“When my fist clenches, crack it open,
before I use it and lose my cool...”
— The Who —
1.0 Intro: WHAT IS ART?
1.1 THE PEDESTRIAN MEETS THE ADVERTISEMENT
In February of 2004, if a pedestrian were walking through New York’s Chelsea art district, s/he would have encountered a billboard that read: “‘A good piece of art can be understood by anyone.’ Patrick Mimran.” This is one of many billboards with similar slogans that make up Patrick Mimran’s Chelsea Billboard Project (still on view as of 2008). Though taking the form of statements, the billboards and slogans pose many questions to pedestrians: in this case, is this a piece of art or an advertisement? If it is art, is it good art or bad? If it is an advertisement, what is it selling?
First we pedestrians divide the piece into its two parts: the aphorism/slogan and the logo/signature. The aphorism/slogan, although it gives the impression of certainty, is ambiguous. On the one hand, it could express the sentiment that equates ‘good art’ with universal comprehensibility. It sets up the conditional, “if this art is universally comprehensible, then it is good art.” We might extrapolate from this that ‘bad art’ would only be understood by an exclusive group. The verb form “can be” implies a high level of certainty of the possibility. On the other hand, if we emphasize “can be” to mean “have the ability to,” then the aphorism/slogan might read that good art has the potential to be understood by anyone — if at first we don’t understand it, we can give it time, research, or work, and we may eventually understand it. We may never understand it, but, because it is good art, we will have to try harder. These two readings oppose each other. The first reading gives us a test of mathematical certainty; the second offers no help whatsoever in evaluating art.
The first reading discourages understanding, education, and literacy beyond what we all already know and encourages rejecting that which we don’t understand. This interpretation advertises that things remain static. It sells to consumers the idea, “if you don’t get it, it is not good art”. And it sells to producers the notion that they should make art that will be universally understood. This reading of the aphorism/slogan advertises a definition of entertainment and a product of Pop culture – its aim is to give people what they know and want.
The second reading encourages understanding, education, and literacy beyond what we all already know. It sells curiosity to the consumer while it sells encouragement to the producer to create something to inspire curiosity. This reading of the aphorism/slogan advertises a definition of art (as opposed to entertainment) and a product of what is called, for lack of a better parallel, High culture – its aim is to give people what they don’t know and — for that reason alone — don’t want.1
In order to consider the whole as a piece of art, I also have to consider the second component. What does the logo/signature ‘Patrick Mimran’ mean to consumers? Convention of viewing artworks tells us to recognize this as a signature and thus render it invisible. But due to its equal prominence on the board and the use of the same font and size we have to recognize it as integral to the piece. Does it trademark the idea contained in the aphorism/slogan? Is ‘Patrick Mimran’ the name of a corporation or is he a candidate up for election?
Since the aphorism/slogan is ambiguous and can be read in two opposing ways, what exactly does the logo/signature secure? From the evidence in the press release, the work and the artist are conscious of the ambiguity — Mimran is a self-proclaimed provocateur. Rather than the name trademarking the position the aphorism/slogan takes, or the issues involved, it trademarks only the initiation of a debate. The corporation takes an authoritative position outside of the issues. By advertising himself, Mimran makes his “art” a commercial enterprise that markets the logo/signature and places little importance on the issues contained in the aphorism/slogan. The site-specificity of this project reinforces the conclusion that the billboards serve as advertisements for himself: they are placed in the center of Chelsea where the art world requires the least provocation since the very presence of an art-pedestrian there presupposes that s/he will spend the day evaluating works of art as either good or bad. As an advertisement for himself, what remains then is only the dim proposition that he is a candidate hoping to be nominated to the position of artist.
