Leo Tolstoy and Art for Art’s Shake

Saint Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents From Death, Ilya Repin, 1888, State Russian Museum

Art for art’s sake? This is one of the questions that have been puzzling the modern world for a few centuries now. The answer cannot be untangled from the commercialisation and industrialisation of art as well as issues regarding the working conditions and ethics of the art sector.

People often think of contemporary art as confusing, meaningless and overtly specialist. There are some hints of truth in these statements but this is not a problem exclusive to contemporary art. Issues arising from an art that is becoming alienated from society have been around for a long time.

In “What is Art” (1897), Leo Tolstoy defines art as a way to communicate feelings, after carefully looking at what is wrong with art for art’s shake. The following fragments are taken from the first and second chapters of the book, where Tolstoy critiques the way the world of art was working during the end of the 19th century.

Leo Tolstoy, The Bettmann Archive

It is said that it is all done for the sake of art, and that art is a very important thing. But is it true that art is so important that such sacrifices should be made for its sake? This question is especially urgent, because art, for the sake of which the labor of millions, the lives of men, and, above all, love between man and man, are being sacrificed,—this very art is becoming something more and more vague and uncertain to human perception.

Criticism, in which the lovers of art used to find support for their opinions, has latterly become so self-contradictory, that, if we exclude from the domain of art all that to which the critics of various schools themselves deny the title, there is scarcely any art left.

The artists of various sects, like the theologians of the various sects, mutually exclude and destroy themselves. Listen to the artists of the schools of our times, and you will find, in all branches, each set of artists disowning others. In poetry the old romanticists deny the parnassiens and the decadents; the parnassiens disown the romanticists and the decadents; the decadents disown all their predecessors and the symbolists; the symbolists disown all their predecessors and les mages; and les mages disown all, all their predecessors. Among novelists we have naturalists, psychologists, and “nature-ists,” all rejecting each other. And it is the same in dramatic art, in painting, and in music. So that art, which demands such tremendous labor-sacrifices from the people, which stunts human lives and transgresses against human love, is not only not a thing clearly and firmly defined, but is understood in such contradictory ways by its own devotees that it is difficult to say what is meant by art, and especially what is good, useful art,—art for the sake of which we might condone such sacrifices as are being offered at its shrine…

For the production of every ballet, circus, opera, operetta, exhibition, picture, concert, or printed book, the intense and unwilling labor of thousands and thousands of people is needed at what is often harmful and humiliating work. It were well if artists made all they require for themselves, but, as it is, they all need the help of workmen, not only to produce art, but also for their own usually luxurious maintenance. And, one way or other, they get it; either through payments from rich people, or through subsidies given by government (in Russia, for instance, in grants of millions of roubles to theaters, conservatoires, and academies). This money is collected from the people, some of whom have to sell their only cow to pay the tax, and who never get those æsthetic pleasures which art gives.

It was all very well for a Greek or Roman artist, or even for a Russian artist of the first half of our century (when there were still slaves, and it was considered right that there should be), with a quiet mind to make people serve him and his art; but in our day, when in all men there is at least some dim perception of the equal rights of all, it is impossible to constrain people to labor unwillingly for art, without first deciding the question whether it is true that art is so good and so important an affair as to redeem this evil.

If not, we have the terrible probability to consider, that while fearful sacrifices of the labor and lives of men, and of morality itself, are being made to art, that same art may be not only useless but even harmful.

And therefore it is necessary for a society in which works of art arise and are supported, to find out whether all that professes to be art is really art; whether (as is presupposed in our society) all that which is art is good; and whether it is important and worth those sacrifices which it necessitates. It is still more necessary for every conscientious artist to know this, that he may be sure that all he does has a valid meaning; that it is not merely an infatuation of the small circle of people among whom he lives which excites in him the false assurance that he is doing a good work; and that what he takes from others for the support of his often very luxurious life, will be compensated for by those productions at which he works. And that is why answers to the above questions are especially important in our time.

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


4 thoughts on “Leo Tolstoy and Art for Art’s Shake

      1. A very interesting read from your quoted passage. I am very sympathetic, the investigation into art and the artists mind is almost insane — that they can start with inner and outer chaos and turn that into an elegantly solved sensory expression is a human miracle.

        Liked by 1 person

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