Art and sincerity

Most art—more precisely, most of what is called art—is fake, according to Leo Tolstoy in his polemical What is Art? (Penguin Classics). The purpose of art is to convey feelings. To achieve this, it is true, the artist calls upon all of his talent, but the main thing is the sincerity of the feeling and of the desire to communicate it, to bring another to feel it. If the feeling is gone, if only talent remains, if, as Tolstoy puts it “the author never had any other feeling than the desire to write a story or a novel” (p. 117), then what is produced is not art, but a mere imitation of art—indeed in many cases an imitation of an imitation.

Why should this be? Tolstoy traces it to art having become an upper-class diversion rather than a real contribution to life. The over-educated upper class, with perverted and atrophied sensitivity to genuine human feeling, and above all else bored, seeks in art diversion, pleasure. That is why the philosophy of aesthetics has focused on beauty. (Tolstoy believes he can reduce every account of beauty to a subjective feeling of pleasure.) Bored and wealthy, the upper class pays artists to produce art that is, precisely because commissioned, insincere. Because of their atrophied sensitivity, they cannot tell that what they are paying for is not the real thing.

Tolstoy goes on, weaving more threads into this general narrative, but that is enough for my purposes here. My sympathy for Tolstoy’s views has oscillated as he has unfolded them. His diagnosis of the poverty of beauty as a fundamental aesthetic principle, and his promise to replace it with something integrated with the whole of human life, I found intriguing. Certainly the role that art plays in my life is something more than a mere pleasure-bringer, and if Tolstoy made this point in a manner manifestly unfair to the 150-year history of aesthetics that he surveyed, I was willing to forgive him this.

His proposed replacement principle views art as fundamentally communicative: the true work of art conveys to the public, in a manner accessible to all, a feeling felt by the artist. I do not agree with the exact manner in which Tolstoy characterizes the aim of art, but I do believe that art is (or should be) inherently communicative. (I may have more to say about this in a subsequent post.) And I think Tolstoy is right when he claims that while some art is born out of a felt need to communicate, much is simply the product of a mere desire to write a novel, or a poem, or whatever.

The moment that Tolstoy tries to explain how we are to tell these apart, however, his story unravels. Take this:

There are many conditions necessary for a man to create a true object of art. It is necessary that the man stand on the level of the highest world outlook of his time, that he have experienced a feeling and have the wish and opportunity to transmit it, and that he have, with all that, a talent for some kind of art. (p. 90)

But how are we to tell when a man stands on the level of the highest world outlook of his time? What are we to make of the very real disagreement between people about what world outlook is the highest? Further, how are we to tell when the artist has experience a feeling and when he is merely counterfeiting it extremely compellingly? It is not as if Tolstoy is unaware of this family of problems, for he asks a version of it himself. Given that most works of art are fakes, are simulacra, how are we to find those very rare few that are genuine?

How to find this one work, not differing in any way superficially, among the hundreds of thousands of works deliberately made to resemble the true one perfectly?

For a man of unperverted taste, a laboring man, not a city-dweller, this is as easy as it is for an animal with an unspoiled scent to find, among thousands of trails in forest or field, the one it needs. An animal will unerringly find what it needs; so, too, a man, if only his natural qualities are not perverted in him, will unerringly choose out of thousands of objects the true work of art that he needs, that infects him with the feeling experienced by the artist; but this is not so for people whose taste has been ruined by their upbringing and life. (p. 115)

Practically speaking, this is utterly unhelpful. How are we to tell? Well, the right people will know. Now, to be fair, Tolstoy does have a theory of who the right people are and how they got to be that way, but it still strikes me as a slick intellectual move. Does your judgment about a work of art disagree with Tolstoy’s? Well, have you considered that you are simply incompetent to judge? It is means of delegitimizing disagreement, whatever theoretical basis purports to justify it.

Combined with that is the fact that “sincerity,” because it is an inner state of the artist, is not really something one can test. Tolstoy’s criterion of genuine art thus sounds meaningful, but is in fact infinitely flexible: Tolstoy can invoke it to justify his preferences in art no matter works he likes or does not like (unless, I suppose, the work is especially obscure). The charge of “insincerity” condemns nothing of its own accord. It condemns only with the help of the active agency of the one who applies it.

Thus my sympathy for Tolstoy began to dissolve. But then Tolstoy explained, not his theory of art, but the phenomenology of his interactions with art, both negative and positive:

I remember seeing Rossi’s performance of Hamlet, in which the tragedy itself and the actor playing the leading role are considered by our critics to be the last word in dramatic art. And yet, during the whole time of the performance, I experienced both from the content of the play and from its performance that special suffering produced by false simulacra of artistic works. (pp. 118-19)

This “special suffering” is an experience I know, and know well. I find it hard to imagine having that experience with respect to Hamlet, but I know it for other works. And, on the positive side, Tolstoy writes:

The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the perceiver merges with the artist to such a degree that it seems to him that the perceived object has been made, not by someone else, but by himself, and that everything expressed by the object is exactly what he has long been wanting to express. The effect of the true work of art is to abolish in the consciousness of the perceiver the distinction between himself and the artist, and not only between himself and the artist, but also between himself and all who perceive the same work of art. It is this liberation of the person from his isolation from others, from his loneliness, this merging of the person with others, that constitutes the chief attractive force and property of art. (p. 121)

This hardly requires comment for anyone familiar with the experience Tolstoy describes. It is not the whole of positive engagement with art (what if what the artist expresses is not precisely what one wants to express, yet one is glad that it was expressed in that manner?), but it is a major aspect of it.

Recognizing that the experiences underlying Tolstoy’s approach to art are experiences I know as well makes me more sympathetic to his book, not in the sense that I agree with him, but in the sense that I feel I grasp the motivation for it. Of course, the fact that I have these same experiences while liking what Tolstoy deplores (and while certainly falling into his category of the over-educated elite) speaks against his general theory, which requires a sharp dichotomy between those who seek the communication of feelings and those who seek only pleasure.

Ultimately, I think, my verdict on Tolstoy is much the same as Tolstoy’s own verdict on those who attempt to find an objective basis for beauty. Tolstoy thinks that aestheticians can be reduced to two schools: those who treat beauty subjectively and those who treat it objectively. Those who treat it objectively “call beauty something absolutely perfect which exists outside of us” (p. 32). Of course, we must recognize this beauty outside of us, and that is just where the trouble arises:

But since we recognize the absolutely perfect which exists outside us and acknowledge it as such only because we receive a certain kind of pleasure from the manifestation of this absolutely perfect, it means that the objective definition is nothing but the subjective one differently expressed. (p. 32)

Therefore, “in fact, both notions of beauty come down to a certain sort of pleasure that we receive.” Tolstoy has thus reduced all attempts at defining beauty to subjective definitions, dependent on our experience of pleasure.

It seems to me that the same line of reasoning applies to Tolstoy’s attempt to determine what art is sincere: ultimately, it is that art that gives him a certain sort of feeling, of leaving his isolation and loneliness. But must art be truly sincere to give rise to that feeling? There is no reason to think so. We acknowledge it as such only because we receive a certain kind of experience from this manifestation of the sincere. Tolstoy’s apparent objective definition of sincere art is, by his own line of argument, nothing but a subjective definition differently expressed.


  1. Drew said:

    Is this the one where he says Shakespeare sucks?



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