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.

Critical Thinking Skills a Dragon Slayer Could Appreciate

One can only imagine what life was like, growing up on Mt Olympus.  Apollo was given the knowledge and wisdom needed to slay dragons and play his music from just one source, his father Zeus.  Zeus was a great teacher providing doctrines and guidance in human nature and after all, who can argue with a god?  Apollonian knowledge involves common sense and good judgement…timeless critical thinking skills that are valuable, especially in today’s society.

At the beginning of the summer, I saw my Apollonian self as one with a passion for knowledge.  My biggest strength is an eye for context as I determine an appropriate solution to a problem.  I picture myself creating and developing something new that will change the world of computers.  For now, I plan to transfer the knowledge I’ve gained from my current university into a successful career in Information Technology.  Upon further reflection, I’ve learned that employers are not only looking at specialized career skills but seeking employees with good thinking and communication skills.

Many job postings list “critical thinking skills” as a prerequisite for employment.  But what are the critical thinking skills a potential employer is looking for, and what is it not?  Concepts I think are helpful to understand are egocentrism, critical thinking standards, and emotive language.

Egocentrism is the tendency to see reality as centered on oneself.  Egocentrics are self-absorbed people who view themselves as superior to all others.  Self-serving bias, an extremely common byproduct of egocentrism, allows people to overrate themselves.  Egocentrism can be a barrier to landing and maintaining a great job.  While preparing my resume, it is important to be able to look honestly at my personal strengths (and weaknesses) as I list them.  I want to seek out jobs that align with my actual goals and interests.  During the interview, I want to communicate genuine successes and accomplishments.  I am proud of my work throughout my college career, both on and off campus.  In addition to successfully completing coursework with a 3.33 GPA, I have become involved in several extracurricular activities.  I want my potential employer to understand who I am and why I would be an asset to any company.  In addition, many companies are looking for team players.  Team players don’t let egocentrism skew their ability to work effectively with others.  Through understanding the barrier of egocentrism, I will find the perfect career match bringing success, genuine happiness, and longevity.

When a potential employer lists critical thinking as a prerequisite for a job, I think of the critical thinking standards, the cognitive skills and intellectual standards needed to effectively identify, analyze, and evaluate arguments and truth claims.  Computer technology jobs require employees to think critically, especially in the area of programming.  Programming a computer to perform complex operations is probably more demanding of critical thinking skills than almost any other activity.  In order to write a computer program, you must understand what the program is to accomplish.  As a software developer, I will be required to interview the intended users of the system, determining what is really needed.  Questions I would ask include: What platform the program or system is to be run on?  How the user wants their data to be displayed?  Are there any specialties they want the program to perform? Next, I must determine how the objective will be accomplished.  Ways to accomplish this step is creating a list of program requirements, checking off each requirement as it is added to the program, and ensure each requirement requested has been fulfilled.  Finally, I express the required steps as a computer program using programming language.  A programming language is chosen through specific criteria such as program requirements, graphical interface, or command line interface platform.  Critical thinking standards for computer technology include clarity of language, precision in numbers, accuracy of information, and relevance.  I believe this course has helped me to understand myself better and how improving my critical thinking skills will help me succeed in the workforce.

The a few nights ago, I was watching an old segment from the Today Show.  They had a segment (loosely) called “What people are talking about at the water cooler.”  They gossiped about the latest trends and headlining celebrities.  While I plan to spend 40 hours (or more) at my new career, I can’t help thinking about the people I will work long hours with.  Group dynamics and emotive language came to mind.  Emotive language is a masterful use of language we find hard to resist.  While language is used to convey information, emotive language uses carefully chosen words to appeal to the listener’s feelings, desires, and needs.  Emotive language reveals much about the speaker’s attitude and feelings toward a given subject.

In closing, I want to appreciate the opportunity to transfer critical thinking skills toward a bright future in Information Technology.  While there are other critical thinking concepts I could demonstrate on paper, I have spent time reflecting upon many of them as they apply to the workforce and my Apollonian self.  I have a passion for creating and developing something new that will change the world of computers…someday.  Through critical thinking, I know I will continue learning as my job skills get stronger.  I may not be slaying dragons and playing music, but Zeus would be proud!