What Is Art? Leo Tolstoy.

Cover of "What Is Art?"
Cover of What Is Art?

July 7, 2013 by Jerry Alatalo

It has been some time since first reading Leo Tolstoy‘s nonfiction masterpiece, “What Is Art?.”  It is interesting how we come to take certain actions after minor events coincide. Or perhaps we just think that events are minor when the smallest action sometimes leads to large changes in one’s life and perspective. The library at Northern Michigan University had the book.

While reading Mahatma Gandhi‘s book “All Men Are Brothers” Gandhi came to mention that “What Is Art?” was, in Gandhi’s opinion, Tolstoy’s masterpiece. So, after reading Gandhi’s book, Tolstoy’s was the next on the list for reading.Thinking about what Tolstoy had to say about the art world around the year 1900 we find that there has not been a great deal of change in the meantime. Tolstoy described a situation at that time where the so-called works of art were forms of entertainment for the leisure class of that time.

We find today that there is not much different between what Tolstoy described then and what we see now. How many works of art have literally changed you for the better in your life? We are talking about say, a movie where you cannot leave your seat right away when the credits come to the screen. You are frozen to your seat because the film moved you in a profound way. You finally walk out of the theater and you are changed.

Tolstoy listed some needed elements of a creative work which had to be present in the work for it to be called true art. He thought that a work must convey the highest spiritual feeling on Earth. He thought that the work had to result in a literal improvement in the lives of men, women and children on this planet.

I forget the year (1991) but it was when “Silence of the Lambs” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was up against “JFK” by Oliver Stone. I thought about Tolstoy’s criteria and “Silence of the Lambs” met neither. It conveyed the lowest spiritual feeling on Earth. It probably resulted in a literal degradation of the human condition.

The movies “Schindler’s List” and “The Deer Hunter” come to mind when considering movies that met Tolstoy’s necessary ingredients to be seen as true art. Perhaps as a result of reading Gandhi’s “All Men Are Brothers” and Tolstoy’s “What Is Art?”, many times I would look at almost every movie at the rental store and walk out with nothing which was able to meet Tolstoy’s high standards.

We are grateful to have come across Tolstoy’s book. Because of reading it, we have avoided ingesting a lot of rubbish that many have erroneously considered “art” through the years.

Please share any and all films, books, music, plays etc. which you have experienced and believe reached the goals that Tolstoy set for a true work of art.  What are your thoughts on the state of art in 2013?

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14 thoughts on “What Is Art? Leo Tolstoy.

    1. SV,
      Perhaps you could elaborate on your personal experience while viewing “Babette’s Feast”, “Amelie” and the creative work of Kim ki duk. Sharing your feelings could prompt those who have not yet found these gems to find them. I have yet to experience any of the works you mentioned. My guess is that you were profoundly moved by these works. Your understanding of real art, related to Tolstoy’s definition, translates to those works you mentioned are, in your view, “important and life changing”. Your simple action of expressing your feelings has the possibility of changing the lives of men and women who pass this way, and read your words, for the better. You will not truly know the total amount of good, the ripple effect, your simple action will create on this Earth.
      Thank you,
      Jerry

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  1. Sure Jerry , first the Indian film which I had given a wiki link to , is about traditional music -and the reverence the musician holds towards the music – as God , and not desiring the material benefits for his art , you should catch it – i think english subs may be available.
    Kin kiduk’s films – I don’t know Korean ( I’m from India ) – but the film has very little dialogue ..it deals with the karma philosophy and the changing seasons in life -with stunning picturisation – few images are on my blog .
    Babettes’s – based on a novel by isak dinesen -she also wrote out of africa , I learnt what true selfless service and real talent means from the film – sharing it with others without any expectation
    Amelie – french , A shy girl with simple hobbies , trying to help others – beautiful cinematography , music , paris and finally amelie coming out of her shell .

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    1. SV,
      Thank you for elaborating. I am now motivated to view these films. My guess is that many men and women will be motivated as well. You mentioned “and not desiring the material benefits for his art”. This seems surely to derive from your reading of the Bhagavad Gita, where actions are described as “those taken with a desire for the fruits of the action” and “those taken without desire for the fruits”. We sense those artists, and their creations, who truly connect in a good way, have come to take the action of creating without desire for the fruits. We also sense those artists who have a desire for the fruits. Tolstoy, we can probably safely say, had read the Bhagavad Gita and was strongly moved by the spirit the writings conveyed. In “What Is Art?” he says, in a different but essentially the same way, what the Bhagavad Gita said about action without desire. Tolstoy was saying that real art is an action, a creative act, taken by one who is a real artist, who has no desire for the money or fame which may come as a result. The real artist’s motivation is making the world a better place; improving the human condition. Would you agree? This concept is otherworldly and of the highest importance as it relates to not just artistic endeavors, but all actions taken by human beings from the individual to the collective, worldwide levels.
      Thank you.
      Jerry

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        1. SV,
          If you have already read the Bhagavad Gita, the following website will allow others to read it. Go to sacred-texts.org and find the fundamental writings of all spiritual traditions on Earth. Thank you for your willingness to create a good discussion. There will be many more comments as time goes on, so feel free to jump back in at any point.
          Nice to meet you, SV. Thank you again and best regards.
          Jerry

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  2. Just wanted to add one more thing – about the Gita I read it many years ago , but to really grasp its meaning in its entirety , I would suggest books on karma, gnana , bhakti and raja yoga by Swami Vivekananda – which helped me understand its essence – they are short and simple , published by the Ramakrishna math .There is a website for free spiritual books – http://www.holybooks.com

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    1. SV,
      Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was credited with bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion. The man lived 39 years on this Earth and accomplished a great deal in that short period of time. This man’s life is worthy of examination and we will research his words. There is one quote from him that I can share at this point: “Each soul is potentially divine”. SV, would you share a few other powerful quotes from Swami Vivekananda, one or two of your favorites, that sum up his 39 year life? This could open men and women up to researching the potential of literally discovering their divinity within.
      Thank you,
      Jerry

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      1. The quote you shared is the among the ones i love , jerry and as this year is being celebrated as the 150th birth anniversary of the swami , the monks at the math started by him , repeat this quote at lectures , and all life is in fact a journey from ignorance of ego identification to the divinity of identifying the real self , the other one I like is ” The greatest help to spiritual life is meditation. In meditation we divest ourselves of all material conditions and feel our divine nature. We do not depend upon any external help in meditation. The touch of the soul can paint the brightest color even in the dingiest places; it can cast a fragrance over the vilest thing; it can make the wicked divine–and all enmity, all selfishness is effaced.”

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        1. SV,
          Thank you. A lot of people are interested in meditation these days. It would seem to be a good thing for people to experience some silent time every day. Simply sitting in your chair in quiet contemplation, or sitting on the beach, can help us to see through the eyes of spirit. There are many ways to practice meditation. All are beneficial for honest seekers.
          Thanks again, SV. We appreciate your input.
          Jerry

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