Aesthetic Theory of "What Is Art?"

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Reprinted from The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XXXIV / i, Fall 1975. Printed in U.S.A.



The Aesthetic Theory of Leo Tolstoy’s

What Is Art?

SINCE ITS FIRST APPEARANCE near the turn of the century, Tolstoy’s What Is Art? has stimulated dispute. Prominent among the faults noted by commentators have been the unremitting moralism of the essay in its approach to art, the tone of bitter polemic which characterizes many of its passages, and the unreasonably narrow, exclusive, and arbitrary nature of the theory which produced Tolstoy’s list of works deserving to be called good art.

These faults are all too evident, and the problem of perceiving anything of theoretical value in What Is Art? is compounded by Tolstoy’s extensive, often confusing use of categorization and the highly individual meanings which he attached to some of his most important terms.

For example, the essay contains at least three antinomial categories of major importance. Art is opposed to non-art, art in general to art "in the full meaning of the word," and good art to bad art. Each of these categories serves a specific function within Tolstoy’s theory of art, but the reader is often hard put to maintain the segregation of each category from the others which Tolstoy intended.

With regard to the confusion occasioned by Tolstoy’s highly subjective use of certain terms, a close reading of the text indicates that the adjectives "good" and "bad" are normally used only in a moral sense. Thus, the statement that a specific work is an example of bad art means that the work satisfies Tolstoy’s aesthetic criteria and is art but that its effect on its public is morally bad. In the usual understanding of the words, however, "bad art" means something closer to "non-art" or "weak art." Yet, for Tolstoy, non-art is part of a category entirely separate from that of bad art while weak art is a concept without meaning.

A further example of this sort of confusion is provided by the concepts "feeling" and "religious perception." Both of these are of crucial importance to the aesthetic theory presented in What Is Art? but in fact (as will appear in detail below) the precise meaning of feeling, despite the considerable space apportioned to its explanation in the text, can be grasped only through extensive independent effort on the part of the reader. The meaning of religious perception is clarified with still greater difficulty. The explanation offered in the text is inadequate, and a proper understanding of the term requires resort to another of Tolstoy’s later works.

Despite the potential for confusion, it is clear that the theory of art offered in What Is Art? is constructed upon a double foundation. One of the cornerstones is an aesthetic theory by which Tolstoy hoped to be able to demonstrate whether a given work was or was not a work of art and, if it was, whether it was more or less important. The other cornerstone is a moral theory in terms of which Tolstoy sought to evaluate the quality of admitted works of art.

The moral component of Tolstoy's theory has justly borne the brunt of the criticism lodged against What Is Art?  Moral evaluation is incompatible with a theory of art in that it provides a method of judgment which is not wholly appropriate to the thing judged. Even were the presence of a moral component tolerable, it is clear that the specific scheme of moral evaluation offered in What Is Art? is undesirable on at least two counts. It is unacceptable by reason of its being unreasonably narrow, exclusive, and arbitrary, and it led Tolstoy into absurd attacks on works widely regarded as great art (the plays of Shakespeare, for instance) and into a perhaps still more absurd defense of works of inferior reputation (Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

The grounds for questioning the value of Tolstoy’s theory of art as a whole are certainly safe, but that they are grounds for discrediting the whole of the theory has not, in my opinion, been demonstrated. Granted that the moral component of Tolstoy’s theory is untenable, what of the aesthetic component? Is it unreasonably narrow, exclusive, arbitrary, illogical, or disunified in itself or has it been discredited only by its association with the moral component?

Israel Knox was, to my knowledge, the first to suggest that while Tolstoy’s theory of art was complex it was also separable.1 The purpose of the present paper is to follow the path indicated by Knox and divorce the aesthetic from the moral component with a view to answering the questions suggested above.

The method to be followed contains two parts. The first is an exposition of the assumptions underlying the aesthetic theory of What Is Art? The second is a clarification and amplification of Tolstoy’s aesthetic terminology.

Tolstoy’s aesthetic theory rests upon a foundation of a priori assumptions, as must any aesthetic which hopes to arrive at a formula for discriminating between what is art and what is not. Therefore, that Tolstoy’s aesthetic is developed from a series of unprovable assumptions is not sufficient reason for discrediting it. It is rather a matter of appraising the assumptions that are made in order to determine whether they are too many, too narrow, or too arbitrary to be cogent.

