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What is Art? (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 31 Aug 1995

4.4 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (31 Aug. 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140446427
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140446425
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.5 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 38,892 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description

From the Back Cover

During the decades of his world fame as sage and preacher as well as author of War and Peace and Anna Karenin, Tolstoy wrote prolifically in a series of essays and polemics on issues of morality, social justice and religion. These culminated in What is Art?, published in 1898. Although Tolstoy perceived the question of art to be a religious one, he considered and rejected the idea that art reveals and reinvents through beauty. The works of Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Baudelaire and even his own novels are condemned in the course of Tolstoy's impassioned and iconoclastic redefinition of art as a force for good, for the progress and improvement of mankind. In his illuminating preface Richard Pevear considers What is Art? in relation to the problems of faith and doubt, and the spiritual anguish and fear of death which preoccupied Tolstoy in the last decades of his life.

About the Author

Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828 and educated privately. He studied Oriental languages and Law at the University of Kazan, then led a life of pleasure until he joined an artillery regiment in the Caucasus in 1851. He served during the Crimean War and after the defence of Sebastopol wrote The Sebastopol Sketches, which established his reputation. He continued to write while developing educational projects, writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina between 1865 and 1876. A Confession marked an outward change in his life and works: he became an extreme rationalist and moralist, and his theories led to his excommunication from the Russian Holy Synod in 1901. He died in 1910.


Richard Pevear has published translations of Alain, Yves Bonnefoy and Alberto Savinio, as well as two books of poetry. He and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, have translated works by Pavel Florensky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol, among others. Their translation of The Brothers Karamazov received the PEN translation award in 1991. They live in France.


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Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book has a good clear introduction by Aylmer Maude which puts Tolstoy's work in context.
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By Luc REYNAERT TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 16 April 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this rather astonishing text, Leo Tolstoy explains his vision on art and the aim of art.

Art, Religion, Classes, Professionalism
For Leo Tolstoy, art is a human activity which consists in conveying feelings (emotions) by external signs. Art doesn't consist in creating beauty or pleasure or in expressing emotions, but in infecting people with feelings. The worth of these feelings is determined by the religious consciousness (Christianity) of what is good or bad. The basic good is the brotherly life of all people. The purpose of art consists in transferring from the realm of reason to the realm of feeling the truth that people's well-being lies in being united and in establishing in the place of violence the Kingdom of God (love).
The upper classes, however, have lost faith. They reduced art to the conveying of feelings of vanity, amusement and sexual lust. Art became artificial, insincere and perverted. In one word, a harlot.
Sincerity was also significantly weakened when artists became professionals.

Artistic means and ends
Leo Tolstoy's `Christian' art can be religious (conveying feelings regarding God) or universal (conveying the simplest everyday feelings of life).
Deliberate concealments to arouse curiosity, revealing new aspects or angles on reality or putting question marks in a work are hindering, not helping, the artistic impression. Hermeneutic poetry is false art, while realism and naturalism are not more than counterfeits of reality.

Evaluation
Indeed, an essence of art is the conveying of feelings (emotions) into the reader, the listener or the spectator. But, religious consciousness (Christianity) cannot be the (sole) criterion to make a decision about good or bad art.
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You definitely get more out of this book if you have a background understanding of philosophy, religion, psychology and sociology. It is hard going (not my usual bedtime read) and I've never read any of Tolstoy's books but was told that this was a good starter before progressing onto War and Peace. I found this really interesting, it changes your perspective on the way you view art in society forever. Like many things, it is socially constructed. Contributes to me developing a more objective opinion about the world in which we live in.
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This little book is a jewel. A perfect text from a great writer. Tolstoy had the rare ability of writing about complex and deep things in a simple manner. In this book, he approaches one of the most undefinable subjects in an elegant and simple way. Indeed, "le génie de l'art est dans la simplicité".
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This is a sensitive translation, with an excellent and wise introduction by Richard Pevear, one of the two translators, who is not afraid to peer beyond the wilful, challenging shortcomings of the great man, Tolstoy, in his declining years.

In my view, this is a passionate and occasionally insightful polemic, many years in the making, but profoundly flawed.

Tolstoy has a good point - I think - when he says that art is a means of communicating feeling: '"Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs." However, he drastically narrows what he considers as art within this broad category by saying that it must be concerned with elevating the 'good' (which he fails to define). This leads Tolstoy to condemn Dante, Shakespeare, Bach (bar one violin aria) and Beethoven, amongst others, while praising the most sentimental and moralistic works of Schiller, Victor Hugo, Dickens, George Eliot and Harriet Beecher-Stowe. But what he really approves are folk tales and ancient sacred religious works (such as the Bible and the Buddha's sutras).

He castigates art as beauty, which he says lowers it to mere taste or pleasure - especially the pleasure of the upper classes, for whom most art is produced. He deplores what he sees as the waste of the time and talent of hundreds of thousands of 'artists' and artisans, toiling to produce 'art' for the upper classes, paid for by the despised labour of the common man - epitomised by his back-stage visit to an unnamed Romantic-Classical opera, where he sees an ordinary working man looking dazed and out-of-place in a temple of falsehood.
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Ok, so this is a bit of classic... but very much in the sense of something one might read purely for its historical interest. Tolstoy's own conception of art as the honest work of conveying information is woefully inadequate, but the book is worth reading just for his vitriolic (verging on manic) dislike of the music of Wagner.
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