Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies . Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
previous
next
page: 133

TOLSTOI ON ART

page: 135

TOLSTOI ON ART

LEO TOLSTOI’S recent volume on Art closes significantly the series of his arraignments of what we have been pleased to call civilisation. Like all his later works, whether treatise or play or novel or parable, this volume on art shows Tolstoi in his character of lay prophet, with all its powers and all its weaknesses. For it would seem—we notice it in two other great lay prophets, Carlyle and Ruskin—that the gift of seeing through the accepted falsehoods of the present, and foretelling the improbable realities of the future, can arise only in creatures too far overpowered by their own magnificent nature to understand other men’s ways of being and thinking; in minds so bent upon how things should be as to lose sight of how things are and how things came to be. While Carlyle, embodying his passionate instincts in historical narrative, was moderated at least by his knowledge of the past and of the consequent origin and necessity of the present; while Ruskin, accepting the whole moral and religious training of his times, was in so far in touch with his contemporaries; Tolstoi has broken equally with everything, if ever he had really much to break with. Destitute of all historic sense, impervious to any form of science, and accepting page: 136 the Gospel only as the nominal text for a religion of his own making, he has become incapable of admitting more than one side to any question, more than one solution to any difficulty, more than one factor in any phenomenon. He is destitute of all sense of cause and effect, all acquiescence in necessity, and all real trustfulness in the ways of the universe. For him most things are wrong, wholly, utterly wrong; their wrongness has never originated in any right, and never will be transformed into right until—well, until mankind be converted to Tolstoi’s theory and practice. Economic and domestic arrangements, laws, politics, religion, all wrong; and now, art also.

Unreasonableness like this is contagious, and Tolstoi’s criticisms have often been dismissed as utterly wrongheaded. But we should not forego the benefits which the prophetic gift can bring us, if only we know how to extract them. We should endeavour to eliminate the hallucinations which usually accompany such penetrating moral insight, and to apply some of this vast spiritual energy with more discrimination than was compatible with its violent and almost tragic production. The use of a genius like Tolstoi’s is to show us in what particulars human institutions, habits, and thoughts are morally wrong; it is for us to find out what his very prophet’s onesidedness prevents his doing—the rational explanation of this wrongness.

With regard to art, Tolstoi’s opinion of its moral wrongness can be analysed into two very separate and independent views. Art, as practised and conceived in our times, is immoral, according to Tolstoi, first: page: 137 because it fails to accomplish its only legitimate mission of directly increasing the instincts of justice, pity, and self‐renunciation; and secondly: because any mission, good or bad, which it does fulfil is limited to a very small fraction of mankind. In other words, according to Tolstoi, art is a useless, often a corrupting, luxury; and a luxury of that minority which already enjoys more luxuries than are compatible with the material welfare of the rest of the world and with its own spiritual advantage.

The two propositions must be taken separately for examination in the light of certain sciences which, alas, Tolstoi condemns outright as themselves useless, mendacious, and corrupting. Now this condemnation by Tolstoi of all science, this misconception of the very nature of science, will help us to a rapid understanding of one half of his condemnation of art—its condemnation as morally useless. There is not enough justice or sympathy, not enough purity, endurance, or self‐renunciation in the world—that is the gospel Tolstoi has to preach; and, with prophetic onesidedness, he condemns everything which does not directly and obviously increase these virtues. So long as it is neither unjust nor cruel nor rapacious nor impure, it matters nothing to Tolstoi whether life be varied or monotonous, elastic and adaptive or narrow and unadaptive, lucid or dull, enterprising or stagnant, complete or mutilated, pleasant or devoid of pleasure; it never occurs to him that in the great organic give‐and‐take, those very qualities which he so exclusively desires depend for their existence on the fulness and energy of every side of human existence. Tolstoi wants page: 138 virtue, and only virtue, dominant, exclusive; and he thinks that virtue can be got independent of everything else, perfect and instantaneous. Hence he naturally disdains mere intellectual activity, and misunderstands the object of all science.

