Can a “work of art in itself” exist as such? Are any moral criteria relevant to evaluation of art? Are artist’s intentions of any importance for such an evaluation? Is true art an artist’s way of making sense of the world? All these questions have been the subject of heated debates among artists, art critics and philosophers following the publication of Tolstoy’s What is Art? However, it is necessary to keep in mind that the complex task of distinguishing between art and non-art on the one hand and worthy and unworthy art on the other has been a preoccupation of great thinkers since time immemorial.
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The aim of this essay is to critically assess the argument Tolstoy puts forward in this work, as epitomized in the following quote: “Art 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 as also experience them.” The essay will build on Collingwood’s (1989) and Dewey’s (1934) views of art as expression in order to point out strengths and weaknesses of Tolstoy’s view by raising points of comparison and contrast.
While Tolstoy’s view of art might appear rather unconventional and be indeed open to criticism, it is shortsighted to dismiss it as an effort to invent universal truths by a self-educated man, as Turgenev has haughtily commented. Tolstoy offers his own vision on the role of an artist in society and the true nature of art.
At the same time, the major objection to Tolstoy’s theory by both Collingwood (1989) and Dewey (1934) seems to be related to the concepts of expression and intentionality. For Tolstoy, art is an instance of a conscious manipulation of a certain medium in order to communicate artist’s feelings to the audience, i.e. to compel the audience to experience the same feeling that the artist has experienced (Bates, 1989). Such a definition, according to Collingwood (1989), would essentially render art identical to craft, which is a logical fallacy labeled by him the technical theory of art. Craft is conceived of as “the power to produce a preconceived result by mean of consciously controlled and directed action” (Collingwood, 1989, p. 102). As we can see, this definition differs very little from what Tolstoy deems would qualify as art. Inherent for craft is the distinction between means and ends as well as between planning and execution. On the contrary, a true artist, in Collingwood’s (1989) view, cannot conceive beforehand the final form of the artifact he or she is creating. Thus, the final form of an artwork is always incidental; its direction can be altered with a significant bearing on the end result at any stage of the creation process, as opposed to the production process. This is due to the fact that art is a way of expressing artist’s emotions, while craft is a directed conscious activity having certain aims and employing certain means to achieve it.
The notion of expression has received significant attention in both Collingwood’s (1989) and Dewey’s (1934) work. The closest the latter gets to a definition of art is saying that a true artist selects and organizes “an external subject matter with a view to…an expression” (p. 86). In a slightly different elaboration of the concept, Collingwood’s (1989) points to the fact that art is primarily an internal dialogue of an artist, an attempt to make sense of his or her emotions through expressing them. Provided that, “expression of emotion, simply as expression, is not addressed to any particular audience. It is addressed primarily to the speaker himself, and secondarily to any one who can understand” (Collingwood, 1989, p. 113). Here we can see that both Collingwood’s (1989) and Dewey’s (1934) theories differ significantly from that of Tolstoy, who believes that art is a process of conscious transmittance of artist’s emotions to a certain audience.
Expression should be carefully differentiated from description on the one hand and betrayal on the other. Collingwood (1989) observes that description generalizes, while expression individualizes. Dewey (1934) suggests a helpful analogy of a signboard: it might point to a city, yet a traveler would have to go there him- or herself in order to experience it; the signboard “does not in any way supply experience of that city even in a vicarious way” (p. 84). An artistic depiction of that city, on the other hand, whether in a poetic or pictorial form, offers such an experience, although mediated by the artist’s own perception of that city. Collingwood (1989), Dewey (1934) and Tolstoy all seem to agree on the point that such concepts as beauty or representativeness, and perhaps even subject matter, are irrelevant to evaluation of art; it is only artist’s emotion in the case of Collingwood (1989) and Dewey (1934) and intention in the case of Tolstoy that matter.
Coming back to the difference between expression and description, when an artist wants to express anger, it is a very particular instance of anger being expressed rather than a general characteristic of anger as a human emotion. Thus, art proper always expresses local, situational meanings. Moreover, artistic expression should be seen as distinct from betrayal or mere discharge of one’s emotions. Dewey (1934) writes that “conversion of an act of immediate discharge into one of expression depends upon existence of conditions that impede direct manifestation and that switch it into a channel where it is coordinated with other impulsions” (p. 97). Bates’ (1989) reference to Wordsworthian notion of “recollected in tranquility” (p. 66) can be helpful for understanding the difference between discharge and expression of emotion.
It is furthermore necessary to point out that if an artist decides to express a particular emotion (this rather than that emotion), it can no longer be called art proper, since the elements of planning and intentionality are present. As Collingwood (1989) writes, “[a]ny kind of selection, any decision to express this emotion and not that, is inartistic not in the sense that it damages the perfect sincerity which distinguishes good art from bad, but in the sense that it represents a further process of non-artistic kind, carried out when the work of expression proper is already complete” (p. 115). In Dewey’s (1934) terms, craft would always have intent, while art is an immediate realization of intent. He writes that an artist who “desires to communicate a special message…thereby tends to limit the expressiveness of his work to others – whether he wishes to communicate a moral lesson or a sense of his own cleverness” (p. 104). Tolstoy’s definition does not include either expression or expressiveness as a necessary characteristic of art, therefore his work has come in for so much criticism.
The major difference between Collingwood’s (1989) and Dewey’s (1934) theories lies in the concept of expressiveness advanced by the latter. While Collingwood (1989) believes that spectators are mere bystanders in the process of artist’s discovery of his or her own emotions, the ability of art to communicate feelings is explored by Dewey in some depth (1934). The ability of an artifact to communicate is what he calls expressiveness. He deems that expressiveness is a necessary prerequisite of an object regarded as a work of art. On this issue Dewey (1934) is much closer to Tolstoy than Collingwood (1989). Yet the point of departure is that Dewey does not regard communication as artist’s intent but rather as an inevitable consequence of artistic expression. In his view, artists should not try to establish a dialogue with potential spectators: “[i]ndifference to response of the immediate audience is a necessary trait of all artists that have something new to say” (p. 104). At the same time, true, expressive art by definition implies that other people will be moved by it, maybe only in the distant future, and it will compel them to experience emotions the artist once lived through and decided to explore and express trough the chosen medium.—————————————————————————–
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