Form Follows Feeling

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by unknown photographer. Public domain.
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by unknown photographer

I recently finished reading What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy in which he meticulously sets out his answer to the titular question. I discovered the work whilst attempting to do the same in an informal essay in 2018, taking particular interest in what I glimpsed of his view at the time because it seemed to reflect my own.

This impression was correct; his thesis presents a simple conception of what is and is not a work of art, and in this essay, I shall weave his ideas into mine. This is not, therefore, a synopsis or critique of the book, but rather a consolidation of my thoughts—which took the form of several notes—on the subject.

Form Follows Feeling

Tolstoy rejects Beauty or Concept as a definition of art, a radical position I find most compelling. A work is not art because it pleases or amuses an observer, it is art because it communicates to him the artist’s feeling. That is the foundation of Tolstoy’s conception—simple and stunning—upon which he constructs his ideas.

To Tolstoy, the ideal artist is moved by natural feeling, embodying in a work emotions common to us all—like awe before the sublime, compassion before suffering, indignation before tyranny. In the ideal work, the artist’s genuine feeling is so powerfully and unambiguously expressed that all who observe it can partake of its significance and meaning.

This makes of art a language universal, the preserve of all humanity whose capacity to recognise and interpret it is instinctive, occurring naturally. For this reason, works of art by their very nature are congruent (harmonious in content and form), clear (universally comprehensible) and concise (epitomising the artist’s feeling).


Each art form has its domain in which, through the quality essential to it, it expresses feeling: melody in music, verse in poetry, plot in fiction, depiction in painting, form in sculpture, space in architecture, movement in dance, performance in theatre and so forth. To be congruent, the art form must be capable of conveying the feeling the artist wishes to express.

The more sophisticated the feeling, the more complex the essential quality required in the art form. For example, music can embody simple feelings like joy or sorrow, but it is incapable of expressing emotions more complex, like hope or despair—it can only approximate tension or relief. Moreover, it cannot articulate the causes of these emotions.1

The artist must choose the art form appropriate in its essential quality to his feeling. In doing so, he remains true to his emotion and the art form true to its nature. An artwork thus harmoniously conceived will be wholly congruent, its form and content inextricable, one so woven into the other that every aspect and quality of the work distils the intended feeling.

  1. Consequently, composers resort to the title—a component external to the work—to communicate context.
Des Glaneuses (1857) by Jean-François Millet. Public domain.
Des Glaneuses (1857) by Jean-François Millet is an example of congruency, clarity and conciseness in a work of art. A brief examination of this and other works can be found in the Addendum.


When the artist is moved by genuine emotion, his goal is to transmit that feeling to others as vividly as he can. To that end, he integrates into his work only that which epitomises his feeling, those elements that allow him to sublimate his emotion in the substance of the art form as plainly and comprehensively as possible.

If a composer, he might use mellifluous phrases to embody “tranquillity”, if a sculptor, robust forms to embody “strength”; whatever the art form, he will so utilise its mechanisms as to enshrine in his work all that is necessary to make his emotion clear. If successful, nothing external to the work will be necessary to explain it—not even its title.2

Only natural and genuine emotion will create in the artist the need for such clarity—the desire so lucidly to express himself that all may participate in his feeling. It is a thing un-summonable, arising spontaneously and occasionally in the course of everyday life, wherefore the output of the artist is correspondingly sporadic.

  1. See the Addendum for examples of such works.


Clarity leads to conciseness, a correspondence between the content of a work and its complexity. The ideas of the work (its concept), the elements that assemble them (its composition) and the style in which they are rendered (its execution) are comprehensive but succinct—they encapsulate the artist’s feeling.

Thus, for example, in a musical composition, the melody, key, tempo, length, instrumentation and performance are selected for their expressive power, and so too in a poem, are the language, tone, voice, metre, rhythm, rhyming scheme, declamation and so forth—in each art form, the respective devices chosen for a specific purpose.

It is a time-consuming process of refinement, a task undertaken with great intensity and resolve, often long after the feeling that first moved the artist has passed. Its impetus is the conviction and insight that genuine emotion provides; its result, a work in which every constituent part performs a necessary function.


These then are the fundamentals of Tolstoy’s view which I have woven into mine—the revised ideal to which I aspire: in fine, that only that is a work of art which every man recognises as communicating to him some natural and genuine feeling, and that in such a work, feeling and form are indivisible, coherent and complete.

Only in such works do our feelings transcend their intangibility, allowing us to perceive them as consummate concretes, translated and transformed that we may do the otherwise impossible: hear them as music, recite them as poetry, contemplate them as painting, stand before them as sculpture or within them as architecture.