“The important and suitable object of human science,” he writes explicitly, “ought not to be the learning of those things which happen to be interesting: but the learning of the manner in which we should direct our lives: the learning of those religious, moral, and social truths without which all our so‐called knowledge of nature must be either useless or fatal.” Hence, practically, no science; for Tolstoi’s definition of a moral or social truth is not a moral or social fact or generalisation, but simply a precept for conduct; truth, in his special vocabulary, means no longer the faithful presentation of what is, but unflinching insistence on what ought to be. As with science, so with art.

“The religious consciousness of our time consists, speaking generally, in the recognition that our happiness, material and spiritual, individual and collective, momentary and permanent, consists in the brotherhood of all men, in our union for a life in common ... and those works of art only should be esteemed and encouraged which grow out of the religion of our day, whereas all works of art contrary to this religion should be condemned, and all the rest of art treated with indifference.”

Like science, therefore, art is set by Tolstoi to enforce virtue, not, as he orders science, by precepts, but by embodying and communicating such emotion page: 139 as conduces directly to greater morality; no reference being made, in this case either, to the fact that virtue cannot long exist save in a many‐sided, energetic, and harmonious life, of which the impulse to art, like the impulse to science, is an essential element. On these principles, “art,” continues Tolstoi, “should always be valued according to its contents,” that is to say, according to the definite moral example which it exhibits, or the definite moral emotion—chiefly pity, of course—which it awakens. The practical result is the banishing, as no longer consonant with our moral purposes, of nearly all the art of former times, including Antiquity and the Middle Ages; and the absolute condemnation of more than two‐thirds of all modern art, including not merely Wagner, Impressionism, Symbolism, Pre‐Raphaelitism, but all Tolstoi’s earlier work— “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”—nearly all of Goethe’s, and, after minute examination, even the “Ninth Symphony.” There remain, besides the Gospels, the more obviously moralising works of Victor Hugo and of Dickens, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and whatever painting, sculpture, and music may be discovered having a moral purpose as definite and unmistakable as these.

This statement is crude, and Tolstoi’s plea, judging from it, would seem to be mere fanatical dogmatism. But this is far from being the case: Tolstoi is learned and is subtle, and twists facts powerfully to suit his views. Tolstoi has read, or caused to be examined for his benefit, almost everything that ever has been written on the nature and aims of art; and, in a chapter where profound lack of sympathy is thinly page: 140 disguised as intellectual impartiality, he has reviewed and dismissed every theory of art which differs from his own. The science of æsthetics, necessarily dependent as it is upon psychology, sociology, and anthropology, all as yet imperfect, is in a backward state; and an immense proportion of the “philosophy of art” is either pure metaphysics, scornful of concrete fact, or mere polemic founded on the practice of one school or period. This backward state of æsthetics has rendered it, from Plato to Spencer, and from Ruskin to Whistler, the happy hunting ground of every philosopher lacking the experience of art, and of every art connoisseur lacking the habit of philosophy; and has given Tolstoi the immense advantage of finding not merely a marvellous amount of foolish utterance to scoff at, but, what is more to his purpose, a mutual contradiction between all the main theories. All philosophers, Tolstoi is able to tell us, have insisted on the extreme nobility of art, and a great many have dogmatised about beauty being art’s special object; but there is not one single intelligible account of beauty, and there are three or four conflicting main definitions of art; a proof that, as Tolstoi has so often proclaimed, all science and all philosophy are worthless, and that art can have no legitimate object save the moral one which he assigns to it. But it happens that even nowadays the psychological and historical treatment of æsthetics is beginning to put order and lucidity into the subject, and to reconcile while it explains the conflict in all previous views. It is in the light of such science, however much despised by Tolstoi, that we shall attempt to show that art, like page: 141 science itself, like philosophy, like every great healthy human activity, has a right to live and a duty to fulfil, quite apart from any help it may contribute to the enforcement of a moralist’s teachings.

