What is Art?

If one were to walk the street and ask a passerby “What Is Art?”, they may get the same answer that has endured for centuries; architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry, etc. How they arrived at that answer, some may define art in terms of aesthetics; art produces beauty. When asked the definition of beauty, the answers become infinite. Beauty is subjective. Volumes of great thinkers have theorized and published a variety of answers on both subjects. So, aesthetics aside, one may again ask “What is Art?”

Leo Tolstoy attempts to answer this age-old question in his 1896 treatise, “What is Art?” Tolstoy notes that art is an activity and that “speech, transmitting the thoughts and expressions of men, serves as a means of union among them, and art acts in a similar means.” (p. 617) This is a reasonable definition, one that is objective and easy to understand.

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s definition of art is quite workable. Speech is the ability to express thoughts and feelings with articulated sounds. Through neuronal networks within the brain, humans have the unique ability to communicate and comprehend oral and written language. Art works in the same manner. The activity of art is man expressing thoughts and feelings through form, movement, lines, colors, and sounds so another man can identify the same expression through his ability to receive sight and/or sound. Tolstoy provides several examples how it works; one man laughs, so another who hears becomes merry; a man weeps, so another who hears feels sorrow.

Therefore, by Tolstoy’s definition, most anything could be considered art. But Tolstoy distinguishes good art in terms of infection; as a person yawning causes another to yawn. The feelings with which the artist infects others can vary; strong or weak, important or insignificant, good or bad. If a man is infected by the artists’ condition, this is art. If there is no connection, it is not art.

Tolstoy states, “The stronger the infection the better is the art as art.” (p. 619) With this claim, I would tend to disagree. There are countless works of art that are considered great art throughout history that infect men to different degrees: The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo (1511,) Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937,) Campbell Soup Cans by Andy Warhol (1962,) A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1884,) American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930,) and of course, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503-1506,) to name a few. The infection I feel for these works of art varies. With Guernica and Campbell Soup Cans, I feel a stronger connection. But I could stare at the Mona Lisa indefinitely and not feel a thing and yet, the Mona Lisa is considered the greatest masterpiece of all time. By Tolstoy’s definition, I would not personally consider the Mona Lisa to be the better art. Either Tolstoy’s reasoning is flawed, or there is something wrong with my neuronal network.

Tolstoy further breaks down the infectiousness of art. Good art depends upon three conditions, each of which deserve additional consideration.

  1. On the greater of lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted:
  2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted:
  3. On the sincerity of the artist…with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.

On the greater of lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted, Tolstoy states the more individual the feeling transmitted, the more strongly does it act upon the receiver. This statement would be true as it applies to African American artists that transmit feelings of the African American struggle. An example of individuality is found in the works of David Hammons. Hammons uses unique language and symbols from everyday life to communicate race-based exclusion dating back to the Jim Crow era, struggles that he personally witnessed. In David Hammons’ The Door (Admissions Office,) I can unite in empathy, defiance, even fear when in 1896, the Supreme Court upheld racial segregation in all public facilities, including education. The imprinted black body profiles volatility in the 1960s fight for Civil Rights.

The Door (Admissions Office)
The Door (Admissions Office) by David Hammons 1969

On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted, Tolstoy states that clearness assists the infection and as a result, the receiver becomes better satisfied. This statement would be true as is applies to music. In Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, an example of clearness would be the use of sound as Vivaldi creates musical expression to each season of the year. Experts believe that Vivaldi wrote Four Seasons after he became infected by Marco Ricci’s seasonal paintings. The clarity of Vivaldi’s music lies in the art of listening to the melody, harmony, timbre, tempo, and dynamics. In Spring, you can hear the arrival of spring in the first few bars of the piece. Performances of Four Seasons are often accompanied by poetry:

Joyful Spring has arrived, The birds welcome it with their happy songs, And the brooks in the gentle breezes Flow with a sweet murmur.

On the sincerity of the artist…with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits, Tolstoy states this is the most important condition. If the artist becomes infected by his own production, and writes for himself and not others, a resistance occurs. Sincerity is almost always found in peasant art. Peasant art may include scenes from Russia’s vast countryside, folk art, embroidery, and decorative arts. Tolstoy states peasant art is just as powerful, but is a condition that eludes the upper-class. To me, this statement makes no sense but then again, Tolstoy’s statement may reflect the attitudes of the time and place. Here in melting pot America, I’ve been infected by all sorts of immigrant art such as the colorful kokeshi dolls from Japan, abstract molas from Panama, native American baskets, and dazzling textile art worn by Hmong Americans.


Tolstoy’s “What is Art” successfully argues the activity of art and art how is transmitted from the author to the receiver. But his analysis of determining good art cannnot be confined to infectiousness or any other perimeters, just as beauty is subjective in nature. The best example of this is John Cage’s 4’33” (1952.) Composed for any type of instrument, any amount of performer, the experimental work forces the receiver to create the art within the sounds of the environment, like watching a bird create a nest for its young, a work of art made of feathers, twigs, and mud. The bird was not transmitting any sort of expression, but a work of art in nature nonetheless. Does art have to be intellectual, educational, uplifting, expressive to be considered art? Does it have to infect everyone to be considered good art? I still maintain that art, and beauty of art, is in the eye of the beholder.

Good neighbors

“The Mending Wall” (1914) is a poem from a Robert Frost book of poetry, “North of Boston,” published upon his return from England in 1915.  While living in England, Frost longed for his farm in New Hampshire where he had lived with his wife from 1900 to 1909.  A French-Canadian named Napoleon Guay was Frost’s neighbor in New Hampshire.  The two often walked together along the property line and repaired the wall that separated their land.  The phrase “good fences make good neighbors” often recited by Guay, was a popular colonial proverb in the 17th century. (gradesaver.com)

The concept of good neighbors is as old as its conception.  In Old English, the word “neighbor” was a compound word, nēahgebūr, made up of the two elements, nēah meaning “near” and gebūr meaning “inhabitant, peasant, or farmer.” (Merriam-Webster)  In other words, a neighbor is a person who lives nearby.  Living nearby is a custom rooted in survival from olden times when, for the sake of mutual protection at night, men slept within the call of others.  Groups of houses were surrounded by a tight hedge or fence through which no predatory wild animal could gain access.  In Old England, this hedge was known as tūn or “enclosed piece of land, homestead, or village.”  Of Germanic origin, tūn is related to the German Zaun or “fence.” (Merriam-Webster)

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Puttin’ on the Ritz, Where Fascism Sits

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” is a short story which first appeared in the June 1922 issue of The Smart Set, a popular magazine at the time.  It was later published in a collection of short stories entitled, Tales of the Jazz Age, September 1922.  The author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an American novelist and short story writer whose works illustrate the Jazz Age.  While he achieved limited success in his lifetime, F. Scott Fitzgerald is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the early 20th century.

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