Leo Tolstoy and Upper-Class Art (part 2)

Leo Tolstoy Working at the Round Table, Ilya Repin, 1891
State Russian Museum

According to Tolstoy, art in the West used to be attached to religion and was universally understood since it expressed the relationship between human and god which is supposedly the same for everyone. The Renaissance signalled the emergence of upper-class art, which followed a separate path from religion. Instead of attempting to appeal to the common morals of religion, Renaissance artists began exclusive art in order to please their wealthy patrons.

After centuries of becoming more and more exclusive to a certain group of people, art in the 19th century has become completely incomprehensible for the vast majority of people. In fact it has become so exclusive that it is understood by only one person, the artist that created it. The poems of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, the compositions of Liszt and Wagner and the paintings of the Impressionists, Neo-impressionists and Symbolists, are all incomprehensible, exclusive artworks for the Russian novelist.

There is no doubt that Tolstoy is being ‘grumpy’. However, if we ignore his endless complaints about the art of Wagner and Baudelaire, to whom he devotes approximately two chapters, his ideas are not really outrageous.

Tolstoy says upper-class art is overtly exclusive because it is no longer seeking universal feelings that promote brotherhood, unity and mutual understanding. Chasing after beauty and good taste in art has led to artworks that are incomprehensible not only to the common people, which they blatantly disregard, but also to a good chunk of the upper-class itself. This upper-class was educated in the more inclusive, yet still exclusive, upper-class art of “Goethe, Schiller, and Hugo; the novels of Dickens, the music of Beethoven and Chopin, the pictures of Raphael, Michael Angelo, Da Vinci, etc”. Even though they have this background, they can no longer keep up with the exclusivity of modern art.

To read part 1 of this blog series click here.

The following text is from chapter eleven of Tolstoy’s “What is Art”.


The fact that I am accustomed to a certain exclusive art, and can understand it, but am unable to understand another still more exclusive art, does not give me a right to conclude that my art is the real true art, and that the other one, which I do not understand, is an unreal, a bad art. I can only conclude that art, becoming ever more and more exclusive, has become more and more incomprehensible to an ever increasing number of people, and that, in this its progress toward greater and greater incomprehensibility (on one level of which I am standing, with the art familiar to me), it has reached a point where it is understood by a very small number of the elect, and the number of these chosen people is ever becoming smaller and smaller.

As soon as ever the art of the upper classes separated itself from universal art, a conviction arose that art may be art and yet be incomprehensible to the masses. And as soon as this position was admitted, it had inevitably to be admitted also that art may be intelligible only to the very smallest number of the elect, and, eventually, to two, or to one, of our nearest friends, or to oneself alone. Which is practically what is being said by modern artists: “I create and understand myself, and if any one does not understand me, so much the worse for him.”

The assertion that art may be good art, and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people, is extremely unjust, and its consequences are ruinous to art itself; but at the same time it is so common and has so eaten into our conceptions, that it is impossible sufficiently to elucidate all the absurdity of it.

Nothing is more common than to hear it said of reputed works of art, that they are very good but very difficult to understand. We are quite used to such assertions, and yet to say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good, but that most people can’t eat it. The majority of men may not like rotten cheese or putrefying grouse—dishes esteemed by people with perverted tastes; but bread and fruit are only good when they please the majority of men. And it is the same with art. Perverted art may not please the majority of men, but good art always pleases every one.

[…]

A speech delivered in Chinese may be excellent, and may yet remain incomprehensible to me if I do not know Chinese; but what distinguishes a work of art from all other mental activity is just the fact that its language is understood by all, and that it infects all without distinction. The tears and laughter of a Chinese infect me just as the laughter and tears of a Russian; and it is the same with painting and music and poetry, when it is translated into a language I understand. The songs of a Kirghiz or of a Japanese touch me, though in a lesser degree than they touch a Kirghiz or a Japanese. I am also touched by Japanese painting, Indian architecture, and Arabian stories. If I am but little touched by a Japanese song and a Chinese novel, it is not that I do not understand these productions, but that I know and am accustomed to higher works of art. It is not because their art is above me. Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to every one. The story of Joseph, translated into the Chinese language, touches a Chinese. The story of Sakya Muni touches us. And there are, and must be, buildings, pictures, statues, and music of similar power. So that, if art fails to move men, it cannot be said that this is due to the spectators’ or hearers’ lack of understanding; but the conclusion to be drawn may and should be, that such art is either bad art, or is not art at all.

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, translated by Aline Delano, available online here

4 thoughts on “Leo Tolstoy and Upper-Class Art (part 2)

  1. Love this series. Tolstoy: “….but what distinguishes a work of art from all other mental activity is just the fact that its language is understood by all…” So simple and true. I like his outspokenness. Beautiful drawing by Repin. I’m gathering that Tolstoy is a realist. Iv read two of his books ages ago but recall them well. I can see the point of palaces with ceiling paintings of nude Cupids is a far stretch from an average St. Petersburg person. I enjoy that I’m thinking about it. One thing I always imagined about Russians would having salons discussing aesthetics and philosophy with someone at the piano, and lots of figurative portrait paintings on the walls.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also like that he goes against almost everything he was learned as an aristocrat himself. He goes against the art he has grown up admiring and takes a huge step to look at things outside his own perspective which is admirable.

      Liked by 1 person

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