Art and privacy

In an earlier post, I defended the ideal of the communicative poet, writing:

The communicative poet always speaks to the individual, to the (perhaps unknown) friend. I know for whom I write. I can see him, can imagine his responses, his delights and consternation. It is always an individual I see, and I speak to him directly. If I am lucky, and if I develop my nascent talents sufficiently to warrant such luck, perhaps I shall find multiple such readers, but they do not thereby form an assembly. I never reach out to the mass.

In What is Art?, Tolstoy adopts a thoroughly different understanding of what it means for a poet (or any artist) to communicate. He sees the task of art as furthering the brotherly union of all people. The artist seeks to convey some feeling to his audience, to infect them with this same feeling. Importantly, for Tolstoy, this art must be accessible, infectious, to all. Any art that is in any regard private is depraved. Obviously, this stands in stark contrast to my view of art as communicative always privately, always to the individual. What are the consequences of a view such as Tolstoy’s for art?

Tolstoy’s basic opposition to art that is anything less than global in its prospective reach is that all such art creates an ingroup (those for whom the art is for) and an outgroup (everyone else). And this, he says, is opposed to “the religious consciousness of our time.” The religious consciousness of any given time represents the highest thought thus far achieved by humanity. In our time (that is, Tolstoy’s time), this thought was “the consciousness of the fact that our good, material and spiritual, individual and general, temporal and eternal, consists in the brotherly life of all people, in our union of love with each other” (p. 126). In former times it consisted of more localized unions, it “united only one part of human society among others” and was concerned with a desire “for the power, grandeur, glory and prosperity” of that group (p. 127). Such, for instance, is the feeling conveyed by Homer’s Iliad. But such art is no longer acceptable, because religious consciousness has ascended to a higher thought.

There is much in the background theory about religious consciousness to disagree with, but I will put that aside, for, even if we grant that theory, Tolstoy’s position still impoverishes art, for two reasons. First, because the insistence on universality is inherently exclusive in a manner that Tolstoy wholly overlooks. The desire for brotherly union with all people is noble, I am sure, and by some people genuinely felt. But it is not my desire. I find humans mostly miserable up close, though almost infinitely sympathetic from the right distance. My ideal is not brotherly union with all, but close communion with a few and distant, mutual toleration with the rest. This does not involve any hostility between the ingroup and outgroup, a possibility Tolstoy simply fails to see. (Whatever else it may be, Tolstoy’s What is Art? is certainly not charitable to its opposition.)

No doubt Tolstoy would call this desire of mine depraved, a failure to live up to the religious consciousness of the time. This is in keeping with Tolstoy’s fundamentally dishonest method of arguing in the book—dishonest in the sense that any disagreement with his position is indicative, for Tolstoy, of some moral failure on the part of him who disagrees—and all I can do is shrug at his suggestion of the perversity of my desire. With Emerson, I say, “[it does] not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

Thus Tolstoy would impoverish art by eliminating all art for and by people like me, people who prefer the intensity of a private conversation between two to the mass union of many.

Tolstoy’s view, if enacted, would lead to a second impoverishment of art. Tolstoy’s view that art operates by infecting others with some feeling felt by the artist, if taken in its most basic form, has the consequence of stripping art of all its emotional nuance. On Tolstoy’s model of how art communicates, the artist has some feeling (which feeling must, in our time, be compatible with the brotherly union of all) that he would communicate. The artist then makes a work of art that, if successful, brings others to share this same feeling. Tolstoy nowhere suggests any more complicated model of infection than this fairly direct one, and the general tenor of the book suggests to me that he really does want us to adopt this simple view. So I will treat it as his considered view.

This model of how art communicates in effect means that art, on Tolstoy’s model cannot consider feelings that are impure, problematic. Suppose the artist has some feeling from which he is estranged, yet which he cannot escape—certainly a common enough experience for me, and one that underlies much of my poetry. Suppose the artist wants to convey this tangled relationship to himself, acknowledging its reality as well as its problematic status. Perhaps he is uncertain how to feel about it, and wishes to capture this uncertainty. Such a work of art is, on Tolstoy’s picture, impermissible, because, rather than seek to infect the audience with some feeling, it seeks to make the audience regard that feeling from a position quite different than infection. The entire realm of attitudes we take toward our feelings is forbidden territory for art, on Tolstoy’s view, because it cannot fit the infection model.

It may seem as if I am being unfair to Tolstoy. But I do not think so. Tolstoy is insistent that the only means of communication appropriate to art is infection. Thus art cannot, for Tolstoy, treat of feelings not worth infecting another with, feelings that are only worth communicating in some other form. And this is an impoverishment of art.

I therefore reject Tolstoy’s vision of the function of art. I think it a vision that forbids art to serve the purpose for which people like myself turn to it, and is therefore a vision that is exclusive to those able to share Tolstoy’s desire for the brotherly union of all people. Tolstoy justifies this exclusion by insisting that all who lack that desire are depraved, are failing to live up to the religious consciousness of the time. Perhaps he is right. I think it unlikely in the extreme, but I will grant the supposition hypothetically. Suppose Tolstoy is right, and in my desire for more private, localized communication, I am depraved. Suppose I have failed to attain to the highest thought thus far attained by humanity’s religious consciousness. So be it. What do I care of Tolstoy’s “highest” and “lowest”? These “are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

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