To explore the implications of this theory and test its soundness, here in a brief exercise, we shall apply it to six works: “O die Pyn-gedagte”, a poem by Totius; “Chanson d’automne”, a poem by Paul Verlaine; Des glaneuses, a painting by Jean-François Millet; The Shadow of Death, a painting by William Holman Hunt; “Clair de lune”, a musical composition by Claude Debussy and “Une barque sur l’océan”, a musical composition by Maurice Ravel. These we shall consider without recourse to information beyond the works themselves.

An Example of Genuine Art in Poetry

o Die pyn-gedagte: My kind is dood! . . .
dit brand soos ’n pyl in my.
Die mense sien daar niks nie van,
en die Here alleen die weet wat ek ly.3
The first stanza of “O die Pyn-gedagte” (Passieblomme4, 1934) by Totius (Jacob Daniël du Toit)

This is the opening stanza of a work of unfathomable agony. In the poem, Totius wrestles with the untimely death of his young daughter. In simple verses, he recounts the horrifying event, every stanza infecting the reader with a sense of the poet’s suffering. One is overcome with deep sympathy as one experiences with him such tragedy, the unbearableness of which is all-consuming. The composition is raw in theme and style, its heartfelt lines an outpouring of genuine grief at an inconsolable loss. It is not a perfect work; but, it is an unmatched example of the spontaneity, naturalness and honesty that a true work of art possesses.

  1. “o The pain-thought: My child is dead! . . . / it burns like an arrow in me. / People see nothing of it, / and the Lord alone He knows what I suffer.”
  2. Afrikaans, “passion flowers”.

An Example of Imitation Art in Poetry

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
     De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
The first and second stanzas of “Chanson d’automne” (Poèmes saturniens6, 1866) by Paul Verlaine

Verlaine’s poem is an example of a different kind: his undeniable skill allows him so closely to simulate poetic art that it is almost indistinguishable from true poetry. His stanzas overflow with aesthetic frill which he artfully employs to feign emotion; but, if we piece together the allusions, we find in them a quasi-melancholy that leaves one indifferent: the poet gives neither cause nor context wherewith to make sense of its existence, interested only in inducing such a mood. Thus duped by eloquence—having assumed substance where none was to be found—all that remains is to relish the language, a meagre substitute for poetry.

  1. “The long sobs / Of the violins / Of autumn // Wound my heart / With a languor / Monotonous.”
  2. French, “poems under Saturn”.

An Example of Genuine Art in Painting

Des Glaneuses (1857) by Jean-François Millet. Public domain.
Des Glaneuses (1857), Jean-François Millet

Like all true works of art in painting, Des Glaneuses captures with rich economy all that is necessary to show the feeling the subject inspired in the painter; and one need not know who is portrayed, their occupation or station in life to deduce what it is, namely reverence. By placing the figures at the centre foreground of his picture, relegating all else to the distance, and painting them with such care, Millet extends to us an invitation to contemplate the lives of others, to see that their lot might have been ours. So elegant and effective is Millet’s expression of this theme that no other painting before it or since approaches it in beauty.7

  1. One need only look at the many imitations it inspired, such as Léon L’Hermitte’s under the same title (1887):Des Glaneuses (1887), Léon Lhermitte. Public domain.

An Example of Imitation Art in Painting

The Shadow of Death (1873), William Holman Hunt. Public domain.
The Shadow of Death (1873), William Holman Hunt

Hunt’s work stands in stark contrast with the economy with which a true work of art in painting achieves its realism. So perplexing is the painting in subject and execution: from the unnatural tableau—is the man stretching, in ecstasy or both?—to the excessive detail with which it is rendered—what is gained by the addition of the very script on the scroll?—there is no making sense of it without a body of knowledge that we, in this exercise, do not possess. Without understanding what is before us—without universal clarity—there can be no transmission of feeling (other than puzzlement), making this too exclusive a work to be art.8

  1. For an example of a religious theme treated universally in a genuine work of art, there is Caravaggio’s Vocazione di San Matteo (The Calling of Saint Matthew):Vocazione di San Matteo (The Calling of Saint Matthew). Public domain.

An Example of Genuine Art in Music

“Clair de lune” (1905), Claude Debussy (Debussy: Complete Works for Piano (2008), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet)

In the lucid third movement of Suite bergamasque, “Clair de lune”9, Debussy eloquently transmits by means of melody a feeling of quietude and reflection. There is no recourse to superfluous complication, artifice and embellishment; if these exist at all, it is put in the service of melody—the essence of musical language—strengthening its emotional power. Everything within the piece transmits to us what we are meant to feel, and as we listen, instinctively we understand—from the wistfulness of the key (D-flat major) to the ebb and flow of the tempo (compound triple metre)—that we are to be swept inexorably into the artist’s reverie.

