“What is Art?” by Leo Tolstoy Summary Essay

Leo Tolstoy is regarded among the greatest writers of all time. He was born in Russia in an aristocratic family. He was a novelist, essayist, playwright, and short storyteller. He was born in 1828 and died in 1910 at 82 years old.

Writing Life

The love for writing can be traced back to 1844 when Tolstoy started his law and oriental language classes at Kazan University. Strangely, teachers considered him to have been ‘born unable and unwilling to learn.’ How he turned out to be one of the most prolific writers of his time remains a mystery.

Tolstoy did not complete his university education. He left Kazan University and lived in Tula, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. He loved and lived the life of luxury.

Tolstoy began writing after dropping out of university. He penned his first novel “Childhood” which was published in 1852. In 1851, he had run out of money from gambling. He returned to the Caucasus where his brother lived. He joined the army and had an incredible experience in a disciplined environment. He was a diligent officer, rising to the rank of a Lieutenant. However, the many deaths during the war took a toll on him. He left the arm immediately after the Crimean War.

The war changed his perception of life. From a family of privilege, he became a spiritual anarchist and non-violent writer. His ideas were also shaped by witnessing public execution in France. He developed a distaste for government, terming it as ‘…a conspiracy designed to exploit and corrupt the citizens. His philosophy of non-violence was adopted by Mahatma Gandhi. His writing on non-violence was also shaped by the German version of Tirukkural.

What is Art? Leo Tolstoy

The book was completed in 1897 in Russian. However, it was not published in Russia or the Russian language. Intense censorship in the country meant that it could not be distributed to the masses. It had to be published in English.

Tolstoy opens the discussion by looking at the effort, time, public funds, and respect that go into creating a work of art. In his words, expressing an opinion towards art would diminish all these sacrifices. It amounts to questioning the offerings placed at the altar and forgetting the bigger picture.

Because of the effort and intentions that go into preparing a work of art, it is impossible to term it as useful or useless. Art exists for its sake and cannot be quantified, just like sacrifices in shrines. He does not support the idea that art should be measured in terms of beauty.  There is more to art than looking at how beautiful a painting is. After all, beauty is subjective.

Tolstoy looks at art beyond painting and sculpture. He places jokes, home decorations, and church services in the same category. For him, art encapsulates feelings, and your inability to decode these feelings should not make art unattractive. The purpose of art is to pass these feelings. How well the feelings of the artist are passed will depend on how sincere the artist is in the process of creation.

Artificiality of art

Tolstoy is very serious about the sincerity of the artist. The minute an artist ceases to be sincere, art stops conveying the intended message. The resulting piece lacks honor. Here are reasons why art becomes insincere according to Tolstoy:

  • Borrowing – recycling or copying elements from other works. You cannot copy thunder, worriers, maidens, and such known features.
  • Imitation – a painting that becomes a photograph is not a work of art.
  • Effectifulness – the work is strikingly a contrast of reality. It encapsulates the divide between beauty and ugliness, dark and light, and such contrasts. It would be painful to the person watching.
  • Diversion – the work needs to be explained or altered to hide the meaning.

According to Tolstoy, Without Art Mankind Could Not Exist. Art provides the balance and expression that grounds a human being. These principles of art can be seen in all his works.