In What Is Art? three assumptions are made about the aesthetic character of art.  The first is that art is a form of communication. The term "communication" subsumes two further concepts. One is expression, the process whereby what is subjective in the artist becomes resolved into a form which makes it accessible to others. The other is infection, the process whereby that which the artist expresses is assimilated by others. Infection means understanding. The perceiver of a work of art is infected when he understands what is expressed in the work.2 Another way of stating Tolstoy’s first assumption would be to say that art is a process through which what is subjective in the individual becomes objective for the public.

The second assumption is that what is expressed by the artist and understood by his public in a work of art is properly described by the term "feeling."

The third assumption is that art consists of two categories, the larger of which subsumes the smaller. Tolstoy speaks first of art in the broad sense, by which he means all art. This general category may be defined as containing all communications of feeling. Among Tolstoy’s examples are processions and jests. A procession may be art in that it expresses the feelings of solemnity and grandeur and impresses these feelings on those who behold it. A jest may be art in that it expresses a feeling of levity which is imparted to those who hear it.

Tolstoy, however, was mainly concerned with a small portion of art as a whole which he called, variously, art in the narrow sense or art in the full meaning of the word. This much more exclusive category may be defined as containing only those works which communicate a certain type of feelings, namely, those which proceed from the religious perception of the artist.

The assumption that art is a form of communication is not unique to Tolstoy. Rather, it is one of the more common first steps toward a definition of art.3 While it does not necessarily explain why works of art are produced, it does offer a reasonable and non-economic explanation of why such works are exhibited, performed, or published. Certainly the assumption is neither narrow nor arbitrary, for it excludes from consideration as art only those works which have never come to the notice of the public.

Tolstoy’s second assumption, that the subject matter of art is feeling, requires more extensive clarification. Certainly unreasonable narrowness is a possibility latent within it. Whether the assumption is narrow and arbitrary in fact, however, depends upon the nature of Tolstoy’s understanding of the concept of feeling.

Feeling (in Russian, chuvstvo) is the central term of Tolstoy’s aesthetic theory; it describes in what art consists. It is feeling which the artist seeks to express, and it is feeling which the audience comes to understand in a work of art. Feeling is, however, a very broad concept which covers a wide range of subjective experience from simple emotions to complex beliefs. It is essential to know exactly how much of this range Tolstoy meant to include for the purposes of his aesthetic theory.

In his History of Modern Criticism, René Wellek describes Tolstoy’s aesthetic as "emotionalist" and places Tolstoy in the tradition of Diderot and Wordsworth.4 To describe Tolstoy’s aesthetic in this way implies that what is meant by the Russian word chuvstvo in What Is Art? is best rendered by the English word "emotion." The search for Tolstoy’s understanding of chuvstvo may well begin with a consideration of whether emotion is a suitable translation.

In his article on the foreign sources of What is Art? the Russian scholar Pavel Popov isolated Eugène Véron’s L’Esthétique as the most important single influence on the content of Tolstoy’s aesthetic theory.5 He enumerated several persuasive points of comparison between the ideas of the two men, chief among them the similar phrasing of their formal definitions of art and the qualified praise of Véron’s work which was offered by Tolstoy.

As paraphrased by Tolstoy, Véron’s definition of art is that "art is the outward manifestation, by means of lines, colors, gestures, sounds, words, of the emotions expressed by man."6

Tolstoy called explicit attention to his primary disagreement with Véron when he wrote that the expression of emotions was not in itself a sufficient guarantee of the presence of art. To his own thinking, art was not expression merely but also communication. He envisioned the possibility of expression without a resultant infection of the audience. For Tolstoy, Véron’s definition was not wrong, but inexact.7 There is, however, a second area of disagreement between the two. It is explicit and its nature becomes clear only upon a close reading of the Russian text.

In his own definition of art, Tolstoy designated the subject matter of art by the word chuvstvo; in his paraphrase of Véron he used the word emotsiia. It is this difference which is of primary significance in the present context.

The Russian word emotsiia is of foreign origin and, in that it refers only to what is denoted by the English word "emotion," is more precise than the word chuvstvo.8 It may properly be inferred from his choice of words that Tolstoy was concerned, in his own theory, to allow to art a broader range of subject matter than he imagined Véron to have done.9 Further evidence that Tolstoy found Véron’s concept of emotion (emotion) to be less than adequate is his care to define what he understood chuvstvo to mean while making no such effort respecting the word emotsiia. This implies that the reader may take it in its generally accepted sense, as referring only to such basic emotional states as anger, fear, sorrow, and happiness. It may properly be inferred that, for Tolstoy, while art may include emotions, it must in some way go beyond them, too.

