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.
- Consequently, composers resort to the title—a component external to the work—to communicate context.
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.
- 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
dit brand soos ’n pyl in my.
Die mense sien daar niks nie van,
en die Here alleen die weet wat ek ly.3
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.
- “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.”
- Afrikaans, “passion flowers”.
An Example of Imitation Art in Poetry
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.
- “The long sobs / Of the violins / Of autumn // Wound my heart / With a languor / Monotonous.”
- French, “poems under Saturn”.
An Example of Genuine Art in Painting
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
- One need only look at the many imitations it inspired, such as Léon L’Hermitte’s under the same title (1887):
An Example of Imitation Art in Painting
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
- 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):
An Example of Genuine Art in Music
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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- Consider how in the notation he illustrates the boat in the upper register and undulating waves in the lower: