Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? (1896) is a treatise concerning the nature and purpose of art, describing how art can express moral values. Tolstoy does not define art in terms of its ability to express form and beauty, but instead defines art in terms of its ability to communicate concepts of morality. For Tolstoy, aesthetic values are defined by moral values.
According to Tolstoy, art cannot be defined as an activity which produces beauty. Beauty cannot be defined objectively, and therefore cannot be used as a criterion to define what is, or is not, art. The aim of art is not merely to produce beauty, or to provide pleasure, enjoyment, or entertainment. Art is a means of communication, and is an important means of expression of any experience, or of any aspect of the human condition.
Tolstoy defines art as an expression of a feeling or experience in such a way that the audience to whom the art is directed can share that feeling or experience. Art does not belong to any particular class of society. To limit the subject matter of art to the experiences of a particular class of society is to deny that art can be important for all of society. Tolstoy criticizes the belief that art is only relevant to a particular class of society, saying that this is a misconception which can lead to obscurity and decadence in art.
According to Tolstoy, good art is intelligible and comprehensible. Bad art is unintelligible and incomprehensible. The more that art restricts itself to a particular audience, the more obscure and incomprehensible it becomes to people outside that particular audience. Good art is not confusing and incomprehensible to most people. To the contrary, good art can communicate its meaning to most people, because it expresses its meaning in a way which can be understood by everyone.
Tolstoy believes that art is good if it is judged to be good by the majority of people. Indeed, he claims that a great work of art is only great if it can be understood by everyone.1 He also argues that if it is not admitted that art must be intelligible and comprehensible, then any unintelligible or incomprehensible expression of thoughts or feelings may be called "art." If any incomprehensible form of personal expression may be called "art," then the definition of art gradually loses its meaning, until it has no meaning at all.2
"Good art" has a form and content which are in unity with the ideas and feelings which it evokes or represents. In contrast, "bad art" lacks unity of form and content with the ideas and feelings which it tries to evoke or represent. "Bad art" is shallow, repetitious, crude, clumsy, contrived, melodramatic, pretentious, or banal.
According to Tolstoy, the most important quality of any work of art is its sincerity.3 Any true work of art expresses original thoughts and feelings. The "highest" feelings which art may express are related to religious perception.
Tolstoy claims that professionalism causes a lack of sincerity in the artist, and argues that if an artist must earn a living by producing art, then the art which is produced is more likely to be false and insincere. Tolstoy also claims that interpretation or criticism of art is irrelevant and unnecessary, because any good work of art is able to express thoughts and feelings which can be clearly understood by most people. Tolstoy argues that any explanation of such thoughts and feelings is superfluous, because art ultimately communicates feelings and experiences in a way which cannot be expressed by any words.
Tolstoy does not believe that art can be taught, or that instruction in the practice of art can help people to communicate their thoughts and feelings more sincerely. He argues that to teach art is to destroy its spontaneity. To teach art is to destroy the individuality of the artist. Any attempt to teach art leads to an attempt to imitate other works of art.
Tolstoy’s concept of "universal" art affirms that art is relevant to everyone. Art is relevant to every aspect of the human condition. Therefore, art must aim to be "universal." Art is "universal" if it expresses thoughts and feelings which can be experienced by every human being.
According to Tolstoy, everyone may experience religious thoughts or feelings. Thus, art is "universal" if it expresses religious feelings. The religious perception, or insight, which may be expressed by art is that the well-being of humanity depends on social harmony and understanding. Art which is truly "universal" expresses the perception that human beings must respect each other, must try to understand each other, and must share a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood with each other.
Tolstoy’s view of art reflects the very idiosyncratic and independent nature of his personal interpretation of Christianity. While he attempts to define a "universal" art as an art of inclusion, his aesthetic theory is narrowly focused on his own theory of morality, and thus defines an art of exclusion. He excludes many forms of art from what he considers to be "universal" art, because he believes that "universal" art must conform to standards that are not strictly aesthetic, but moral and social.
This aesthetic theory makes it necessary to consider the question of whether aesthetic values are the same as moral and social values. Tolstoy excludes many forms of art from what he considers to be "good" art, because he believes that "good" art must communicate some form of religious experience. For example, he refers to the music of Bach and Mozart, the comedies of Molière, the poetry of Goethe and Hugo, and the novels of Dickens and Dostoyevsky as examples of "good" art. However, he refers to the poetry of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, the plays of Ibsen, and the music of Wagner and Liszt as examples of "bad" art.
Tolstoy argues that good art must be religious art. He assumes that religious art must conform to his own religious standpoint, and that his personal form of Christianity is the only true form of Christianity. His deeply personal but very narrow viewpoint may be disputed, however, by the argument that good art may not necessarily be religious art. His argument that aesthetic values must be moral and religious values leads him to the false conclusion that the ultimate aim of art must be defined by his own moral viewpoint.
Tolstoy, Leo N. What is Art? Translated by Almyer Maude. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1960.