In explaining what he meant by chuvstvo, Tolstoy first distinguished it from the concept of thought (mysl’). Just what Tolstoy meant by thought is rather difficult to grasp, as will be apparent from the following: "Speech transmitting the thoughts and experiences of men serves as a means of union among them, and art serves a similar purpose. The peculiarity of this latter means of intercourse, distinguishing it from intercourse by speech, consists in this, that whereas by speech a person transmits his thoughts to another, by art he transmits his feelings."10

The conclusion which this passage immediately suggests is that words, specifically when heard but also, one would assume, when read, fall entirely outside the category of art. The remainder of What Is Art? however, shows that this conclusion could not have been Tolstoy’s intent, for his final, expressly stated, conclusion was that verbal art was one of art’s highest forms. To get at the actual meaning of this passage, it is necessary to focus attention on the subject matter of the communications described rather than on the medium of communication.

Tolstoy himself provided little help in understanding the difference between the subject matter of communication through speech and that of communication through art. We have, perforce, to make an assumption for ourselves as to the difference and measure its validity in terms of whether it is compatible with Tolstoy’s ultimate conclusions.

A reasonable assumption is that by "a thought" Tolstoy meant anything which may be objectively the same for all persons: mathematical calculations, geometric theorems, matters of accepted historical fact, observable natural occurrences, and the like. Thus, if A tells B that the sun rises in the east or that two plus two equals four, then that communication would be an example of what Tolstoy meant by speech and not an example of what he meant by art. If this assumption is correct, then what Tolstoy meant by his phrase "the purview of thought" were the products of the objective reason, understanding by this term the faculty by which all persons are necessarily led to the same conclusions.

Having understood what Tolstoy meant by thought we also understand what he meant by chuvstvo, for in comparing the two he implied that the dichotomy was both mutually exclusive and all-encompassing. Therefore, chuvstvo subsumes all human experience which does not fall into the category of thought and includes emotions, feelings, impressions, sensations, intuitions, and also (and perhaps most importantly for the present study) any conclusions derived from any source other than the objective reason. It will be apparent that the word "feeling" is a suitable choice for the designation of this broad range of experience. It covers equally well all parts of the range from emotions to conclusions. For example, one may say both "I am feeling happy" and "I have the feeling that God exists" with equal correctness.

The breadth of Tolstoy’s purview of feeling is evident from the examples provided in chapter five of What Is Art?"11 Tolstoy mentioned several emotions: sorrow, happiness, anger, woe, terror. He mentioned some of the physical actions which indicate the presence of emotion: weeping, laughter, groans, sobs. He included general physiological conditions: haleness, being in pain. He mentioned, finally, several general attitudes of mind: decisiveness, amazement, respect, contentment. It is justifiable to amplify this list of examples still further by saying that even the subject matter usually associated with the purview of thought may pass over into the purview of feeling when it is regarded other than from the point of view of the objective reason. For example, the statement that two plus two equals four belongs basically to the objective reason, but if it becomes an object of hatred, as it does for Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, it passes over into the purview of feeling.

In short, "feeling," as it is used in What is Art? may include all human experience, for it is not an entity or a list, however long, of entities, but rather the subjective mode of regarding any entity. Thus, Tolstoy’s concept of feeling is extremely broad, and it is impossible to describe his view of the proper subject matter of art as unreasonably narrow.

Tolstoy’s third assumption is that the word "art" is susceptible of two interpretations, one broad and the other narrow. Tolstoy wrote:

We are accustomed to understand art to be only what we hear and see in theaters, concerts, and exhibitions; together with buildings, statues, poems, and novels. .. . But all this is but the smallest part of the art by which we communicate with one another in life. All human life is filled with works of art of every kind—from cradlesong, jest, mimicry, the ornamentation of houses, dress, and utensib to church services, buildings, monuments, and triumphal processions. It is all artistic activity. So that by art, in the limited sense of the word, we do not mean all human activity transmitting feelings but only that part which we for some reason select from it and to which we attach special importance. This special importance has always been given by men to that part of this activity which transmits feelings flowing from their religious perception, and this small part they have specifically called art, attaching to it the full meaning of the word.[12]


It is with this third assumption that a considerable narrowing of the category of art becomes a part of Tolstoy's aesthetic theory, for it is clear that he was primarily concerned with the smaller category of art, what he called "art in the full meaning of the word."  Moreover, the sort of narrowing which is suggested here would seem to be wholly arbitrary since it is defined not in aesthetic terms but, in using the phrase "religious perception," seemingly in religious terms.  Tolstoy seems perilously close to relying on religious criteria in the same damaging way he relied, later in What Is Art?, on moral criteria.

