To Soothe, To Comfort, To Bless.

Cover. The Church at Eragny [1884]. Artist: Camille Pissaro [1831 - 1903].


This text is an excerpt from What Is Art? [1897] by a master of realistic fiction and one of the world's greatest novelists, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy [1828 - 1910].



During his decades of world fame as a novelist, Tolstoy also wrote prolifically in a series of essays and polemics on issues of morality, social justice and religion. These works culminated in What is Art?, published in 1898. Impassioned and iconoclastic, this powerfully influential work both criticises the elitist nature of art in nineteenth-century Western society, and rejects the idea that its sole purpose should be the creation of beauty. The works of Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Baudelaire and Wagner are all vigorously condemned, as Tolstoy explores what he believes to be the spiritual role of the artist - arguing that true art must work with religion and science as a force for the advancement of mankind.



What thoughtful man has not been perplexed by problems relating to art ?

An estimable and charming Russian lady I knew, felt the charm of the music and ritual of the services of the Russo-Greek Church so strongly that she wished the peasants, in whom she was interested, to retain their blind faith, though she herself disbelieved the church doctrines. ' Their lives are so poor and bare they have so little art, so little poetry and colour in their lives let them at least enjoy what they have; it would be cruel to undeceive them,' said she. 

A false and antiquated view of life is supported by means of art, and is inseparably linked to some manifestations of art which we enjoy and prize. If the false view of life be destroyed this art will cease to appear valuable. Is it best to screen the error for the sake of preserving the art? Or should the art be sacrificed for the sake of truthfulness ?

Again and again in history a dominant church has utilised art to maintain its sway over men ... They diligently chipped the noses from statues and images, and were wroth [angry] with ceremonies, decorations, stained-glass windows, and processions. They were even ready to banish art altogether, for, besides the superstitions it upheld, they saw that it depraved and per verted men by dramas, drinking-songs, novels, pictures, and dances, of a kind that awakened man s lower nature. Yet art always reasserted her sway, and to-day we are told by many that art has nothing to do with morality that 'art should be followed for art s sake.'

I went one day, with a lady artist, to the Bodkin Art Gallery in Moscow. In one of the rooms, on a table, lay a book of coloured pictures, issued in Paris and supplied, I believe, to private subscribers only. The pictures were admirably executed, but represented scenes in the private cabinets of a restaurant. Sexual indulgence was the chief subject of each picture. Women extravagantly dressed and partly undressed, women exposing their legs and breasts to men in evening dress; men and women taking liberties with each other, or dancing the ' can-can,' etc., etc. My companion the artist, a maiden lady of irreproachable conduct and reputation, began deliberately to look at these pictures. I could not let my attention dwell on them with out ill effects. Such things had a certain attraction for me, and tended to make me restless and nervous. I ventured to suggest that the subject-matter of the pictures was objectionable. But my companion [who prided herself on being an artist] remarked with conscious superiority, that from an artist s point of view the subject was of no consequence. The pictures being very well executed were artistic, and therefore worthy of attention and study. Morality had nothing to do with art.

Here again is a problem. One remembers Plato s advice not to let our thoughts run upon women, for if we do we shall think clearly about nothing else, and one knows that to neglect this advice is to lose tranquillity of mind; but then one does not wish to be considered narrow, ascetic*, or inartistic, nor to lose artistic pleasures which those around us esteem so highly.

*ascetic [n.] a person who practises great self-denial and austerities and abstains from worldly comforts and pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing religious or spiritual goals.

Again, the newspapers last year printed proposals to construct a Wagner Opera House, to cost, if I recollect rightly, £100,000 - about as much as a hundred labourers may earn by fifteen or twenty years hard work. The writers thought it would be a good thing if such an Opera House were erected and endowed. But I had a talk lately with a man who, till his health failed him, had worked as a builder in London. He told me that when he was younger he had been very fond of theatre-going, but, later, when he thought things over and considered that in almost every number of his weekly paper he read of cases of people whose death was hastened by lack of good food, he felt it was not right that so much labour should be spent on theatres.

