Book Review

What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

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The intellectual and emotional vigour with which I’ve approached What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy has left me bawling in the street, laughing uproariously on a train and regularly contemplating suicide, feeling like my valueless life has made no impact on either myself or others around me. Also, this week I bought a puppy and I’m trying again with my ever-failing plans to cut down my drinking*.

What is Art? is beautiful, is compelling, is entertaining, is right in many ways and wrong in many others. What is Art? is the aged Tolstoy looking back on his life and the lives of other creatives in the world around him and tearing them the fuck down. It is tinged by regret, it is tinged by sadness, it is redolent in its remorse and it is as guilt-laden as any Catholic text I’ve ever read**.

For those of you who don’t know, Tolstoy – and this is the same one that wrote those glorious, famous, novels with liberal and contemporary attitudes towards desire and sexuality in them – changed his mind about Life as he aged. We should be spiritual, he concluded, we should be celibate, sober, vegetarians living in the countryside and only growing as much as we need to eat and clothe ourselves. He is against trade, against cities, against government, against technology. The aged Tolstoy who wrote so beautifully and sensually about lust and love in Anna Karenina and elsewhere becomes an agrarian, pastoral anarchist. But one who firmly believes in the elevating and life-affirming capacity of Art.

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Tolstoy worked on What is Art? for about fifteen years, on and off, as he tried to squeeze all of his opinions into one philosophical tract and accept how his thoughts and ideas regarding the world itself and our (humanity’s) place within it related to Art, to the creative sphere and to the totality of existence.

What is the point of life? he asks, and answers thus: It is to live.

And what is living? It is engaging with the world around us, it is working for sustenance, it is empathy, it is artistic pursuits, it is self-expression and being able to understand the expressed thoughts of others. Art, in the way it had come to be known (and, alas, the way it has continued to be known), is something made by and for the highly-educated, the wealthy, the idle.

Look at Anna Karenina, he writes, Look at the novel I (Tolstoy) wrote, look at how it’s all about idle, rich people being idle and rich, filling their time with immoral (or is it amoral?) sexuality, neglecting artistic pursuits, neglecting their spirituality and neglecting (of course) their prior romantic and social commitments in the face of fleshy attraction towards Vronksy’s handsome body and Anna’s older woman allure. The body is evil, Tolstoy writes, much like John the Baptist preaches in my other unpublished novel.*** The Body is the source of all that distracts us from spirituality, emotion, empathy. It is The Body that pushes people towards the pursuit of money, it is physical greed for food and comfort and fuck that makes capitalism work. Capitalism is a great evil, T writes, because it encourages people to want more, to always want more. And capitalism fails when people want only what they need, want only what they can achieve and want only what is practical.

Technology, he believes, has developed more than it needs to. (And this was him writing in the 1890s). Technology has developed to the point where it is making more people idle, machines can do jobs that were once meant to be hard graft, people are able to complete tasks quicker, communicate quicker, learn quicker and travel quicker. Nothing new arises – and nothing new of any value has arisen – to fill this time, this increased idleness. In a world full of the idle, where people spend hours a day on the internet (I’ve flicked through to news sites, Facebook, Twitter, multiple times while I’ve been writing this and this doesn’t even count as art), where people vegetate in front of trash television, where bestselling novels are suitable-for-children fantasy, softcore porn or violent crime fiction, it seems Tolstoy’s predictions were right: in an increasingly empty world, the “art” that is offered becomes less artistic, becomes less valuable, becomes less good. Art, Tolstoy holds, should elevate its viewer, its reader, it should offer either a positive or a negative altering of emotions, and art is better and more likely to do that if its sources, if artists are from a less socially rigorous background. And that HASN’T CHANGED.

Tolstoy laments the fact that most writers, composers, plastic artists (his term) have had formal training. The training, he writes, creates multiple problems:

  • Firstly, it excludes those without access to the training (be the reasons for that economic, cultural or geographic) from entering into the established cultural milieu;
  • Secondly, it sets that cultural milieu as something definable: this is what a symphony sounds like, this is what a poem sounds like, this is a novel, this is a sculpture, etc etc etc. If spelling and grammar are not right, the literary piece can never be art. If the painter cannot do perspective, it is not art; if the composer cannot write a piece for orchestra, it is not art. If being able to make art is something trainable, then that means art can be objectively assessed, which obviously it can’t. An original tune whistled by a labourer in a mine could be as achingly moving as the finest melody composed by a great for the violin, but they will never be compared. Just as the two line sentence scrawled by hand in the tear-damp card attached to a bunch of flowers left on a grave in a dead end town can express more grief and more pain and more emotion than the most laboured poem. But no one is going round graveyards and giving literary prizes to grieving parents or children or siblings or spouses, they’re giving literary prizes to poets and novelists who work in universities and schools, who engage with nothing other than their craft. It’s commendable in many ways, that people can live like that, but this – Tolstoy argues – is the very root of the problem. Without the struggle, without physical toil, we are nothing: the art we produce is nothing but the masturbatorial warblings of people with nothing else to do.