It is necessary to premise that, like nearly every other writer on æsthetics, Tolstoi has needlessly complicated the question by considering literature as the type of all other art. Now it is clear that literature, although in one capacity an art as much as music or painting, is at the same time, and in varying degree, a mode of merely imparting opinion or stirring up emotion, the instrument, not merely of the artist, but of the thinker, the historian, the preacher, and the pleader. This being the case, it is unfair to judge the question of art by the whole practice of literature; it is necessary, on the contrary, so long as we are dealing with æsthetics, to consider only those sides of literature in which it resembles the other, more purely artistic, more typical arts. Putting literature therefore aside, on account of the multiplicity of its appeals to human interest, we shall find that, roughly speaking, while philosophers have given to art one of two large functions, imitation or expression—and practical craftsmen have inclined to judge of art as if its chief function were either invention or execution, newness of construction or dexterity of handling—the immense majority of art‐loving mankind, including the philosophers and the artists in their merely human capacity, have accepted or rejected, cherished or neglected, single works of art, exactly in proportion as these works gave them the particular kind of pleasure connected with the word beauty. The page: 142 meaning of this word beauty it is difficult, and, in the present backward state of æsthetic science, perhaps impossible, to define. It implies a relation between certain visible or audible phenomena (and in literature certain still more complex purely mental phenomena) and the spectator or listener; and the exact nature of these visible or audible phenomena, which we objectify in the word form, differs from art to art, from style to style, and from individual work to individual work, there existing practically endless numbers of ways of being beautiful—that is to say, of producing in the human being the very specific emotion aroused by what we call beauty. What may be this common character of all these different so‐called beautiful visual or audible forms or patterns, is evidently a question of psychological and, in part, of physiological science; and, different as are the modes of action of different arts and different styles of art, and deficient as is at present our analysis and observation of the modes of influence of any of them, we may yet affirm with confidence that the progress of science will one day explain that particular relation between certain visible and audible forms and the human being which is brought about by what we call beauty, as a relation involving, whatever its particular kind, a general momentary advantage to the vital, nervous, mental, and bodily conditions, and accompanied, as all beneficent conscious phenomena are, by the condition called pleasure.

To recapitulate: the quality called beauty, recognised in the most various kinds and styles of art, marks the awakening of a specific sort of pleasure, at present page: 143 neither analysable nor explicable, but which, like all the other varieties of pleasure, can be instantly identified, though not described, by any one who has experienced it. But although it is this quality of beauty, this specific pleasurable emotion connected with the word beautiful, which practically decides the eventual acceptance or rejection of a work of art, yet the theories connecting art with imitation and expression, with invention and execution, represent also a large and important side of the question. For history and anthropology point clearly to the fact that art very rarely originates from a conscious desire for beauty, but that it arises out of the practical requirements, material or spiritual—building, weaving, pottery, dress, war, and ritual—of mankind, and out of a superabundance of the great primary instincts of imitation and expression, of construction, invention, and manipulation. These instincts, which are explicable only as immediate reactions of the human organism upon its surroundings, have been carried by natural selection to an intensity so considerable as often (in the case of children, for instance) to surpass all practical requirements, so that they have to vent themselves in that gratuitous exercise which has suggested to Mr. Spencer (as it had done to Schiller) the notion that art was the result of special play instincts. Play instincts, as such, there are probably none; but it is certain that all art has arisen from the activity—whether utilitarian or aimless—of the tendencies to imitate, to express, to invent, to construct, to manipulate, and to perform. But what differentiates art from the mere practical or aimless exercise of these impulses page: 144 is the fact that, in its case, these impulses have been controlled by that totally different and specific instinct which demands that, useful or useless, the forms presented to the mind through the eye and the ear should possess the absolutely peculiar quality of beauty. That which has caused the imitation of an object or the expression of an emotion to be respected after the utility thereof has vanished or the impulse to imitate or express has died out; that which has caused the shape of a building, the pattern of a stuff or a pot, the movements of a dance, the picture of an object, to be desired for their own sake, is the peculiar kind of pleasure which the quite unpractical, quite disinterested contemplation of the object or pattern or representation or game has been able to produce by virtue of its beauty. The instinct for beauty is not, in all probability, one of the creative faculties of man. It does not set people working, it does not drive them to construct, to imitate, or to express, any more than the moral instinct sets people wishing and acting, or the logical instinct sets them reasoning. It is, even more typically than the moral and logical instincts, a categorical imperative, which imperiously decides whether given forms are to be tolerated, cherished, or avoided.

