evoked in his hearers which he experienced in picturing the wolf to himself, this is also art.
Similarly it will be art, when a man, having in reality or in his imagination experienced the terror of suffering or the charm of enjoyment, has represented these feelings on canvas or in marble, so that others are infected by it. And similarly it will be art if a man has experienced or imagined to himself the feelings of mirth, joy, sadness, despair, vivacity, gloom, or the transitions of these feelings from one to another, and has represented these feelings in words in such a way that the hearers are infected by them and pass through them just as he passed through them.


"Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of any mysterious idea, beauty, God; it is not, as the physiological aestheticians say, play, in which a man lets out the surplus of his accumulated energy; it is not the manifestation of emotions by means of external signs; it is not the production of agreeable objects, above all else, not an enjoyment, but a means for the intercourse of men, necessary for man's life and for progress toward the good of the individual and of humanity, uniting men in the same feelings."


So, what makes art infectious?

1. Art is more or less infectious depending on the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling conveyed.

2. Art is more or less infectious depending on the greater or lesser clearness of the transmission of the feeling.

3. Art is more or less infectious depending on the sincerity of the artist, that is, depending on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself expresses the feelings he is conveying.


The highest form of art evokes the highest emotions. By that, Tolstoy means
religious emotions, mostly love.


1. The best art conveys sentiments which arise from religious consciousness of our position in the world, in relation to God and our neighbours (religious art). This includes art that depicts the betrayal of divine love. Mainly literature, also some painting and sculpture.

2. The best art conveys the simplest feelings of life, such as are accessible to all men of the whole world. Vital, national, universal art. Found in literature, painting, sculpture, dance, but mostly music.

Good art must be universal in the sense that it unites people in one emotion, preferably love. But this does not mean that Tolstoy likes most of the religious art of his time. Far from it. Most does not depict anything, because (he thinks) the artist had nothing to convey. There is lots of bad art around:

In painting, as such works of bad art must be similarly regarded all pictures, false, religious, patriotic, and exclusive, in short, all pictures which represent amusements and delights of a wealthy and idle life, all so-called symbolical pictures, in which the meaning of the symbol itself is accessible only to people of a certain circle, and, above all else, all pictures with lascivious subjects, all that horrible feminine nakedness, which fills all the exhibitions and galleries. To the same category belongs all chamber and opera music of our time, beginning in particular with Beethoven Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner which by its contents is devoted to the expression of feelings which are accessible only to men who have nurtured in themselves a morbid nervous irritability, excited by this exclusive and complicated music.