  1. Incidentally, “Clair de lune” (“Moonlight”) takes its title from a poem by none other than Verlaine. It was originally titled “Promenade sentimentale” (“Sentimental stroll”) after yet another work by the poet, both suffering from the shortcomings of “Chanson d’automne”. It may be that Debussy is merely the musical equivalent of Verlaine, but this author shall be charitable in his evaluation.

An Example of Imitation Art in Music

“Une barque sur l’océan” (1905), Maurice Ravel (Ravel: Complete Works for Solo Piano (2016), Bertrand Chamayou)

This piece so dazzles that it distracts from its fundamental flaw: the misapplication of music. Whilst we are emotionally affected by the extravagant sounds—evoking music without being music—what they signify cannot be extracted from the music itself; we are forced, like the composer, to rely on the title—that is, something external to the work—to overcome the incommunicability.10 The title, “A boat on the ocean”, reveals that the music is imitating movement, a menial task it ingeniously performs at Ravel’s bidding11, but at the cost of melody (music’s natural domain) and feeling (art’s natural goal) which become mere incidentals.

  1. Music can evoke emotion and suggest movement, but these have no explicit narrative power. Ravel can evoke “turmoil”, but the nature of that turmoil music cannot convey.
  2. Consider how in the notation he illustrates the boat in the upper register and undulating waves in the lower:“Une barque sur l’océan” (1905), Maurice Ravel, Notation.

Paintings: Wikipedia

This July

Paradise Cranes in a Field, 6 July 2018. Copyright 2018 Forgotten Fields. All rights reserved.
I took this photograph of two paradise cranes. Paradise or blue cranes live permanently in this part of the Western Cape of South Africa. They are my comfort whilst the swallows are away (it is winter here from June to August).

I completed my first essay

After several drafts, I completed “On the Nature and Purpose of Art”. The essay explains what I understand art to be and proposes a working definition: Art is the stylisation of essential elements from reality in Literature, Music, Painting and Sculpture to create an eloquent representational or abstract work that is not merely a reproduction, recording, documentation, illustration or decoration of reality but a transformation of it, imbued with meaning.

I intend to demystify the subject of art in a series of informal essays. Next, I want to investigate what informs an artist’s work. I want to answer, for example, what draws an artist to a certain theme and subject, and to a certain medium and technique. Why does the musician choose one genre over another? Why does the painter paint in this style and not that? I want, in fine, to discover “Why Artists Create What They Create” (my working title).

I completed “Zephyros”

Finding the perfect words with which to clearly and concisely express an idea in rhyming iambic verse is no easy task. The four verses of “The Robin-chat” took a considerable amount of time to complete for that very reason, as did the two verses of “Zephyros”. Its original title was “The Pines”, a lyrical ballad about trees moving in the wind; but the more I worked on the poem, the more its focus shifted from the trees to the wind itself.

Eventually, it was clear that the wind must be the subject, and so I drew inspiration from an earlier work: the couplet I composed for The Zephyr and the Swallow. The zephyr is, of course, the literary description of a gentle breeze. It comes from the Greek Ζεφυρος (transliterated as “Zephyros”), the personification of the west wind (and also of spring), which prompted a new approach to the subject (and from which I took the new title).

Unsurprisingly, this significantly altered the nature of the poem. Most challenging was the task of matching the second verse to the first (with which I was pleased early on) to satisfactorily conclude the composition. I came, at last, to two versions of the second verse. The first had an expansive quality (first line: “His ballad blows across the land…”), whereas the second felt more intimate (first line: “A sonnet sounding sweetly…”).

My chief difficulty was that both of these worked. I would eventually choose the latter, only to change my mind shortly thereafter. At the time I tweeted “[T]he verse I have rejected is, in fact, the one I must choose!” (27 July 2018). I am now confident in my decision, and the poem has become one of my favourites—but then, so are they all. I am now revising the first of three poems dedicated to swallows, a subject of which I shall never tire.

I revised my artist statement

The goal of my work is to extol the beauty of nature—the fleeting and near insignificant moments that seem to affect me most. The familiarly beautiful in my rural surroundings evoke within me a sense of awe that I must endeavour to capture in poetry and music. This is the essence of my artistic vision, a subject I consider in the “Context Matters” blog post. In its closing paragraph, I restate my artistic vision and adopt a new caption.

A summary of my artist statement.
A summary of my artist statement.