In thus recognising that the instinct for beauty is not a creative but a regulative impulse of mankind, modern psychology, so far from diminishing its importance, increases it enormously and explains it. For the very fact that the instincts of expression and imitation, of construction, invention, manipulation, and performance, have in all their most practical applications (in building, clothing, fabrics of all sorts, page: 145 and every kind of ritual) been so constantly interfered with, and in their play capacity (save in children) been so utterly captured, by an instinct so merely regulative as the instinct for beauty, proves, to any one accustomed to modern scientific thought, that this mysterious, unaccountable, apparently useless pleasure arising from certain form relations which we call beautiful must eventually be explained and accounted for by some deep‐seated vital utility to the mind and the nervous system of the human race. Therefore we would answer, not to Count Tolstoi, for whom all scientific explanations are mere lumber, but to those readers of Tolstoi whom his arguments may have shaken, first: that the apparent conflict in æsthetic theory represents only the various factors of a complex problem; and secondly: that the constant return to the belief that arcs eventual aim is to produce beauty, and even the very mystery which at present surrounds this indefinable and as yet inexplicable quality, go to prove that, in a world different from the monotonous ascetic, unorganic world conceived by Tolstoi, in a world of life the most complex, overflowing and organic—not merely negative moral virtue, but physical beauty, as much as intellectual lucidity, is required, and, by the nature of things, will eternally be required and produced.

But Tolstoi’s plea against art is double, and we have so far disposed, even in our own eyes, of only one of its halves. Even if the theory were right, the practice would remain wrong, and could not be set right by any amount of arguing. For, however beneficial the enjoyment of beauty, the benefit must page: 146 be confined to the cases where the beauty is actually enjoyed; and, however desirable a function art may fulfil in human existence, the function is limited to the lives into which art does actually enter. Now beauty, Tolstoi points out, even supposing it to exist, requires, in nine‐tenths of all art, a special training before it is so much as perceived; and moreover, art of any kind, appreciated or not appreciated, does not (he says) come near the existence of the immense majority of mankind, roughly speaking, of all the classes who work with their hands. On the one hand, there are galleries, exhibitions, and concerts where works of art are displayed and performed which can give pleasure only after elaborate initiation; on the other hand, there are millions of human beings who never come near a gallery, an exhibition, or a concert room, because they have neither the money nor the leisure to enter it. This being the case—and Tolstoi seems to us irrefutably right in this matter so far at least as he is speaking of actualities, and not of what is abstractly true or possible—it is mere nonsense and cant to talk of the usefulness of art to mankind as a whole; and the only sincere statement is that of the cynical and immoral persons who calmly admit that art is one of the many luxuries of the rich and leisured minority, and is maintained for their sole enjoyment (according to Tolstoi’s economics) by the labour of the poor and overworked majority.

In attempting to answer this second plea against art, we must again premise that we can do so only with the aid of those psychological and historical sciences which Tolstoi disdains like all others, and in the light more particularly of that same critical knowledge of art page: 147 which he denounces as a chief source of perversion in these matters. Let us begin with the question of the necessity of training before artistic beauty can be enjoyed, and with Tolstoi’s implied corollary that beauty which is not spontaneously recognised cannot really respond to any deep‐seated or indeed genuine demand of human nature. One of Tolstoi’s chief instances in point is that of the modern school of impressionist painters. He describes, without any exaggeration, the hopeless mental confusion of an educated person on first being introduced to a collection of impressionist pictures. We can all of us remember similar remarks on dozens of similar occasions, and, if our memory is good, and we do not happen to have been brought up in impressionist studios from our infancy, we can probably also remember having said or thought the very same things ourselves: the objects represented are in most cases not recognised, the drawing and perspective seem utterly wrong, and the effects of colour and light the result of something near akin to lunacy.