So then, is this good art? Is it art at all? In my first analysis, which takes the aphorism/slogan in isolation, if I have to ask myself this question, then I must conclude by its own pronouncement that it is not good art because I don’t understand it. In my second analysis, which takes the aphorism/slogan and logo/signature as a unit, since I have done the work to understand the piece, and I have come to the conclusion that instead of being art the billboard project is an advertisement for something and someone to be nominated into the world of art, then I conclude this to be neither good art nor art because the work and the artist take the nomination more seriously than the issues of art. I cast my vote to the advertiser. Even though Patrick Mimran claims to embrace the basic modern idea of ambiguity, is the contradiction that he set out to make a good piece of art but succeeded only in making a bad advertisement outside of his frame of tolerance?
1.2 SORTING THE SACK
“Until recently, the history of art...has had more in common with causerie than with scholarship... [It] has been...slipshod with respect to scholarly terminology...It has employed the current vocabulary without screening the words critically, without defining them precisely, and without considering the multiplicity of their meanings.” [Jakobson, 38]
Although Roman Jakobson was speaking of “Realism” when he said that theoreticians and historians of art act “as if the term were a bottomless sack into which everything and anything could be conveniently hidden away,” [Ibid, 45] we can just as easily see “art” in this way. One sack contains ceramics and Conceptual art, culinary arts and Cubism, graphic design and Pop Art, interior design and Installation Art, architecture, literature, flower arranging, and, recently, motorcycles, make-up, and Star Wars.2 It also contains the names Jorge Luis Borges and J. K. Rowling; Willem DeKooning and Leroy Neiman; Patti Smith and Britney Spears.
Deciding what to put in the sack and what not to can be handled in several ways. One way would be to come up with a philosophical definition that would separate art from non-art with mathematical precision. The subject of this essay is the way in which Leo Tolstoy attempted this method in What is Art?. Another way would be to judge each example internally, without regard for a global, timeless, and final definition. The Russian Formalists tried this by calling the Formalist method a “special scientific discipline concerned with literature as a specific system of facts.”[Èjxenbaum, 4] Jakobson took another stab at sorting the contents in the sack by distinguishing between scholarship and causerie. Scholars today tend to stick with the dualisms High Culture and Pop or Art and Entertainment. But even these don’t hold up when Matthew Barney’s films are entertaining and artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Takashi Murakami use Pop imagery as High Culture. While dualisms offer assistance in comparing two cases according to a specific criterion, multiple axes of discourse run through A and B such that mathematic equations like A ≠ B no longer function.
Umberto Eco, a writer who consciously muddles up these dualisms, once defended his novel The Island of the Day Before from a critic who called it masturbatory by saying, “I had to write a novel, whose aim — let me say this to shame all aesthetes and in full respect of the laws of the genre, as they were shaped from the time of the Hellenistic novel till today, not to mention Aristotle’s Poetics — is to give pleasure.” [Eco, “How…,” 296]. Initially, as an artist and a novelist I reject this claim by making the distinction that it is the aim not of art but of entertainment to give pleasure. Art may, as a consequence, give pleasure, but its aims are far more diverse.3
At the same time, while entertainment is often considered candy for the masses, it would be false to think that the those who maintain “high culture” do not need or want to be entertained. When Arundhati Roy reads “Come September” to a crowded house at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (regarding US foreign policy and September 11th) although Bush Administration supporters may not be entertained, I, with most of the audience in attendance, am. I am entertained by the acquisition of knowledge, the possibility for action, and the risk she takes in speaking out and by the exercise of the freedom of speech. But I am not only pleased: I am also confused, angered, challenged, provoked, and motivated.
It may sound suspect to take the position that art can aim to give displeasure, but this is exactly what distinguishes it from entertainment. Edward Said said of the intellectual: “Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his/her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.”[Said, Intellectuals, 12] Art, like the acts of intellectuals, may aim to give displeasure as a means to shake presumed definitions. If the aim of entertainment is to give pleasure by giving people what they know and want, then the aim of art is the give people what they don’t know and don’t want. While this may result in giving displeasure, it also can’t be helped if some people find pleasure in this. In fact, that some people find pleasure in confrontations with displeasure, embarrassment, and the contrary should be a testament to our commitment to combat ignorance and celebrate learning. Art’s pursuit of displeasure may ultimately raise the bar of pleasure, but this is a consequence of learning and experience, it is not its aim. And if art does raise the bar of pleasure (by introducing forms of pleasure that people did not know they could want) then it simply becomes tomorrow’s entertainment, and this has no bearing on whether it is good or bad.