To understand the third assumption correctly, however, it is necessary to remain aware of two considerations.  The first is that Tolstoy made the realm of art in the broad sense very broad indeed.  It is hardly too much to say that many would find the scope assigned by Tolstoy to art in general to be, while logically consequent upon his previous assumptions, uncomfortably broad, particularly if the high value traditionally placed on works of art is to be maintained.  Second, the extent and arbitrariness of the narrowing suggested by Tolstoy depend on the meaning which he attached to the phrase "religious perception."  Here the problem is similar to that encountered in the consideration of the meaning of the word "feeling."  A proper conclusion can be reached only when the exact meaning assigned by Tolstoy to his terms is known.

The main difficulty in this problem arises from Tolstoy's not having adequately defined the term "religious perception" in the text of What Is Art?  Thus, it is hardly surprising that many readers conclude that the phrase has to do with the specific religious ideas of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men with which Tolstoy so liberally sprinkled the later chapters of his essay.

Tolstoy's closest approach to a definition of religious perception in What Is Art? is to be found in chapter sixteen.

In every period of history and in every human society there exists an understanding of the meaning of life, which represents the highest level to which men of that society have attained--an understanding indicating the highest good at which that society aims.  This understanding is the religious perception of the given time and society.  And this religious perception is always clearly expressed by a few advanced men and more or less vividly perceived by members of the society generally.[13]


This explanation does not, however, lead to an understanding of Tolstoy’s third assumption. He was speaking here of the religious perceptions of whole societies and periods of history, and if we were to be satisfled with this explanation it would indeed appear that Tolstoy had narrowed the concept of "art in the full meaning of the word" to the point of sectarianism, for it was clearly his belief that the highest religious perception of his time and society was the Christian, as he understood it.

It is necessary to go beyond this explanation, however, not because it brings Tolstoy’s aesthetic theory into discredit but because it does not explain religious perception in a manner appropriate to its role in the third assumption. We are not concerned to know what religious perception means in terms of societies and historical periods, but rather what it means in terms of individual artists.

For the explanation which is required, it is necessary to refer to another of Tolstoy’s later works, the essay "What Is Religion, and Wherein Lies Its Essence?" In this work religious perception, here called simply religion, is defined as the individual’s understanding of himself and of his relation to the universe which surrounds him.

A reasonable man cannot be satisfied with the considerations that guide the actions of an animal. A man may regard himself as an animal among animals—living for the passing day; or he may consider himself as a member of a family, a society, or a nation, living for centuries; or he may and even must (for reason irresistibly prompts him to this) consider himself as part of the whole infinite universe existing eternally. And therefore reasonable men should do, and always have done, in reference to the infinitely small affairs of life affecting their actions, what in mathematics is called integrate: that is to say, they must set up, besides their relation to the immediate facts of life, a relation to the whole immense Infinite in time and space conceived as one whole. And such establishment of man’s relation to that whole of which he feels himself to be a part, from which he draws guidance for his actions, is what has been called and is called Religion.[14]


Thus, when Tolstoy stipulated that art in the full meaning of the word concerns itself with feelings flowing from man’s religious perception he was maintaining that for a work of art to be among the more rather than the less important it must reflect the traditionally important human concerns of "Who am I?" "What else is there?" and "What is the relation between me and it?"

It must be frankly admitted that this breadth of meaning in the term "religious perception," was not, perhaps, Tolstoy’s intention. Certainly he contended that good (the moral term) art would include not only the important questions but also the answers specified by him in his understanding of the Christian teaching, and, in the way he explained religious perception in the passage from What Is Art? cited above, he seems to imply that this specific religious perception is obligatory for all "art in the full meaning of the word." Let us distinguish here, however, Tolstoy’s premises from the conclusions which he drew from them. It seems clear that the conclusion presented above is more nearly consequent upon the premises than that which may have been drawn by Tolstoy himself.

A summary answer may now be given to the question "Are the assumptions of Tolstoy’s aesthetic theory unreasonably narrow and arbitrary?" I conclude that they are not because: the first assumption, which deals with the origin and function of art, offers a reasonable and by no means untried explanation for the coming to be and purpose of of the vast majority of all purported works of art in that they are not just made but also offered to an audience; the second assumption, which concerns the subject matter proper to art, includes, in the final analysis, all human experience; and the third assumption, by which more important works of art are segregated from the category of art as a whole, requires only that at work which aspires to the category of the more important include (but not necessarily confine itself to) aspects of human experience which have traditionally been regarded as being of great importance.