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What Tolstoy hated more than anything else – and I think he was well placed in his time to see this – was the movement of arts (particularly painting and poetry) towards the obscure, away from meaning. He cites a lot of French poets and novelists whose poems seem to say nothing, who ask for and invite and demand hours of concentration in order to take the tiniest modicum of understanding. Tolstoy would’ve HATED James Joyce at his worst, at his impenetrable and boring, but he would’ve LOVED James Joyce for his exploration of and engagement with working class Irish people, for his use of their language and dialogue and locations. Tolstoy would’ve hated the characters in a lot of Woolf, but he would’ve loved half of them in Mrs Dalloway. Eliot he’d’ve held up to the skies as the ultimate example of the decadent poets gone mad and obscure, actually, no, scrap that, it would’ve been the fucking Black Mountain poets who followed the Beats. Tolstoy would’ve liked the theory of the Beats, their (mostly) uneducated state, their engagement with the lower classes, but obviously he would’ve opposed their frequent sex and intoxication and lack of condemnation for  it. Big Sur – which I regularly hold up as a shining example of Beat literature – might actually tick all Tolstoy’s boxes, the remorse, the self-hatred, the spiritualism being key.

Other than that, D. H. Lawrence if he hadn’t thought sex was good, Cormac McCarthy in the books where violence isn’t made to sound cool and, more recently (I’m looking through my bookshelves/bookpiles****) it is only contemporary texts that deal with the immigrant experience that don’t  continue to focus on the sexual exploits of the financially and educated elite. But, even then, lauded writers within that, such as Teju Cole (especially) and both Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith to some extent, veer towards the wealthy and the educated. Maybe only Midland by Honor Gavin (review) and Vauxhall by Gabriel Gbadamosi (review) are truly contemporary novels dealing with the working class experience. Maybe Lila by Marilynne Robinson (review) would suit Tolstoy even better: working people, contemplation of God, contemplation of Nature, a marriage rooted more in capitalised Love than it is in sex.

Than again, I could go through every novel I’ve ever read and decide whether or not Tolstoy would consider it art. Most of the time, he wouldn’t. The bit of What is Art? I found most amusing is the entire chapter in the centre of the book discussing his opinions on dirty French novels. He concludes that only truly depraved people could create such filth, their minds warped so much that they see all others, all potential readers, as similarly depraved, as hungry to read fuck fiction as they are to write it.

Tolstoy may think his anarcho-celibate-sober-pastoral-vegetarianism and is the only true source of art, and as extreme as this sounds I think it does have some validity. Art should be created by people, by all people: people from every walk of life have the ability to express humanity in a wonderful way. Gil Scott-Heron, perhaps, more than anyone else, is the artist Tolstoy wanted. Engaged with spirituality, writing simple – but catchy – melodies, writing lyrics about struggle and pain and holding himself up to standards he was unable to maintain due to his own substance addiction. The artist – like all people – must be forever flawed, that is the point Tolstoy misses, but I don’t think it is bad to aim for a state where every individual works hard and creates and empathises and doesn’t take, want or – crucially –expect too much.

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Greed corrupts, greed for anything corrupts, whether that is greed for ideas or knowledge or something more material. It is only love and empathy that matter: these are what make people people and make art art.

Tolstoy is right to rail against a culture defined by, produced for and made by the elites. Of course it produces staleness in the arts. Tolstoy is right to rail against obscure art, against art that seeks to avoid an emotional relationship with its consumer, against art that seeks to alienate rather than evoke something deeper. Tolstoy is wrong to think that it is only by living a monk-like existence that true beauty can be created, but he is right to think that private school>university>art/film/writing school>cultural career is not the best way to make a truly varied, inclusive and wonderful culture. This is why I keep working a job that requires me to use my arms rather than just my fingers; this is why I sit in front of my laptop and write letters to myself that I only half-believe are parts of an autobiographical novel; this is why I throw away any money I acquire; this is why I get out of London to places like Skegness, Santo Domingo, Hull, Seaford, Liverpool, Istanbul, Bucharest, whenever I can; this is why I haven’t replaced my broken phone in a week and this is why I read widely, across times, cultures and styles (in theory at least).