1.3 TOLSTOY AND THE BOOK
Leo Tolstoy in his own way aimed to give displeasure when he suggested that it would be better to destroy all art (including presumably his own) than to allow a few corrupt examples to exist. Although censorial statements like this, coming from intellectuals or artists, clearly express something that we don’t want, they just as clearly express sentiments that we know. Tolstoy’s attempt to access a higher pleasure through this portal of displeasure stemmed from a deluded version of pleasure founded in a specific religious doctrine. In Tolstoy’s time (as still in ours) faith and theology in the face of encroaching modernism were clearly being defined as a branch of human ignorance.[Harris, 173]
As Sam Harris in The End of Faith explains, in the early 19th century the Vatican urged Catholic scholars to adopt the techniques of modern criticism to combat unorthodox interpretations of the Bible by modern commentators. The hope was that meticulous study of the Bible could become a tool compatible with church doctrine. When Pope Leo XIII found in 1893 that this modernist movement led instead to some of the finest scholars becoming skeptical of the literal truth of scripture, he emphatically stated that the sacred and canonical texts were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that Divine inspiration excludes error, and therefore that God and the Supreme Truth were incapable of teaching error. This, reinforced by Pope Pius X’s declaration in 1907 that modernism was heresy, swiftly put a stop to critical studies of the Bible. He punished those critics with excommunication and put all critical studies – including those by Descartes, Montaigne, Locke, Swift, Voltaire, Sterne, Kant, Darwin, Diderot, etc. – on an Index of proscribed books.[Harris, 104] Leo Tolstoy wrote What is Art?, which included his recommendation for the destruction of all art, smack in the middle of this in 1898. Italy, though geographically far from Russia, found Tolstoy to be a close neighbor in belief.
Even though critics in 1898 realized that What is Art? exposed Tolstoy as a conservative with old ideas about art in a new time, we can’t help but hear him today in all sectors of the American cultural sphere: the republican senator Jesse Helms, the republican commentator Rush Limbaugh, the art critic Hilton Kramer, the artist Patrick Mimran, and the cultural sociologist Herbert Gans, as well as members of the public visiting a museum. Many views in our time and place still share striking similarities to Tolstoy’s. The first is the spirit of anti-intellectualism that dominates American life today. Anti-intellectualism encourages us to speak in a language that anyone can understand; it also affirms the position of many artists, art historians, poets, and the general public who maintain that good art must be understandable by everyone; and at the same time it encourages the gap which alienates the general public from most contemporary art. Artists as intellectuals, for their part, widen this gap as well but as a means to discourage anti-intellectualism and to encourage openness to new experiences and ideas. The aestheticization of the simulacra is another topic that Tolstoy brings up that continues to be addressed today. While this Postmodern subject is current in contemporary art (or at least was until around 2000), the values placed on it by, say, Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, on the one hand, and Tolstoy on the other, are opposed. Tolstoy’s attempt to expunge it was clearly not successful. What also connects Tolstoy to the Postmodern is the notion that everything that can be said has been said. This idea has run through medieval times to the postmodern era, and Umberto Eco, in particular, has illuminated this relationship in most of his books. Likewise, the notion that verbal expression is more lucid than visual expression, which comes up in Tolstoy as, “If it had been possible for the artist to explain in words what he wished to say, he would have said it in words,”[Tolstoy, 94] can be overheard in today’s museums and art magazines. Jacques Derrida, for his part, among others, has effectively challenged this idea. The condition that today’s art world is a market driven by critics as advertisers and art works as advertisements for artists also comes into play in Tolstoy’s criticism. And so too does our trend toward the professionalization of the arts demonstrated by the proliferation of MFA programs. If Tolstoy were alive today, he, along with some of today’s critics, would argue that art schools produce many artisans and crafts people but fewer artists.4
While we can list common issues that concerned Tolstoy that still concern us today, there are significant differences in the way Tolstoy proposed handling them and in the way our generation does. Many of these differences begin at the core from his answer to the question, What is Art?