Tolstoi’s description is perfectly accurate, but his deductions are unwarrantable, for what he has not seen is that impressionist painters represent the most advanced section of a school of painting which has broken with all past tradition and which is avowedly seeking to represent effects of perspective, or colour, and of light which have never been attempted before, and to do so in reference to subjects—casually chosen pieces of landscape, for instance—which have hitherto been disdained, and in disregard of all the established tenets of symmetrical composition. Now the most page: 148 advanced art of any age, like the most advanced thought of any age, is really not for the period which produces it, but for the next, whether that next come within two years or within twenty or a hundred years; and the art of a class, like the mode of dress and speech of a class, takes time to descend to the classes below. From the nature of things no novelty can arise save in a comparatively small circle, originally in the small circle of an artistic school, or even in the mind of one individual artist. We cannot feel the beauty of an artistic form which we do not really see, any more than we can feel the cogency of an argument we do not really follow; and the act of perception is not any simpler or more rapid or spontaneous than the act of intellectual apprehension. We do not see an unfamiliar pattern, we do not hear an unusual combination of sounds, with the rapidity and completeness given by habit and by expectation. The enjoyment of the quality called beauty is the enjoyment of a certain set of visible or audible relations, and these relations are by no means taken in immediately. The emotion of æsthetic pleasure can take place only when any given kind of artistic form has been assimilated by the mind; and the possibility, the mode, of assimilation is handed on by imitation from the more prepared individual to the less prepared; while, on the other hand, each new form, like each new thought, is assimilated in proportion as it resembles an already familiar one. Every new work of art, nay, every form of which a whole work of art consists, is different from all its predecessors, at least in its combinations; it is a new individual, which we get to know at first by what it page: 149 has in common with previous individuals of the same class. The new picture or poem or song, which we see or read or hear for the first time, represents a mental, æsthetic, emotional step made by us; it means an alteration, great or small, of attitude, like that produced by a new logical proposition, even if the new picture or poem or song be as closely connected with a previous one as a new proposition of Euclid is with earlier propositions. To expect a person totally unfamiliar with all similar art to comprehend, to see, let alone to enjoy, an impressionist picture, is like expecting a person, who is familiar with nothing beyond a rule‐of‐three sum, to follow some new problem of the higher mathematics.

Such facts and principles as these have never occurred to Tolstoi. He has never conceived the human faculties as being in a state of constant alteration and evolution; he does not recognise that what we find established and apparently spontaneous in the present has been brought about by the adjustments and the efforts of the past; and he mistakes for innate tendencies what in reality are the result of long unconscious or conscious training. “The majority of men,” he says, “has always understood all that we consider as the highest art: the book of Genesis, the parables of the Gospels, and the various popular legends, stories, and songs.” No doubt, the “majority of men” has understood them in those countries and times in which they happen to have been familiar. But would the opening chapters of Genesis be more comprehensible to a person brought up entirely out of touch with Christianity or Judaism than the Prologue in Heaven page: 150 of “Faust”? Would the intricate forms and special allusions of the north‐country ballad, of the Tuscan lyric or the Spanish song, be more intelligible to a person totally unacquainted with anything of the kind than “Sister Helen,” or a “Sonnet from the Portuguese,” or Verlaine’s “Clair de Lune”? What Tolstoi mistakes for a naturally, inevitably intelligible and enjoyable character in art is in reality an affinity, a resemblance, with forms of art already familiar. We are now beginning to see in what way all artistic enjoyment can require a degree of previous training, and yet be, to all appearance, absolutely spontaneous. For just as a capacity to appreciate the new grows insensibly out of familiarity with the old, so also does a new form of art, under normal conditions, grow out of an old form by a series of alterations very gentle and easy to follow, although their extremes may represent styles of art as utterly unlike as the music of Wagner and the music of Mozart, or may be as far apart as the pointed architecture of the thirteenth century and the round‐arched architecture of the fifth, from which it undoubtedly sprang; a process which we can realise if we remember that although Latin is no longer intelligible to an uneducated Frenchman or Italian, yet there could never have been a moment of non‐comprehension during the centuries which evolved the modern languages from the ancient one.

