Leo Tolstoy and Upper-Class Art (part 1)

Leo Tolstoy Working at the Round Table, Ilya Repin, 1891
State Russian Museum

Tolstoy believes that there are no possible objective definitions of art or good taste. In reality philosopher’s and artists define as beauty what pleases a certain portion of society. Tolstoy rejects aestheticians and every mainstream definition of art based on beauty or taste because they are made to justify the taste and art of the upper classes and shield them from criticism.

This upper-class art is a form of oppression for common people who are forced to work and support the production of an art they do not understand or benefit from. This imposition of the taste of the upper-class upon the common people is also intellectually oppressive and counter-creative. How can someone create when their art is deemed low, ugly and insignificant?

Tolstoy asks: if upper-class art is the highest and universal form of art as his contemporary western aestheticians claim, then why are the common people rejecting it? Why is the majority of the world completely unaware of its existence? Why did this art not exist 2000 years ago?

His answer is straightforward: upper-class art is just the art of a specific portion of society and nothing more. Taste and beauty are subjective and art is nothing other than a way of communicating feelings. If an artwork is not understood by the majority of society and cannot transmit feelings to those who are not accustomed and/or initiated in a certain style or form of art, then this is not a true work of art.

The following text is from chapter eight of Tolstoy’s “What is Art”.

That is what the defenders of our exclusive art say. But I think they do not themselves believe it. They cannot help knowing that fine art can arise only on the slavery of the masses of the people, and can continue only as long as that slavery lasts, and they cannot help knowing that only under conditions of intense labor for the workers, can specialists—writers, musicians, dancers, and actors—arrive at that fine degree of perfection to which they do attain, or produce their refined works of art; and only under the same conditions can there be a fine public to esteem such productions. Free the slaves of capital, and it will be impossible to produce such refined art.

But even were we to admit the inadmissible, and say that means may be found by which art (that art which among us is considered to be art) may be accessible to the whole people, another consideration presents itself showing that fashionable art cannot be the whole of art, viz., the fact that it is completely unintelligible to the people. Formerly men wrote poems in Latin, but now their artistic productions are as unintelligible to the common folk as if they were written in Sanscrit. The usual reply to this is, that if the people do not now understand this art of ours, it only proves that they are undeveloped, and that this has been so at each fresh step forward made by art. First it was not understood, but afterward people got accustomed to it.

“It will be the same with our present art; it will be understood when everybody is as well educated as we are—the people of the upper classes—who produce this art,” say the defenders of our art. But this assertion is evidently even more unjust than the former; for we know that the majority of the productions of the art of the upper classes, such as various odes, poems, dramas, cantatas, pastorals, pictures, etc., which delighted the people of the upper classes when they were produced, never were afterward either understood or valued by the great masses of mankind, but have remained, what they were at first, a mere pastime for rich people of their time, for whom alone they ever were of any importance. It is also often urged, in proof of the assertion that the people will some day understand our art, that some productions of so-called “classical” poetry, music, or painting, which formerly did not please the masses, do—now that they have been offered to them from all sides—begin to please these same masses; but this only shows that the crowd, especially the half-spoilt town crowd, can easily (its taste having been perverted) be accustomed to any sort of art. Moreover, this art is not produced by these masses, nor even chosen by them, but is energetically thrust upon them in those public places in which art is accessible to the people.

For the great majority of working-people, our art, besides being inaccessible on account of its costliness, is strange in its very nature, transmitting, as it does, the feelings of people far removed from those conditions of laborious life which are natural to the great body of humanity. That which is enjoyment to a man of the rich classes is incomprehensible, as a pleasure, to a working-man, and evokes in him, either no feeling at all, or only a feeling quite contrary to that which it evokes in an idle and satiated man. Such feelings as form the chief subjects of present-day art—say, for instance, honor, patriotism, and amorousness—evoke in a working-man only bewilderment and contempt, or indignation. So that even if a possibility were given to the laboring classes, in their free time, to see, to read, and to hear all that forms the flower of contemporary art (as is done to some extent, in towns, by means of picture galleries, popular concerts, and libraries), the working-man (to the extent to which he is a laborer, and has not begun to pass into the ranks of those perverted by idleness) would be able to make nothing of our fine art, and if he did understand it, that which he understood would not elevate his soul, but would certainly, in most cases, pervert it. To thoughtful and sincere people there can, therefore, be no doubt that the art of our upper classes never can be the art of the whole people. But if art is an important matter, a spiritual blessing, essential for all men (“like religion,” as the devotees of art are fond of saying), then it should be accessible to every one. And if, as in our day, it is not accessible to all men, then one of two things: either art is not the vital matter it is represented to be, or that art which we call art is not the real thing.

The dilemma is inevitable, and therefore clever and immoral people avoid it by denying one side of it, viz., denying that the common people have a right to art. These people simply and boldly speak out (what lies at the heart of the matter), and say that the participators in and utilizers of what, in their esteem, is highly beautiful art, i.e. art furnishing the greatest enjoyment, can only be “schöne Geister,” “the elect,” as the romanticists called them, the “Uebermenschen,” as they are called by the followers of Nietzsche; the remaining vulgar herd, incapable of experiencing these pleasures, must serve the exalted pleasures of this superior breed of people. The people who express these views at least do not pretend, and do not try, to combine the incombinable, but frankly admit, what is the case, that our art is an art of the upper classes only. So essentially art has been, and is, understood by every one engaged on it in our society.

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


4 thoughts on “Leo Tolstoy and Upper-Class Art (part 1)

  1. Antoni, I’m enjoying this series and the issues it raises. Forgive my injection but in my book project I foreshadow if indeed earliest civilizations were not domesticating artists for propaganda and aggrandizement of leaders, priests, and merchants? So Tolstoy is definitely on to something here, and so are you.


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