“To call up in oneself a feeling once experienced and, having called it up, to convey it by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, images expressed in words, so that others experience the same feeling — in this consists the activity of art. Art is that human activity which consists in one man’s consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.” [Ibid, 39-40] (italics added)
The first point worth noting is that Tolstoy constructs a direct line between the producer and the consumer (author and reader, artist and viewer). From our post-author academic perspective — developed over the forty-plus year period since Roland Barthes’ and Michel Foucault’s landmark essays (and since Mallarme and the Russian Formalists before them) — the insignificance of the product or the work of art in Tolstoy’s definition is striking. It serves only as an envelop to carry a message from the producer to the consumer. Second, Tolstoy’s work-of-art-as-envelop theory carries, specifically, conscious feelings and not chance feelings or ideas grown out of, or outside of, the movements, lines, colours, sounds, images, or words. Notions like stream of consciousness or conceptual art; artists like James Joyce and John Cage, find no place in Tolstoy’s definition of art, except outside of it. Thirdly, in Tolstoy’s definition, the producer consciously inserts his/her feelings — specifically, those feelings, and not any others — into the consumer. Again, after forty-plus years of Reader-Response Criticism, this conception from our point of view overlooks the body of knowledge the reader brings to the work that generates new and multiple interpretations. Today’s Reader Theory, open semiosis, and the Richard Rortian pragmatic use of the text are the direct byproducts of the limits of Author-based theories like Tolstoy’s.
Considered more broadly, what divides Tolstoy’s view from ours – I will argue in this essay – stems from a different relationship to contradiction. In the midst of defining art and distinguishing ‘good’ art from ‘bad’, many contradictions appear in his book in spite of its theoretical program. These contradictions work against Tolstoy’s poetics and illustrate that his theory does not serve freedom, equality, or a deeper understanding of art, as he suggests, but instead didactically defends a threatened Christian morality. It is no coincidence that the books of the scripture-based religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are likewise full of contradictions. Nor is it insignificant that modernism threatened all of the above.
I might call What is Art? the last stand at the border between the old world and the modern world, or between a pre-modern poetics and a modern poetics, but I won’t because many art works constructed in our supposedly post-modern time continue to stand (stand-off) on the pre-modern side. This essay focuses on Tolstoy’s contradictions under the premise that the very thing Tolstoy was resistant to and unaware of and which ultimately prevented him from making the transition into the new world, was the poetics of contradiction that the modern period embraced. Instead of expressing a curiosity in the poetics of contradiction, which began to appear to him in Baudelaire and Verlaine, he took up arms against it while contradicting himself along the way.
It is this same resistance to and unawareness of a poetics of contradiction that prevents many in our time from crossing into the modern period, much less the post-modern one. No one today still believes that the earth is flat or is the center of the universe or even our galaxy, and no one today keeps leeches in his/her medicine cabinet. Yet many people believe that God created Adam, and then Eve from Adam’s rib, and that the whole of human existence was born from incest (despite their moral and scriptural opposition to it). They believe this on faith in spite of the scientific evidence to the contrary demonstrated by natural selection and evolution. This unnatural selection of when to believe in science and when not to demonstrates that their primary goal is not the pursuit of truth but is instead the wish to make their dreams come true. Only the religious and those with allegiance to ideas accepted on faith alone refuse to see their contradictions as an opportunity for growth. While a natural and human sense of vulnerability lies at the root of a fear of change (and a fear of death), religious and conservative positions provide suits of armor for the fearful to use to wage aggressive attacks against the new (or that which only appears so). But once the initial fear has passed, even the most extreme Y2K paranoiac (if he hasn’t killed himself) becomes adept at text messaging. Darwin’s future will resemble Galileo’s present. Just as Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Wagner had to push passed Tolstoy guarding the threshold between the pre-modern era and the modern, so too must we push passed those today who fashion themselves in the very same armor – in the end, it offers them less protection than it offers us assistance by blinding them and weighing them down.
