What Is Art?

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What Is Art? (Russian: Что такое искусство? Chto takoye iskusstvo?; 1897) is a book-length essay by Leo Tolstoy in which he introduces his infection theory of art. The essay is marked by a highly moralistic,[1] even curmudgeonly,[2] tone, disparaging many of the most highly regarded writers and painters of Western culture[3] and calling for a reform of cultural principles founded on what the author refers to as "religious perception."[4]

Tolstoy contends that much of European art since the Renaissance, and especially that of his own time (including the works of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Baudelaire, and Zola, among many others), is not "true" art but "counterfeit" art. Counterfeit art is marked by being mannered, imitative, sensationalist, and overly intellectual.[5] For Tolstoy, these are the characteristics of most "upper class" art, which he also derides as "perverse," "decadent," and obsessed with "erotic mania."[6] This crisis in Western culture is traced to the rejection of religion by the "ruling class," which this class has replaced with the concept of beauty.[7] Tolstoy says that this new conception of art based on beauty (or "personal enjoyment" or "pleasure") has resulted in manipulative, calculating, and, above all, "insincere"[8] works created for the "luxurious" lifestyle[9] of the upper class. These works, moreover, are largely produced at the expense of the laboring class, a recurring theme in the essay.

"Art," Tolstoy states, "is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them."[10] Upper class art, Tolstoy maintains, is "usually hindered by superfluous details,"[11] which can compromise its capacity to infect.[12] Tolstoy believes it is the artwork of the laboring, or "peasant," class that is "always" sincere and which is most likely to have an infectious effect on the observer.[13] Art is also contrasted with intellectual pursuits, like trigonometry, which require a "sequence of knowledge" to be comprehended.[14] "Art," he says, "is the transmission of feelings flowing from man's religious perception," which should be comprehensible to all.[15][16][17][18]


  1. ^ Jahn, Gary R. (Autumn, 1975). "The Aesthetic Theory of Leo Tolstoy's 'What Is Art?'". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34 (1): 59. 
  2. ^ Emery, Jacob (October, 2011). "Art Is Inoculation: The Infectious Imagination of Leo Tolstoy". The Russian Review (70): 627. 
  3. ^ Emerson, Caryl (2002). Orwin, Donna Tussing, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 237. ISBN 0-521-79271-1. 
  4. ^ Gershkovich, Tatyana (Jan., 2013). "Infecting, Simulating, Judging: Tolstoy’s Search for an Aesthetic Standard". Journal of the History of Ideas 74 (1): 133–4. 
  5. ^ Emery, p. 634.
  6. ^ Emerson, pp. 239-241.
  7. ^ Tolstoy, Leo (1897 (1899)). What is Art? (Aylmer Maude translation ed.). New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. pp. 51–52. 
  8. ^ Gershkovich, p. 131.
  9. ^ Tolstoy, p. 8.
  10. ^ Tolstoy, p. 43.
  11. ^ Tolstoy, p. 97.
  12. ^ Emerson, p. 240.
  13. ^ Tolstoy, p. 134.
  14. ^ Tolstoy, p. 89.
  15. ^ Tolstoy, pp. 89-90.
  16. ^ Gershkovich, p. 125.
  17. ^ Emery, p. 627.
  18. ^ Emerson, p. 245.

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