Since the aesthetic premises of What Is Art? are neither unreasonably narrow nor arbitrary and seem also to be unified, consistent, and logical, we may conclude that the low regard which has been the usual lot of What Is Art? does not find its justification among them. It is Tolstoy’s further development of these assumptions, and especially his application of a moral scale in the evaluation of works of art, which merit censure. Unfortunately, the aesthetic underpinning of What Is Art? has suffered as well, an apparent victim of guilt by association.

If the aesthetic premises do indeed merit serious consideration as divorced from Tolstoy’s moral theories, the task facing the student becomes one of evaluating the position of this aesthetic among others which are also logical, consistent, and not unreasonably narrow.

Such further evaluation might well begin with an examination of Tolstoy’s own further development of his premises with a view to understanding how, given such an apparently generous aesthetic basis, he managed to arrive at such narrowly sectarian and often absurd conclusions. Does the fault lie in some as yet unseen flaw in the assumptions, or does it result from the refinements which Tolstoy made on them or the conclusions which he drew from them? An approach would have to be made to such matters as Tolstoy’s insistence on sincerity, his demand for "universal infection" and his explanations of this term, his concept of the "language" (medium) of a work of art, and his exclusion of non-verbal art from the category of art "in the full meaning of the word." Finally, it would be essential to decide whether, having voluntarily dispensed with Tolstoy’s moral evaluation of art, any aesthetic evaluation can be found to replace it.

Consideration of these matters, however, lies beyond the scope of the present paper. I will rest content with having suggested them.

1. Israel Knox, "Tolstoy’s Esthetic Definition of Art," Journal of Philosophy, 27 (1930), 65—70.

2. It is well to differentiate at this point between what the work expresses and what the author meant to express. Tolstoy seems to indicate in What Is Art? that these two quite separate considerations are actually identical. It should not be forgotten, however, that in his own critical practice Tolstoy was often amenable to the suggestion that the actual content of a work could be different from the author’s intention. The most striking example of this is his analysis of Chekhov’s story "The Darling" ("Dushechka").

A second point deserves consideration: if Tolstoy wanted to talk about understanding, why did he use the word "infection?" That he wanted to suggest that the public of a work of art would not simply understand what was expressed in it but would also be overcome, convinced, or persuaded by it is an easy but, I think, erroneous conclusion. I maintain that in choosing the word "infection" (zarazhenie) Tolstoy was guided by a desire to provide an easily remembered verbal parallel to the term denoting the other half of the process of communication, expression, which is in Russian vyrazhenie. To amplify, if Tolstoy had written in English he might have employed the terms "expression" and "impression," thus establishing a verbal connection similar to that of the Russian.

3. See, for example, the introduction to Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgement, revised, Mark Schorer, Josephine Miles, and Gordon McKenzie, eds. (New York: 1958), p. 6.

4. René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, 4 vols. (New Haven: 1965), vol. IV, The Later Nineteenth Century, 291, 282.

5. Pavel Popov, "Inostrannye istochniki traktata Tolstogo Chto takoe iskusstvo," in Estetika L’va Tolstogo: Sbornik statei, P. N. Sakulin, ed. (Moskva: 1929), p. 135.

6.  L. N. Tolstoi, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 90 vols. (Moskva: 1936—1956). vol. XXX, 62. Translations from the Russian are those of Aylmer Maude and are readily available in several editions. I have compared each passage with the original and made a few minor corrections.

7. Tolstoi, XXX, 63.

8. The word chuvstvo appears with great frequency and in a variety of meanings in the text of What Is Art? At various points, Maude translated chuvstvo as "emotion," "the senses" (i.e. the five physical senses), "feeling," "idea," "faculty," "desire." Thus, of the various semantic applications of chuvstvo only one is synonymous with ernotsiia. In Maude’s translation emotsiia is invariably rendered as "emotion."

9. It is interesting to note that while Tolstoy translated Véron’s definition of art accurately, he seems to have ignored other passages which shed light on the exact meaning which Véron intended the word emotion to have. Véron frequently used the words émotion, sentiment, conception, idée humaine, and impression if not interchangeably, at least so as clearly to imply that these concepts were closely related one to another. See Eugene Véron, L’Esthétique (Paris: 1878) v, x, xiii, xiv.

10. Tolstoi, XXX, 64.

11. Tolstoi, XXX, 64—65.

12. Tolstoi, XXX, 66—67.

13. Tolstoi, XXX, 152.

14. Tolstoi, XXXV, 161.