2.0 TOLSTOY’S CONTRADICTIONS
The first and most significant of Tolstoy’s contradictions deals specifically with his relationship to Christianity. Throughout, Tolstoy defends Christianity as serving unity and the brotherhood of men when his entire project is motivated by exclusion. The paradox appears in the following citation:
“The difference between evaluating the art of our time and that of former times consists above all in this, that the art of our time — that is, Christian art — being based on a religious consciousness that calls for the union of people, excludes from the sphere of art which is good in content all that conveys exclusive feelings which do not unite people but which separates them, and regards such art as bad in content...” [Ibid, 131]
The foundation for an art which seeks to unite all people is built from a methodology of exclusion. If we strictly follow this logic, then Tolstoy’s definition of art must be judged as “bad”. Although this paradox may be subtle, he pronounces it more clearly:
“Thus there exist only two kinds of good Christian art; all the rest that does not fit into these two kinds should be recognized as bad art, which not only should not be encouraged, but should be banished, rejected, and despised as art that does not unite but divides people.” [Ibid, 136]
It should come as no surprise that this paradox and the line drawn in the sand is made in the name of Christianity. In fact, its tenor is reminiscent of passages common in the Bible.5 Even though Tolstoy rejects institutionalized Christianity (which for him marks the loss of God and therefore explains the introduction of beauty to the definition of art [Ibid, 48-53]) he still supports its dichotomous relationship between Christians and non-Christians, the saved and the unsaved — and he defends this dichotomy under the pretext of uniting all people. Yet, his definition accepts only one method for unification. If that method is not followed, then the ‘sinner’ will be met with banishment, rejection, and will be despised.
Tolstoy is at his scariest, most opposed to unification, and exclusionary when we hear his solution to a life with ‘bad’ art: “...all efforts of people who wish to live a good life should be directed towards destroying this art, because it is one of the cruelest evils oppressing our mankind.” Then citing Plato and “all Church Christian and Muhammadan teachers of mankind” he agrees that it is “‘Better that there be no art than that the depraved art, or simulacrum of it, which exists now should continue.’” [Ibid, 146] Fortunately, Tolstoy’s Sodom and Gomorrah campaign of “aesthetic cleansing” was not successful. Unfortunately, other cleansing campaign’s incited by all Church Christian and Muhammadan teachers of mankind, while not successful, have been further executed.6
The second significant contradiction is in Tolstoy’s comparison between newness and religion. In evaluating feelings by the degree of pleasure they afford, Tolstoy says, instead of according to religious consciousness, the upper classes deprived themselves of “the infinitely diverse and profound religious content proper to [them].” He continues, “...the only true work of art is one that conveys a new feeling not experienced by people before.” This second clause, at first glance, appears to agree with my definition of art: that which gives people what they don’t know and don’t want. But, stunningly, Tolstoy comes to the conclusion, “There is nothing older or more hackneyed than pleasure; and there is nothing newer than the feelings that emerge from the religious consciousness of a particular time.”[Ibid, 59] While I might agree on the hackneyed quality of the pleasure of entertainment, there is indeed something older and more hackneyed and that is religious consciousness based on parables, teachings, and texts written centuries before. If pleasure is defined by a repetition of that which is already known (according to both my and Tolstoy’s definition), then religious people of all denominations have lived in the pursuit of pleasure since the invention of God. When Tolstoy claims, “The majority understand and have always understood what we, too, consider the highest art: the artistically simple narratives of the Bible, the Gospel parables, folk legends, fairy tales, folk songs...” [Ibid, 80] he twists newness around, conveniently forgetting that those who preach and abide by these “simple narratives” and texts have been replicating the same feelings century after century. The contradiction becomes more apparent as he says,
