Art and identity

In a previous post, I criticized Tolstoy’s What is Art? for putting forth an impoverished view of art, impoverished because it forbids any kind of quasi-private communicative role for art. Here I want to discuss a second manner in which it is impoverished. Tolstoy’s view of the function of art—roughly speaking, the furtherance of the brotherly union of all people—forbids art from contributing to any sense of local identity. Thus, for instance, Barlow’s Columbiad and Paulding’s Backwoodsman (post coming soon) are unacceptable simply on the grounds that they are inherently American, that they contribute to a conception of specifically American identity in that country’s youth.

Consider Tolstoy’s tempered praise of certain modern works that he thinks instantiate “universal art, which conveys the simplest everyday feelings of life, such as are accessible to everyone in the world” (p. 132; Penguin Classics):

It is still more difficult to point in modern art to examples… of good universal everyday art, especially in verbal art and in music. If there do exist works which by their inner content might be placed in this category, such as Don Quixote, the comedies of Molière, Dickens’s David Copperfield and Pickwick Papers, the tales of Gogol and Pushkin, and some of the writings of Maupassant, even so these works, by the exclusiveness of the feelings they convey, by the superfluity of specific details of time and place, and above all by the poverty of their content as compared with examples of universal ancient art (for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers), are mostly accessible only to people of their own nation and even of their own circle. (p. 133)

Tolstoy criticizes as superfluous and inherently exclusionary the “superfluity of specific details of time and place,” and it is precisely these details that allow works of art to contribute, not just to the elaboration of what it is to be human, but of what it is to be a particularly situated human. To understand the complex emotional state of Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the reader needs to understand not just his relationship to his wife but his broader relation to the Ireland in which this relationship is situated. Even though I am not an early 20th century Irishman and so cannot experience precisely the same set of co-existing pressures as Gabriel, my sympathy is only increased by this complexity and nuance.

But for Tolstoy, the ineliminably Irish character of the story detracts from its universality, and so makes it less valuable as art. In a sense, he is correct (about the first part, not the second). Undoubtedly, there are aspects of the story that will speak differently to an Irish person than they speak to me. But what of it? Why must everyone react the same way to a work? Insistence on such homogeneity is infantilizing, because the only feelings that can truly be universally shared are the simplest feelings taken in isolation. But actual human experience consists of complex combinations of feelings, combinations inextricably linked with the “superfluous” details of one’s time and place.

And this leads to a broader point about what Tolstoy’s view of the function of art leaves out. It leaves out any sense of local identity. Tolstoy’s cosmopolitan picture of the brotherly union of all people is characterized in such a way as to preclude all identities more specific than “human,” because, for Tolstoy, all such local identities give rise to in-group and out-group, and so detract from universality. Brotherly union, for Tolstoy, is inherently homogenizing. And, once again, this insistence on homogeneity is infantilizing. It strips human beings of their complex relationships to one another.

In this regard my beginning to read Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity is well-timed in a way I had not expected. For Appiah is concerned precisely to explore the ethical role of local identities within a broadly cosmopolitan political outlook. On Tolstoy’s view, Appiah’s project is fundamentally misguided. But it seems to me that Tolstoy’s view is monstrous and—for all his emphasis placed on what is universally human—inhuman. I look forward to seeing how Appiah solves the problem that Tolstoy cannot even pose.

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Parry

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