Leo Tolstoy and Upper-Class Art (part 3)

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

Tolstoy finds that the upper-classes, the art critics and most professional artists lack the ability of being “infected” by emotions through art. This happens because they have accustomed themselves to an immoral degenerate art.

Since they cannot experience true art they are unable to produce it and this leads society to becoming more and more savage. This savageness will eventually find its apotheosis in the unnatural state where the ‘survival of the fittest’ becomes law. This can only be averted by eradicating upper-class art which is taking away our ability to communicate our best feelings through art.

In chapter XVII of What is Art Tolstoy begins numbering the consequences of upper-class or, as he calls it here, degenerate art on society. The first one is particularly interesting.

The first consequence, plain for all to see, is the enormous expenditure of the labor of working people on things which are not only useless, but which, for the most part, are harmful; and more than that, the waste of priceless human lives on this unnecessary and harmful business. It is terrible to consider with what intensity, and amid what privations, millions of people—who lack time and opportunity to attend to what they and their families urgently require—labor for 10, 12, or 14 hours on end, and even at night, setting the type for pseudo-artistic books which spread vice among mankind, or working for theaters, concerts, exhibitions, and picture-galleries, which, for the most part, also serve vice […]

It is often said that it is horrible and pitiful to see little acrobats putting their legs over their necks, but it is not less pitiful to see children of 10 giving concerts, and it is still worse to see school-boys of 10 who, as a preparation for literary work, have learnt by heart the exceptions to the Latin grammar. These people not only grow physically and mentally deformed, but also morally deformed, and become incapable of doing anything really needed by man. Occupying in society the role of amusers of the rich, they lose their sense of human dignity, and develop in themselves such a passion for public applause that they are always a prey to an inflated and unsatisfied vanity which grows in them to diseased dimensions, and they expend their mental strength in efforts to obtain satisfaction for this passion. And what is most tragic of all is that these people, who for the sake of art are spoilt for life, not only do not render service to this art, but, on the contrary, inflict the greatest harm on it. They are taught in academies, schools, and conservatoires how to counterfeit art, and by learning this they so pervert themselves that they quite lose the capacity to produce works of real art, and become purveyors of that counterfeit, or trivial, or depraved art which floods our society. This is the first obvious consequence of the perversion of the organ of art.

In chapter XIX Tolstoy imagines the art of the future. The art of the future for him will be free from the art schools, the critics and the patronage of the rich who are obstacles in the free expression of the people. I found particularly interesting the part where Tolstoy describes art without the authority of the art school.

People think that if there are no special art schools the technique of art will deteriorate. Undoubtedly, if by technique we understand those complications of art which are now considered an excellence, it will deteriorate; but if by technique is understood clearness, beauty, simplicity, and compression in works of art, then, even if the elements of drawing and music were not to be taught in the national schools, the technique will not only not deteriorate, but, as is shown by all peasant art, will be a hundred times better. It will be improved, because all the artists of genius now hidden among the masses will become producers of art and will give models of excellence, which (as has always been the case) will be the best schools of technique for their successors. For every true artist, even now, learns his technique, chiefly, not in the schools, but in life, from the examples of the great masters; then—when the producers of art will be the best artists of the whole nation, and there will be more such examples, and they will be more accessible—such part of the school training as the future artist will lose will be a hundredfold compensated for by the training he will receive from the numerous examples of good art diffused in society.

Such will be one difference between present and future art. Another difference will be that art will not be produced by professional artists receiving payment for their work and engaged on nothing else besides their art. The art of the future will be produced by all the members of the community who feel the need of such activity, but they will occupy themselves with art only when they feel such need. […]

Until the dealers are driven out, the temple of art will not be a temple. But the art of the future will drive them out.


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