But mere gradual evolution would not be sufficient to explain the insensible training which has made the appreciation of various artistic forms apparently spontaneous. The art, whatever it might be, was not only absolutely continuous, but widely diffused. We must page: 151 here remember what we before pointed out, that the desire for beauty is a regulative function, and that it imposes its preferences upon the expressive and imitative impulses, the activities of invention, construction, and execution which mankind displays for practical purposes or as a mere pastime. Hence, in times which are normal, any artistic form is found—and all art‐history is there to prove it—not merely in those very conspicuous and developed branches which we think of more particularly as art, but in every form of cognate craft. The language and the allusions employed by even so learned and artificial a poet as Dante were the language and allusions of the least cultivated of his contemporaries, to the extent of making his poem the favourite reading of artisans and peasants. The forms, the modelling, the anatomy, the essential ways of being of line and surface in Greek sculpture can be recognised, to a greater or less degree, in the commonest Greek pottery, bronze work, cheap domestic ornaments, and so forth; the very special forms, so difficult to imitate, and even to grasp after much study, of what we call Gothic, appear in the very humblest building, in every chair, table, embroidery, or piece of iron‐work of the later Middle Ages; while the modulations and rhythms, and in great part the harmonies, of every past form of music have always been common to the most humble and to the highest categories of the art: the lower, like the more provincial branches of art, according to the law of imitation we have before alluded to, being always just a little behind the work of the creative masters in the highest branches and in the greatest centres. This universal diffusion of a given fashion in art—fashion page: 152 in dress is perhaps the only modern representative of this state of things—explains how a whole population could be, so to speak, constantly in presence of any given style of art, and able gradually to appreciate its variations without any apparent previous training. The mediæval artisan was as able to appreciate the most far‐fetched and subtle of all forms of art, the Gothic—and for the same reason—as the modern Japanese of the lower class is able to appreciate peculiarities of perspective, of form, and of execution which strike even the educated European as exotic, and which cannot be enjoyed by him without some special study.

This, as we have remarked, is the state of affairs in normal times; for we must be careful to underline this qualification. Tolstoi, with his deficient historical sense, and his tendency to believe in an unvarying typical man (more or less represented by the Russian peasant of to‐day), has not recognised the prevalence of this normal condition throughout the past, nor, of course, the reasons through which, as Mr. Ruskin taught some forty years ago, this normal condition has become more and more exceptional in the present. It is, however, easy to understand why our century, with its quite unparalleled rapidity and complexity of change, must differ in this respect from all others. As regards the continuity of artistic development, there have been and still are two notable causes of disturbance: the opening up of foreign civilisations and the importation of exotic kinds of art (like that of Japan), and the archæological revival of the art of the past, for instance, the Greek and the Gothic. From these have resulted page: 153 both an impulse of imitation and an effort after novelty, the latter due both to facility of new combinations and to resistance against foreign or historical influence. Now an art which, like that of Burne‐Jones or of Whistler, is half archæological or half exotic, cannot possibly be appreciated without some degree of familiarity with the Mediæval or the Japanese art from which it has partly sprung; while, on the other hand, an art like that of Manet, Monnet Monet