In reply to this view it is urged that food for the mind is as important as food for the body. The labouring classes work to produce food and necessaries for themselves and for the cultured, while some of the cultured class produce plays and operas. It is a division of labour. But this again invites the rejoinder that, sure enough, the labourers produce food for themselves and also food that the cultured class accept and consume, but that the artists seem too often to produce their spiritual food for the cultured only at any rate that a singularly small share seems to reach the country labourers who work to supply the bodily food! Even were the 'division of labour' shown to be a fair one, the ' division of products ' seems remarkably one-sided.

Such are a few of the many problems relating to art which present themselves to us all, and it is the purpose of this book to enable us to reach such a comprehension of art, and of the position art should occupy in our lives, as will enable us to answer such questions. 

The task is one of enormous difficulty. Under the cloak of 'art,' so much selfish amusement and self-indulgence tries to justify itself, and so many mercenary interests are concerned in preventing the light from shining in upon the subject, that the clamour raised by this book can only be compared to that raised by the silversmiths of Ephesus when they shouted, ' Great is Diana of the Ephesians ! ' for about the space of two hours.

Elaborate theories blocked the path with subtle sophistries or ponderous pseudo-erudition. Merely to master these, and expose them, was by itself a colossal labour, but necessary in order to clear the road for a statement of any fresh view. 


'Under the cloak of 'art,' so much selfish amusement and self-indulgence tries to justify itself, and so many mercenary interests are concerned in preventing the light from shining in upon the subject...'


We have enjoyed works of 'art.' We have been interested by the information conveyed in a novel, or we have been thrilled by an unexpected 'effect'; have admired the exactitude with which real life has been reproduced, or have had our feelings touched by allusions to, or reproductions of, works old German legends, Greek myths, or Hebrew poetry which moved us long ago, as they moved generations before us. And we thought all this was 'art.' Not clearly understanding what art is, and wherein its importance lies, we were not only attached to these things, but attributed importance to them, calling them 'artistic' and 'beautiful,' without well knowing what we meant by those words.

But here is a book that obliges us to clear our minds. It challenges us to define 'art' and 'beauty,' and to say why we consider these things, that pleased us, to be specially important. And as to beauty, we find that the definition given by aesthetic writers amounts merely to this, that 'Beauty is a kind of pleasure received by us, not having personal advantage for its object.' But it follows from this, that ' beauty ' is a matter of taste, differing among different people, and to attach special importance to what pleases me [and others who have had the same sort of training that I have had] is merely to repeat the old, old mistake which so divides human society; it is like declaring that my race is the best race, my nation the best nation, my church the best church, and my family the ' best ' family. It indicates ignorance and selfishness.

But 'truth angers those whom it does not convince;' - people do not wish to understand these things. Of the effect this book has had on me personally, I can only say that 'whereas I was blind, now I see.' Though sensitive to some forms of art, I was, when I took it up, much in the dark on questions of aesthetic philosophy; when I had done with it, I had grasped the main solution of the problem so clearly that though I waded through nearly all that the critics and reviewers had to say about the book I never again became perplexed upon the central issues.

Tolstoy was indeed peculiarly qualified for the task he has accomplished. It was after many years of work as a writer of fiction, and when he was already standing in the very foremost rank of European novelists, that he found himself compelled to face, in deadly earnest, the deepest problems of human life. He not only could not go on writing books, but he felt he could not live, unless he found clear guidance, so that he might walk sure-footedly and know the purpose and meaning of his life. Not as a mere question of speculative curiosity, but as a matter of vital necessity, he devoted years to re-discover the truths which underlie all religion.

To fit him for this task he possessed great knowledge of men and books, a wide experience of life, a knowledge of languages, and a freedom from bondage to any authority but that of reason and conscience. He was pinned to no Thirty-nine Articles*, and was in receipt of no retaining fee which he was not prepared to sacrifice. Another gift, rare among men of his position, was his wonderful sincerity and [due, I think, to that sincerity] an amazing power of looking at the phenomena of our complex and artificial life with the eyes of a little child; going straight to the real, obvious facts of the case, and brushing aside the sophistries, the conventionalities, and the 'authorities' by which they are obscured.

* Thirty-nine Articles of Religion: the doctrinal statement of the Church of England 'for the avoiding of controversy in opinions.'
sophistry [n.] the use of clever, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious [false] methods of reasoning, with the intention of  deceiving.

This story will begin again at a later date, starting from the point where it stopped.
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