There is so much to see and so much to experience. For me, the urge to express the self in the written form overwhelms the abilities I possess. I’m no fool, I’m not lacking in the self-awareness required to know that THIS, i.e. Triumph of the Now and the current in-progress draft of Bond Quixote, isn’t something I can ever extract funds from. But I have enough to eat, I have enough to live, and if I stopped spending triple figures on wine every week I’d have enough to go to exhibitions and the theatre. I’d also probably have the headspace and the energy.

There are so many destructive things in the world, but there is nothing that creates anything of value that is not Art. Nothing that makes us feel more human, more non-animal, more elevated, than compassion and empathy and the understanding of another’s joy or pain. From prehistory onwards people have sought to record and reinvent the ideas and experiences that matter to them, and this impulse has never changed. The Arts are an imperative to a society, for without Art, what are we?

It is when society rewards avarice and emptiness that things begin to slip. It’s when people respond as if I’m doing something better with my life by earning a reasonable amount of money in exchange for almost all the time that exists than when I was scraping by but spending 40/50 hours a week writing. I need to prioritise the consumption and the creation of art in my life, I need to read through the stack of 70 books on the desk in front of me, I need to dive into the world of literature. I need to be looking, working, working, that’s it. I need to be grafting and trying with my life, not stultifying in this empty existence where the cash to buy nice things is all one gets as a reward. And all I’m spending that on is the temporary – trips out of London more glamorous than I need, and wine. Lots of fancy wine. If I was fulfilled in my life, I wouldn’t need these distractions to this level, it’s that simple.

What is Art? left me a crying wreck, toes off the edge of a tube platform as a train approached and I realised the full extent of what I’ve done to myself. I’ve let everything go, I’ve let the things I intellectually prioritise lose their practical position of priority.

And Tolstoy is right, one shouldn’t live in an intellectual bubble devoid of trips into the outside world, one should work and one should tire oneself out with work. It is only when the body is exhausted, Tolstoy reasons, that it is happy, it is content. Exercise gained by toil is more valuable, more meaningful, than exercise gained in a spin class.

I have a dog now, a Buddhist dog, a Tibetan terrier, the breed of dog that monks traditionally kept for their companions at the top of mountains. He will sit with me and ask for attention and in return will remind me that I am not alone, that I am not wrong, that it is possible to have a life filled with intellectualism and spiritualism and art and compassion and empathy. First of all, I have to work on the fact that I feel more my cat’s pain at the arrival of my dog than I feel the tragedies of people.

Fix my empathy, fix the use of my time and fix the wine budget.

What is Art? is emotive, is aggressive and, though extreme in places, offers a way to the light. Folk art is as valuable as what’s in the galleries, anything that causes emotion is better than anything that doesn’t. Tolstoy was a marvellous writer and though he went a bit god-botheringly crazy at the end of his life, for many years he was an important and respected thinker. Don’t ignore his messages because of the celibacy and the sobriety and the religionish spirituality. Heed his message and make art.

“Let’s fill this town with artists” is the tag line of Cass Arts, y’know, but it is something Tolstoy would’ve approved of, it is artists in his sense, not in the usual, contemporary sense. Cass Arts doesn’t mean a city full of people living off plastic arts, but a city full of people who express themselves in their free time in a way that suits them. Instagram is Tolstoyian, social media in many ways too. By allowing the immediate sharing of any cultural product the world is beginning to allow a community-based idea of art. Viral videos are the artistic expression of a “nobody” who is actually a “somebody” to everyone they know. The internet is democratising cultural exchange (in some ways) and can be argued to be a good thing for the Arts, but only if one sees the Arts, as Tolstoy does, as something that should not be relied on to support an individual indefinitely. He believes there should be no idle people, all should work, and that in the evenings, in the middle of the working day, all people should create things, express things. If no one is relying on the money of others to help them make art, art will be truly communal. But it is only when all culture is produced in this way that any culture will be valid.

That’s an extreme reading, perhaps, but one that is not difficult to apply to the modern age.

We should create, express and empathise every day. We should not hide in cubicles away from the sunlight and away from the fields, we should toil until we are too tired to overflow with lust (Tolstoy reckons) and use the energy that remains in the production of something wonderful.

It’s idealistic, anarchic and incredibly impractical. But it kinda sounds fucking great to someone that works as much as I do.

#Tolstoy. #BookswithCubby

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* Essentially, I realised I’ve been spending over £100 every week on wine, which isn’t good. Is it?

** Even my own, the uproarious White Lines, Black Truffles. On that topic, actually, having a puppy has kept me up all night regularly dealing with liquid shit, so it’s almost like being back in the world of the novel, the Party Years. In fact, being comfortable wiping up diarrhoea at 4am almost made that all worthwhile.

*** The Body and the Baptist, available from nowhere other than me via email. Especially if you might be able to get it published in exchange for cash.

**** I ran out of book space years ago.

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