There is in the art of this century a degree of individualism, an amount of archæological and exotic research, an obvious desire for novelty at any price, which renders it less organic, less natural, than the art of past times. The result is that its appreciation is no longer attainable by the unconscious training which is conferred by familiarity with previous art, and demands special initiation through critical study. Among our contemporaries it is a matter of everyday experience to find persons extremely appreciative of Greek or Gothic art who yet, like Mr. Ruskin, can see absolutely nothing in the art of modern France; while there are practical artists who can see absolutely nothing save archaic quaintness in the art of Antiquity and of the Renaissance; to such an extent are the perception and enjoyment of one kind of form impeded by the habit and preoccupation of another. Such being the case with the artistic classes themselves, how much more must it be the case with the general public! And from page: 154 this general public we are obliged in our century to exclude completely the enormous majority of mankind . Tolstoi has not exaggerated matters in saying that barely one man in a hundred comes nowadays within reach of art, appreciated or unappreciated. For here we find ourselves in presence of the other and far greater difference which separates the æsthetic conditions of our century from those of every previous one. The industrial and economic changes accompanying the development of machinery have virtually, as Mr. Ruskin pointed out, put an end for the moment to all that handicraft which formed the fringe of the artistic activity of the past, and which kept the less favoured classes in such contact with the artistic forms of their time and country that, for instance, the pottery and brass‐work of the humbler classes of Greece, and the wood‐work and textile fabrics of the poorest citizens of the Middle Ages, let alone every kind of domestic architecture, afforded sufficient preparation for the greatest art of temples and cathedrals: a daily, hourly preparation, embodying in many cases actual mechanical familiarity. Nowadays, on the contrary, objects of utility, machine‐made, and no longer expressive of any preferences, are either totally without æsthetic quality, or embody, in a perfunctory and imperfect manner, the superficial and changing æsthetic fashions of a very small minority. Nor is this all. The extreme rapidity of scientific discovery and mechanical invention, the growing desire for technical education and hygienic advantage, the race for material comfort and the struggles for intellectual and social equality—in fact, the whole immense movement of our times, both page: 155 for good and for evil—have steadily tended to make art less and less a reality even in the lives of the leisured classes, and have resulted in virtually effacing all vestige of it from the lives of working men.

Art, therefore, we may concede to Tolstoi, is in our days largely artificial, often unwholesome, always difficult of appreciation, and, above all, a luxury. Violent and even fanatical as are Tolstoi’s words on this subject, they hardly exaggerate the present wrongness of things.

But we hope to have suggested in the course of these criticisms that the present condition of art does not justify Tolstoi’s proposal that in the future art should be reduced to being a mere adjunct of ethical education, or, failing that, should be banished from the world as futile or degrading. In pointing out, as we have done, the imperious nature of that desire for beauty which normally regulates all the practical constructive energies of mankind, and subdues to its purposes all human impulses to imitation and expression, imposing a how entirely separate and sui generis; and in clearing up that confusion among conflicting æsthetic theories of which Tolstoi has taken such advantage, we have brought home, we hope, to the reader the presumption that an instinct so special and so powerful must play some very important part in the bodily and mental harmony of man. Further, while indicating the natural mechanism by which, under normal circumstances, the appreciation and enjoyment of artistic forms have kept pace with their changes, and familiarity with the various kinds of beauty in the humblest and commonest objects page: 156 of utility has rendered spontaneous the perception of the same kinds of beauty in their higher, more complex, and less utilitarian developments, we have shown that this special and imperious æsthetic craving has created its own natural and universal modes of satisfaction. We have seen that art, considered as the production of beautiful objects or arrangements, has been spontaneously produced, spontaneously enjoyed, and universally diffused, in one or other of its categories, throughout the whole of the past; and, having taken notice of the disturbing influences which have interrupted this normal condition of things in the present, we have shown reason to expect a return thereunto in the future. The wrong condition of things with regard to art is the result of other wrong conditions, intellectual, social, and economic, inevitable in a period of excessive, complex, and, so to speak, compound, change; and as these wrong conditions cannot fail to right themselves, the adjustment of the question of art will follow as the result of other adjustments. In what precise manner this may take place it would be presumptuous to forecast; but this much may be affirmed, that the ascetic subordination of art to ethical teaching will play no part in it. Imperfect, and even in some ways intolerable to our moral sense, as is the present condition of art, as Tolstoi has victoriously demonstrated, let those among us whom it offends reflect that even under such evident wrong conditions it is not mere selfishness to preserve the art of the past and foster the art of the present for the benefit of a more just and wholesome, a more developed and more traditionally normal, future. Moreover art, like science and like practical page: 157 well‐being, will in the long run take care of itself; because, despite Tolstoi’s statement to the contrary, art, like morality itself, is necessary to mankind’s full and harmonious life.

previous
next