“The diversity of feelings produced by religious consciousness is infinite, and they are all new, because religious consciousness is nothing other than the indication of the new, creative attitude of man towards the world, while feelings arising from the desire for pleasure are not only limited, but have long since been experienced and expressed.” [Ibid, 60]
While one may be critical of the Modernist emphasis on newness and the “avant-garde”, as Post-Modernism markedly was, it was against these pre-Modern oxymoronic pronouncements of the “newness” of religious experiences that they were reacting against. Included in the Modernist program of the new, along with the pleasure inspired by Baudelaire and Verlaine’s poetry, were the theories of relativity, quantum physics, the Big Bang, natural selection, and evolution. Religious faith, especially that in scriptural creation myths, could stake no claims of newness in the face of these. For this reason, Tolstoy and Pope Leo XIII were right to try to rewrite their old dogmas into the spirit of the new because they had everything to lose.
Another contradiction with regards to newness appears in Tolstoy’s criticism of Wagner. Of Wagner’s Nibelungen, Tolstoy says, “I have taken this work as an example precisely because in no other artistic counterfeit known to me are all the methods of counterfeiting art — namely, borrowing, imitation, effectfulness and diversion — combined with such mastery and power.” [Ibid, 110] (Nibelungen sounds like the great grandfather of the Postmodern work). Tolstoy describes several features as “diverting”: “This music departs from all previously accepted laws; the most unexpected and completely new modulations appear in it...The dissonances are new and are resolved in a new way, and this is diverting.” [Ibid] One would think, from his earlier statements about the new, that diversion, in this case, would be the key ingredient to a “true work of art.” But, instead, movement away from accepted laws, the expected, and old resolutions is a negative trait.
Tolstoy’s criticism of Wagner introduces a third contradiction. Even though the entire book functions as a work of criticism — for ‘good’ art and against ‘bad’ — Chapters IX and XIII, where Tolstoy criticizes Baudelaire and Verlaine, and Wagner and late Beethoven, exemplify this most clearly. Earlier, in Chapter VII, he calls the emergence of criticism “the second condition for the spread of counterfeit, false art.”[Ibid, 94] So by the time we get to the sections on Baudelaire and Wagner, we recognize that he has previously dug his own hole.
“The interpretation of a work of art in words proves only that the interpreter is incapable of being infected by art. That is indeed so, and, strange as it may seem, it is people least capable of being infected by art who have always been critics. For the most part they are people with a ready pen, well educated, intelligent, but with a completely perverted or atrophied capacity for being infected by art.”[Ibid, 95]
“Strange as it may seem,” Tolstoy matches his own description quite well. This is rather typical and tragic of Tolstoy who, wanting so much to idealize the peasant, the savage, or the uncorrupted child, would think himself out of being an intellectual.
When we see the contrast between the world around him being infected by art and hear Tolstoy express his regret over the massive amount of labor “wasted” on “bad” artists, we wonder if this is because he is a critic. Ironic or contradictory, it also stands out that when Tolstoy speaks of “good” art he calls it an infection (using a medically negative word to represent a positive influence), but when he speaks of “bad” art he doesn’t use “infection”, yet he means infection in its most negative nuance.