Previously “Ambient idylls”, I now describe my work as “Idylls in music and poetry”. I elaborate upon my meaning in a social media post dedicated to the matter thus: “It is my view that Man should not be silent when moved by the grandeur of Nature, that he should burst out in adoration, if his disposition allows it, and extol what he observes in art! This is what Forgotten Fields has become—an act of adoration!” (26 July 2018).

Mentioned in this post

“On the Nature and Purpose of Art” (Forgotten Fields Essay)
The Zephyr and the Swallow (Bandcamp)
“Context Matters” (Forgotten Fields Blog Post)
@forgottenfield (Forgotten Fields on Twitter)

On the Nature and Purpose of Art

Der Mönch am Meer (The Monk by the Sea) (1808–10) by Caspar David Friedrich
Der Mönch am Meer (The Monk by the Sea) (1808–10) by Caspar David Friedrich

The Way We See the World

When we look at a painting, it evokes within us a combination of thought and emotion, a reaction that wells up almost involuntarily. It happens when we read a novel, recite a poem, view a sculpture, or hear a piece of music. Our response feels so natural—so correct—that it informs our judgement of the work, the artist and our companions. The source of these judgements is our view of the world, that is to say, our concept of the way things are (our reality) and our concept of the way they ought to be (our values). Through these concepts, we interpret our experiences. They are a vast collection of ideas about the human condition that comes sharply into view whenever we encounter a work of art.

These concepts exist in the mind: they are complex, often speculative, dis-integrated, ill-defined and confused. They are, moreover, by their very nature inaccessible to our senses and our conscious minds. We cannot examine them as we might any object in the physical world to gain insight into their nature and determine their implications. As such, they lie beyond the reach of the tools through which we best comprehend reality. Nonetheless, it is vital to our course in life that we think deeply and at length about the concepts that form our worldview, for they encapsulate our life philosophy and determine who we become. But to contemplate so great a subject in the realm of the imperceivable is no easy task.

The Creation of the Concrete

We need, therefore, some way to experience these concepts directly, as if they were real: a mechanism by which we can render the invisible visible, the silent audible and the abstract concrete; a process that embodies in a perceptible work what is inherently imperceptible. This process must provide a means by which we may perceive a thought as an entity, and must, therefore, re-create what is real to express what is not real. Such a process must make accessible to our minds and senses a view of the world and deliver to us a work that captures fully and succinctly, in both its substance and execution, the concepts within that view.

Art is the purest form of this process. Its media are melody, language, colour and solid form, and it produces works through which invisible concepts can be directly perceived by the mind as abstractions (e.g. a theme) and the senses as attributes (e.g. a melody). The creators of art—artists—express in music, literature, painting and sculpture a set of values (their view of the world) and present it to us for contemplation. They do this through the application of creative skill, which they assiduously develop to create works that are valued not only for their aesthetic and technical excellence but also their emotional and conceptual power.

The Work of the Artist

The artist does this work of expression through the stylisation of essential elements from reality, producing an eloquent representational or abstract work that is not merely a reproduction, recording, documentation, illustration or decoration of reality but a transformation of it, imbued with meaning. Only such a work is a work of art. In music, this is done through composition in sound; in literature, through composition in language; in painting, through composition in pigment; and in sculpture, through composition in solid form. In these primary media, the artist enshrines the human psyche in distinct, directly experienceable manifestations that have, by virtue of their elements, the capacity to make a concept real¹.

Our experience of these works brings us face to face with concepts, engineering an interaction that is otherwise impossible. Suddenly, we are able to hear, see or think about our worldview as never before: through the realised worldview of another, the artist. Art shows us the values of the artist (its primary function) and in doing so, helps us discern and evaluate our own (a secondary function). When we react to a work of art, it is not a matter of mere taste: we react because, by its very existence, the artwork pronounces a judgement on us—on our view of the world. The better the artwork, the more exquisite the creative expression of that judgement and the more intense our declarations of admiration or revulsion.

The Function of Art

This reaction has little or nothing to do with correctness or objectivity. What we are saying is some variation of: “Yes, this is how I see the world” or “No, this is not how I see the world.” We rely on artists to make comprehensible and perceivable to us their view of the world, thereby illuminating our own. Without art, we would experience these concepts exclusively in the mind—as something nebulous, fragmented and remote. It is the sole purpose of art to make them accessible and fathomable. Artists create mirrors for the mind, giving us a glimpse of who we are, allowing us a moment to reflect on what we see.


  1. The process of integrating a concept into an artwork—the artist’s choice of medium, genre, theme, subject, inspiration, style, technique, composition and so forth—is beyond the scope of this essay.