What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy (1896) reviewed

As was mentioned in the previous post on Shakespeare, Tolstoy developed concrete ideas about what he wanted from art. It is apparent that these were linked to his particular blend of Christian anarchism. However, the criteria by which he judged art in his later years were bold and may be of considerable interest to someone who is neither anarchist nor Christian.

For Tolstoy, great art had to have an “individuality of…feeling.” In addition, it had to be as clear as possible. Furthermore, it needed to embrace sincerity. According to Tolstoy, sincerity was the criterion which is decisive.

Judging work on its sincerity is not without significant problems. Tolstoy was content with “peasant art” and was scornful of “upper-class” efforts. However, a peasant may be insincere, while an affluent individual could express themselves honestly. Moreover, realist art might be untruthful, while abstract art can be sincere. With regard to abstraction, it must be remembered that Tolstoy devised his criteria in a particular historical context. It seemingly remains difficult to assess art without mentioning specific examples of it.

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