“All the works of these hundreds of poets, of whom I have named only a few, are the same. And the same sort of poems are published by Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, and us Russians. If not millions, at least hundreds of thousands of copies are typeset and printed (some sell in tens of thousands). To typeset, print, compose and bind these books, millions and millions of working days are spent — no less, I think, than for the building of a big pyramid. But not only that: the same thing goes on in all the other arts, and millions of working days are spent to produce objects just as incomprehensible in painting, music, drama.” [Ibid, 75]
By his own admission, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people work in the service of this art; and millions of these works are being produced for a massive international audience who anticipates and devours it. Yet he interprets these numbers as evidence of a plague, an infectious disease, rather than as a positive global celebration and intercultural and interdisciplinary movement. Tolstoy’s lip service toward equality and freedom for Everyman is noble, yet two things corrupt it: the religious morality he uses to proclaim it, and his romanticism for the peasant. Both of these, independently and combined, while apparently voiced on behalf of the peasant, actively maintain the naiveté, innocence, and ignorance of the lower classes by blocking them from the celebration that the rest of the globe is enjoying.
The fourth contradiction, leading from the above, illustrates Tolstoy’s relationship to education and his audience. In a gesture resembling Ivan Kireevski’s — who in the same breath disclaimed and used his European education to celebrate and perpetuate Russian folk culture — Tolstoy celebrates a romantic ideal of folk culture — poverty, naiveté, and innocence — from a position above and outside of it — one of wealth, critical literacy, and experience. This position can only be fabricated by one who watches laborers rather than one who labors out of necessity. What separates him from Kireevski is that Tolstoy took the Christian epistemological and theological tradition — one similar to the one which Pyotr Chaadayev thought was required for Russia to get up to speed with Europe — and wanted to impose it on folk culture.
We see Tolstoy’s romantic interpretation of labor most clearly when he writes,
“ ...it is forgotten that nourishment on bread, vegetables, fruits grown from the earth by one’s own labor is the most pleasant, healthful, light and natural nourishment, and that the work of exercising one’s muscles is as necessary a condition of life as the oxygenating of the blood by means of breathing.” [Ibid, 163]; “...man has only to give himself to the ever-joyful need for labour, without which man’s life is a torment.” [Ibid, 164]
We can only speculate: Would a serf or other land worker have written these lines (had s/he been allowed this level of literacy)? By using the test that if “children and laborers” cannot understand art, then it is counterfeit, Tolstoy denies “children and laborers” the challenge to attain a higher understanding. By criticizing “cerebral matter” [Ibid, 112] (and celebrating the common denominator of our collective feelings) he encourages and celebrates ignorance. As an intellectual himself, he uses Christianity as a tool to keep the “children and laborers” passive (when they don’t know they are being tooled). When he discusses upper class art, he uses his mental effort to criticize it: “...the mental effort required of a spectator, listener or reader to satisfy their aroused curiosity, or to master the new information imparted by the work, or to grasp its meaning, absorbs the reader’s, spectator’s, or listener’s attention, thereby interfering with the infection.” [Ibid, 90] In this view the intellect and education only act as obstructions to the infection of art. In other words, we would all be better off judging art only by what we know, and not by what art can make us know. The problem is that the educated and the uneducated know different things. Art that expresses what we know and want (what I have called entertainment) maintains the status quo, whereas art that expresses that which we don’t know and don’t want encourages literacy, education, and power. Tolstoy, having attained the latter, judges on behalf of “children and laborers” that they would be better off without what he has. It is one thing for him to suppress the intellect he had acquired in order to attain some romantic level of artistic appreciation, but it is quite another to prevent the education of “children and laborers” such that they could appreciate art in ways that he no longer could.
His regrets for education appear in the earliest pages of the book:
“…from an early age, hundreds of thousands of people devote their entire lives to learning how to twirl their legs very quickly (dancers); others (musicians) to learning how to finger keys or strings very quickly; still others (artists) to acquiring skill with paint and to depicting all they see; a fourth group to acquiring skill in twisting every phrase in all possible ways and finding a rhyme for every word.”[Ibid, 4]
Although he characterizes these people as “kind” and “capable of every sort of useful labor,” he believes they waste their time learning only how “to twirl their legs, tongues or fingers.”[Ibid] Toward the end of the book, he returns to this theme and imagery.
