What is Art?

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(1828 - 1910) ~ Father of Christian Anarchism : In 1861, during the second of his European tours, Tolstoy met with Proudhon, with whom he exchanged ideas. Inspired by the encounter, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana to found thirteen schools that were the first attempt to implement a practical model of libertarian education. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "Only by recognizing the land as just such an article of common possession as the sun and air will you be able, without bias and justly, to establish the ownership of land among all men, according to any of the existing projects or according to some new project composed or chosen by you in common." (From : "To the Working People," by Leo Tolstoy, Yasnaya P....)
• "People who take part in Government, or work under its direction, may deceive themselves or their sympathizers by making a show of struggling; but those against whom they struggle (the Government) know quite well, by the strength of the resistance experienced, that these people are not really pulling, but are only pretending to." (From : "A Letter to Russian Liberals," by Leo Tolstoy, Au....)
• "The Government and all those of the upper classes near the Government who live by other people's work, need some means of dominating the workers, and find this means in the control of the army. Defense against foreign enemies is only an excuse. The German Government frightens its subjects about the Russians and the French; the French Government, frightens its people about the Germans; the Russian Government frightens its people about the French and the Germans; and that is the way with all Governments. But neither Germans nor Russians nor Frenchmen desire to fight their neighbors or other people; but, living in peace, they dread war more than anything else in the world." (From : "Letter to a Non-Commissioned Officer," by Leo Tol....)

(1858 - 1938)
Aylmer Maude and Louise Maude were English translators of Leo Tolstoy's works, and Aylmer Maude also wrote his friend Tolstoy's biography, The Life of Tolstoy. After living many years in Russia the Maudes spent the rest of their life in England translating Tolstoy's writing and promoting public interest in his work. Aylmer Maude was also involved in a number of early 20th century progressive and idealistic causes. Aylmer Maude was born in Ipswich, the son of a Church of England clergyman, Reverend F.H. Maude, and his wife Lucy, who came from a Quaker background. The family lived near the newly built Holy Trinity Church where Rev. Maude's preaching helped draw a large congregation. A few of the vicar's earlier sermons were published with stirring titles like Nineveh: A Warning to England!, but later he moved from Evangelical Anglicanism towards the Anglo-Catholic Church Union. After boarding at Christ's Hospital from 1868 to 1874, Aylmer went to study at the... (From : Wikipedia.org.)


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What thoughtful man has not been perplexed by problems relating to art? An estimable and charming Russian lady I knew, felt the charm of the music and ritual of the services of the Russo-Greek Church so strongly that she wished the peasants, in whom she was interested, to retain their blind faith, though she herself disbelieved the church doctrines. “Their lives are so poor and bare—they have so little art, so little poetry and color in their lives—let them at least enjoy what they have; it would be cruel to undeceive them,” said she. A false and antiquated view of life is supported by means of art, and is inseparably linked to some manifestations of art which we enjoy and prize. If the false view of life be destroyed this art will cease to appear valuable. Is it best to screen the error for the sake of preserving the art? Or should the art be sacrificed for the sake of truthfulness? Again and again in history a do... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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This book of mine, “What is Art?” appears now for the first time in its true form. More than one edition has already been issued in Russia, but in each case it has been so mutilated by the “Censor,” that I request all who are interested in my views on art only to judge of them by the work in its present shape. The causes which led to the publication of the book—with my name attached to it—in a mutilated form, were the following:—In accordance with a decision I arrived at long ago,—not to submit my writings to the “Censorship” (which I consider to be an immoral and irrational institution), but to print them only in the shape in which they were written,—I intended not to attempt to print this work in Russia. However, my good acquaintance Professor Grote, editor of a Moscow psychological magazine, having heard of the contents of my work, asked me to print it in his magazine, and promised me that he would... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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Introduction v Author’s Preface xxxiii CHAPTER I Time and labor spent on art—Lives stunted in its service—Morality sacrificed to and anger justified by art—The rehearsal of an opera described 1 CHAPTER II Does art compensate for so much evil?—What is art?—Confusion of opinions—Is it “that which produces beauty”?—The word “beauty” in Russian—Chaos in æsthetics 9 CHAPTER III Summary of various æsthetic theories and definitions, from Baumgarten to to-day 20 CHAPTER IV Definitions of art founded on beauty—Taste not definable—A clear definition needed to enable us to recognize works of art 38 CHAPTER V Definitions not founded on beauty—Tolstoy’s definition—The extent and necessity of art&m... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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Appendix I 215 Appendix II 218 Appendix III 226 Appendix IV 232... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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Take up any one of our ordinary newspapers, and you will find a part devoted to the theater and music. In almost every number you will find a description of some art exhibition, or of some particular picture, and you will always find reviews of new works of art that have appeared, of volumes of poems, of short stories, or of novels. Promptly, and in detail, as soon as it has occurred, an account is published of how such and such an actress or actor played this or that rôle in such and such a drama, comedy, or opera; and of the merits of the performance, as well as of the contents of the new drama, comedy, or opera, with its defects and merits. With as much care and detail, or even more, we are told how such and such an artist has sung a certain piece, or has played it on the piano or violin, and what were the merits and defects of the piece and of the performance. In every large town there is sure to be at least one, if not more than one, exhibition o... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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For the production of every ballet, circus, opera, operetta, exhibition, picture, concert, or printed book, the intense and unwilling labor of thousands and thousands of people is needed at what is often harmful and humiliating work. It were well if artists made all they require for themselves, but, as it is, they all need the help of workmen, not only to produce art, but also for their own usually luxurious maintenance. And, one way or other, they get it; either through payments from rich people, or through subsidies given by Government (in Russia, for instance, in grants of millions of rubles to theaters, conservatoires and academies). This money is collected from the people, some of whom have to sell their only cow to pay the tax, and who never get those æsthetic pleasures which art gives. It was all very well for a Greek or Roman artist, or even for a Russian artist of the first half of our century (when there were still slaves, and it was conside... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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I begin with the founder of æsthetics, Baumgarten (1714-1762). According to Baumgarten, the object of logical knowledge is Truth, the object of æsthetic (i.e. sensuous) knowledge is Beauty. Beauty is the Perfect (the Absolute), recognized through the senses; Truth is the Perfect perceived through reason; Goodness is the Perfect reached by moral will. Beauty is defined by Baumgarten as a correspondence, i.e. an order of the parts in their mutual relations to each other and in their relation to the whole. The aim of beauty itself is to please and excite a desire, “Wohlgefallen und Erregung eines Verlangens.” (A position precisely the opposite of Kant’s definition of the nature and sign of beauty.) With reference to the manifestations of beauty, Baumgarten considers that the highest embodiment of beauty is seen by us in nature, and he therefore thinks that the hig... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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To what do these definitions of beauty amount? Not reckoning the thoroughly inaccurate definitions of beauty which fail to cover the conception of art, and which suppose beauty to consist either in utility, or in adjustment to a purpose, or in symmetry, or in order, or in proportion, or in smoothness, or in harmony of the parts, or in unity amid variety, or in various combinations of these,—not reckoning these unsatisfactory attempts at objective definition, all the æsthetic definitions of beauty lead to two fundamental conceptions. The first is that beauty is something having an independent existence (existing in itself), that it is one of the manifestations of the absolutely Perfect, of the Idea, of the Spirit, of Will, or of God; the other is that beauty is a kind of pleasure received by us, not having personal advantage for its object. The first of these definitions was accepted by Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and the philosophizi... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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What is art, if we put aside the conception of beauty, which confuses the whole matter? The latest and most comprehensible definitions of art, apart from the conception of beauty, are the following:—(1 a) Art is an activity arising even in the animal kingdom, and springing from sexual desire and the propensity to play (Schiller, Darwin, Spencer), and (1 b) accompanied by a pleasurable excitement of the nervous system (Grant Allen). This is the physiological-evolutionary definition. Art is the external manifestation, by means of lines, colors, movements, sounds, or words, of emotions felt by man (Véron). This is the experimental definition. According to the very latest definition (Sully), Art is “the production of some permanent object, or passing action, which is fitted not only to supply an active enjoyment to the producer, but to convey a pleasurable impression to a number of spectators or listeners, quite apart from any pe... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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But how could it happen that that very art, which in ancient times was merely tolerated (if tolerated at all), should have come, in our times, to be invariably considered a good thing if only it affords pleasure? It has resulted from the following causes. The estimation of the value of art (i.e. of the feelings it transmits) depends on men’s perception of the meaning of life; depends on what they consider to be the good and the evil of life. And what is good and what is evil is defined by what are termed religions. Humanity unceasingly moves forward from a lower, more partial, and obscure understanding of life, to one more general and more lucid. And in this, as in every movement, there are leaders,—those who have understood the meaning of life more clearly than others,—and of these advanced men there is always one who has, in his words and by his life, expressed this meaning more clearly, accessibly, and strongly than oth... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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From the time that people of the upper classes lost faith in Church Christianity, beauty (i.e. the pleasure received from art) became their standard of good and bad art. And, in accordance with that view, an æsthetic theory naturally sprang up among those upper classes justifying such a conception,—a theory according to which the aim of art is to exhibit beauty. The partisans of this æsthetic theory, in confirmation of its truth, affirmed that it was no invention of their own, but that it existed in the nature of things, and was recognized even by the ancient Greeks. But this assertion was quite arbitrary, and has no foundation other than the fact that among the ancient Greeks, in consequence of the low grade of their moral ideal (as compared with the Christian), their conception of the good, τὸ ἀγαθόν, was not yet sharply divided from their conception of the beautiful, τὸ κα&la... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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But if art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen, how could it be that humanity for a certain rather considerable period of its existence (from the time people ceased to believe in Church doctrine down to the present day) should exist without this important activity, and, instead of it, should put up with an insignificant artistic activity only affording pleasure? In order to answer this question, it is necessary, first of all, to correct the current error people make in attributing to our art the significance of true, universal art. We are so accustomed, not only naïvely to consider the Circassian family the best stock of people, but also the Anglo-Saxon race the best race if we are Englishmen or Americans, or the Teutonic if we are Germans, or the Gallo-Latin if we are French, or the Slavonic if we are Russians, that when speaking of our own art we feel fully con... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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The unbelief of the upper classes of the European world had this effect, that instead of an artistic activity aiming at transmitting the highest feelings to which humanity has attained,—those flowing from religious perception,—we have an activity which aims at affording the greatest enjoyment to a certain class of society. And of all the immense domain of art, that part has been fenced off, and is alone called art, which affords enjoyment to the people of this particular circle. Apart from the moral effects on European society of such a selection from the whole sphere of art of what did not deserve such a valuation, and the acknowledgment of it as important art, this perversion of art has weakened art itself, and well-nigh destroyed it. The first great result was that art was deprived of the infinite, varied, and profound religious subject-matter proper to it. The second result was that having only a small circle of people in view, it lost its b... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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In consequence of their unbelief the art of the upper classes became poor in subject-matter. But besides that, becoming continually more and more exclusive, it became at the same time continually more and more involved, affected, and obscure. When a universal artist (such as were some of the Grecian artists or the Jewish prophets) composed his work, he naturally strove to say what he had to say in such a manner that his production should be intelligible to all men. But when an artist composed for a small circle of people placed in exceptional conditions, or even for a single individual and his courtiers,—for popes, cardinals, kings, dukes, queens, or for a king’s mistress,—he naturally only aimed at influencing these people, who were well known to him, and lived in exceptional conditions familiar to him. And this was an easier task, and the artist was involuntarily drawn to express himself by allusions comprehensible only to the initiated,... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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Becoming ever poorer and poorer in subject-matter and more and more unintelligible in form, the art of the upper classes, in its latest productions, has even lost all the characteristics of art, and has been replaced by imitations of art. Not only has upper-class art, in consequence of its separation from universal art, become poor in subject-matter and bad in form, i.e. ever more and more unintelligible, it has, in course of time, ceased even to be art at all, and has been replaced by counterfeits. This has resulted from the following causes. Universal art arises only when some one of the people, having experienced a strong emotion, feels the necessity of transmitting it to others. The art of the rich classes, on the other hand, arises not from the artist’s inner impulse, but chiefly because people of the upper classes demand amusement and pay well for it. They demand from art the transmission of feelings that please them, and this demand arti... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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In our society three conditions co-operate to cause the production of objects of counterfeit art. They are— the considerable remuneration of artists for their productions and the professionalization of artists which this has produced, art criticism, and schools of art. While art was as yet undivided, and only religious art was valued and rewarded while indiscriminate art was left unrewarded, there were no counterfeits of art, or, if any existed, being exposed to the criticism of the whole people, they quickly disappeared. But as soon as that division occurred, and the upper classes acclaimed every kind of art as good if only it afforded them pleasure, and began to reward such art more highly than any other social activity, immediately a large number of people devoted themselves to this activity, and art assumed quite a different character and became a profession. And as soon as this occurred, the chief and most precious quality of... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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To what an extent people of our circle and time have lost the capacity to receive real art, and have become accustomed to accept as art things that have nothing in common with it, is best seen from the works of Richard Wagner, which have latterly come to be more and more esteemed, not only by the Germans but also by the French and the English, as the very highest art, revealing new horizons to us. The peculiarity of Wagner’s music, as is known, consists in this, that he considered that music should serve poetry, expressing all the shades of a poetical work. The union of the drama with music, devised in the fifteenth century in Italy for the revival of what they imagined to have been the ancient Greek drama with music, is an artificial form which had, and has, success only among the upper classes, and that only when gifted composers, such as Mozart, Weber, Rossini, and others, drawing inspiration from a dramatic subject, yielded freely to the... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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I know that most men—not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical or philosophic problems—can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty—conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives. And therefore I have little hope that what I adduce as to the perversion of art and taste in our society will be accepted or even seriously considered. Nevertheless, I must state fully the inevitable conclusion to which my investigation into the question of art has brought me. This investigation has brought me to the conviction that almost all that our society considers to be art, good art, and the whole of art, far from being real and good art, and the whole of art, is not even ar... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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Art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost. In order to be able to speak about the art of our society, it is, therefore, first of all necessary to distinguish art from counterfeit art. There is one indubitable indication distinguishing real art from its counterfeit, namely, the infectiousness of art. If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint, on reading, hearing, or seeing another man’s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art. And however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy, and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with ot... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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How in art are we to decide what is good and what is bad in subject-matter? Art, like speech, is a means of communication, and therefore of progress, i.e. of the movement of humanity forward towards perfection. Speech renders accessible to men of the latest generations all the knowledge discovered by the experience and reflection, both of preceding generations and of the best and foremost men of their own times; art renders accessible to men of the latest generations all the feelings experienced by their predecessors, and those also which are being felt by their best and foremost contemporaries. And as the evolution of knowledge proceeds by truer and more necessary knowledge dislodging and replacing what is mistaken and unnecessary, so the evolution of feeling proceeds through art,—feelings less kind and less needful for the well-being of mankind are replaced by others kinder and more needful for that end. That is the purpose of art. And, spea... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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Art is one of two organs of human progress. By words man interchanges thoughts, by the forms of art he interchanges feelings, and this with all men, not only of the present time, but also of the past and the future. It is natural to human beings to employ both these organs of intercommunication, and therefore the perversion of either of them must cause evil results to the society in which it occurs. And these results will be of two kinds: first, the absence, in that society, of the work which should be performed by the organ; and secondly, the harmful activity of the perverted organ. And just these results have shown themselves in our society. The organ of art has been perverted, and therefore the upper classes of society have, to a great extent, been deprived of the work that it should have performed. The diffusion in our society of enormous quantities of, on the one hand, those counterfeits of art which only serve to amuse and corrupt people, and, on the other ha... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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The cause of the lie into which the art of our society has fallen was that people of the upper classes, having ceased to believe in the Church teaching (called Christian), did not resolve to accept true Christian teaching in its real and fundamental principles of sonship to God and brotherhood to man, but continued to live on without any belief, endeavoring to make up for the absence of belief—some by hypocrisy, pretending still to believe in the nonsense of the Church creeds; others by boldly asserting their disbelief; others by refined agnosticism; and others, again, by returning to the Greek worship of beauty, proclaiming egotism to be right, and elevating it to the rank of a religious doctrine. The cause of the malady was the non-acceptance of Christ’s teaching in its real, i.e. its full, meaning. And the only cure for the illness lies in acknowledging that teaching in its full meaning. And such acknowledgment in our time is not only... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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People talk of the art of the future, meaning by “art of the future” some especially refined, new art, which, as they imagine, will be developed out of that exclusive art of one class which is now considered the highest art. But no such new art of the future can or will be found. Our exclusive art, that of the upper classes of Christendom, has found its way into a blind alley. The direction in which it has been going leads nowhere. Having once let go of that which is most essential for art (namely, the guidance given by religious perception), that art has become ever more and more exclusive, and therefore ever more and more perverted, until, finally, it has come to nothing. The art of the future, that which is really coming, will not be a development of present-day art, but will arise on completely other and new foundations, having nothing in common with those by which our present art of the upper classes is guided. Art of the future, that is to... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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I have accomplished, to the best of my ability, this work which has occupied me for 15 years, on a subject near to me—that of art. By saying that this subject has occupied me for 15 years, I do not mean that I have been writing this book 15 years, but only that I began to write on art 15 years ago, thinking that when once I undertook the task I should be able to accomplish it without a break. It proved, however, that my views on the matter then were so far from clear that I could not arrange them in a way that satisfied me. From that time I have never ceased to think on the subject, and I have recommenced to write on it 6 or 7 times; but each time, after writing a considerable part of it, I have found myself unable to bring the work to a satisfactory conclusion, and have had to put it aside. Now I have finished it; and however badly I may have performed the task, my hope is that my fundamental thought as to the false direction the art of our society has taken... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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This is the first page of Mallarmé’s book Divagations:— LE PHÉNOMÈNE FUTUR. Un ciel pâle, sur le monde qui finit de décrépitude, va peut-être partir avec les nuages: les lambeaux de la pourpre usée des couchants déteignent dans une rivière dormant à l’horizon submergé de rayons et d’eau. Les arbres s’ennuient, et, sous leur feuillage blanchi (de la poussière du temps plutôt que celle des chemins) monte la maison en toile de Montreur de choses Passées: maint réverbère attend le crépuscule et ravive les visages d’une malheureuse foule, vaincue par la maladie immortelle et le péché des siècles, d’hommes près de leurs chétives complices enceintes des fruits misérables avec lesquels périra la terre. Dans le silence inquiet de tous les yeux s... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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No. 1. The following verses are by Vielé-Griffin, from page 28 of a volume of his Poems:— OISEAU BLEU COULEUR DU TEMPS. 1. Sait-tu l’oubli D’un vain doux rêve, Oiseau moqueur De la forêt? Le jor pâlit, La nuit se lève, Et dans mon cœur L’omber a pleuré; 2. O chante-moi Ta folle gamme, Car j’ai dormi C... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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These are the contents of The Nibelung’s Ring:— The first part tells that the nymphs, the daughters of the Rhine, for some reason guard gold in the Rhine, and sing: Weia, Waga, Woge du Welle, Walle zur Wiege, Wagalaweia, Wallala, Weiala, Weia, and so forth. These singing nymphs are pursued by a gnome (a nibelung) who desires to seize them. The gnome cannot catch any of them. Then the nymphs guarding the gold tell the gnome just what they ought to keep secret, namely, that whoever renounces love will be able to steal the gold they are guarding. And the gnome renounces love, and steals the gold. This ends the first scene. In the second scene a god and a goddess lie in a field in sight of a castle which giants have built for them. Presently they wake up and are pleased with the castle, and they relate that in payment for this work they must give the goddess Freia to the giants. The giants come for their pay. But the god Wo... (From : Gutenberg.org.)

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BAUDELAIRE’S “FLOWERS OF EVIL.” No. XXIV. I adore thee as much as the vaults of night, O vase full of grief, taciturnity great, And I love thee the more because of thy flight. It seemeth, my night’s beautifier, that you Still heap up those leagues—yes! ironically heap!— That divide from my arms the immensity blue. I advance to attack, I climb to assault, Like a choir of young worms at a corpse in the vault; Thy coldness, oh cruel, implacable beast! Yet heightens thy beauty, on which my eyes feast! BAU... (From : Gutenberg.org.)


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