“ ...[M]ost terrible is to think that lively, nice children, capable of all good, devote themselves from an early age to spending six, eight or ten hours a day for ten or fifteen years playing scales, or twisting their limbs, walking on their toes and raising their legs above their heads, or singing solfeggios, or declaiming verses with various affectations, or drawing busts, naked models, painting sketches, or writing compositions by the rules of certain periods; and that in these occupations, unworthy of human dignity, continuing often long after full maturity, they lose all physical and intellectual power and all understanding of life.”[Ibid, 140]
This conclusion seems to demonstrate more flexibility and dexterity than these children possess (fostered by his own years of twisting words, metaphors, and narrative) since one would think all of this exercise and bending from such an early age would increase the amount of physical and mental power of these individuals. But in Tolstoy’s opinion, working out the body and mind, twisting forms and conventions, is not a means to gain power but is instead a way of crippling, not only mentally and physically, but also morally.[Ibid]
Meanwhile, back in America, slaves and abolitionists, following the lead of Frederick Douglas, were encouraging literacy and education as a means of escape. By contrast, Tolstoy, from a position above and outside of the lower classes, pronounces the crippling effects of exercising the body and mind and encourages the condition of remaining physically and mentally weak. To nominate good art as that which appeals to what Everyman already knows (as opposed to fostering the curiosity to learn what we don’t know) encourages art that acts as the tools of escapism rather than the tools of escape. And since Tolstoy’s position toward art is that it can do something for the world (as opposed to be for its own sake), his noble, and stoic position toward “equality” is even more flawed.
Yet before we jump to too serious conclusions, we have to consider the contradiction which appears in the last pages of the book. Tolstoy suggests, when his argument requires, that twisting the mind and body may not be morally crippling after all, as long as everyone can do it:
“...artistic activity will become accessible to all members of the people, because instead of the existing professional schools, accessible only to the few, in the people’s primary schools everyone will study music and painting (singing and drawing), together with reading and writing, so that each person, having acquired the first principles of painting and music, could, if he felt an ability and a calling for one of the arts, become perfected in it.”[Ibid, 152]
He now takes the position that if “my people” — good Christian peasants — have access to art education from a young age (even though “every true artist learns not at school, but from life”) their products will empower culture and future generations because “...the most gifted from the whole people will be participants in art, and there will be more of these examples, and these examples will be more accessible.” [Ibid]
Although Tolstoy changes his position and wants all children to be educated in the arts, this is only a temporary situation. “[S]chool training, which future artists will be deprived of, will be compensated for a hundred times over by the training the artist gets from the numerous examples of good art spread through society.”[Ibid] He is really only vying for a shift in power. By degrading upper class children for twisting their bodies and minds, and then encouraging “all children” to twist their bodies and minds, the result will be that more good examples will ‘cleanse’ the bad examples such that future generations will no longer need art training in schools but instead will only need to study the new moral masters.
The final contradiction I will point out, although there are more, reveals itself when Tolstoy critiques the men of science for their exclusionary practices.
“...men of science of our time maintain that they study everything equally, but since there is too much of everything (everything being an infinite number of objects), and it is impossible to study everything equally, this is maintained only in theory; in reality, what is studied is not everything and is studied far from equally, but is only that which, on the one hand, is more needed, and, on the other, is more pleasing for those who occupy themselves with science.” [Ibid, 158]
While Tolstoy admits there is too much of everything and that it is impossible to study everything equally, he fails to see there is also too much of everyone and it is impossible for one person to address everyone equally. For all art to be comprehensible to Everyman is likewise maintained only in theory; and, in reality, what Tolstoy actually encourages is far from equal, but instead guided, on the one hand, by what he needs morally, and on the other, by what “is more pleasing for he who occupies himself with” religion. In the end, Tolstoy is not interested in the definition of art or a debate over equality. He is interested in using a Christian moral ideal to cast out “bad” apples.
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