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What Is Art? (Penguin Classics) Revised ed. Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0140446425
ISBN-10: 0140446427
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Book Description

A major and provocative work of criticism by the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Russian
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised ed. edition (January 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140446427
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140446425
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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I'm surprised that nobody (so far) has commented on the physical aspects of this book, Because the original is so old - written in 1899 after sixteen years of thought-it is now a rare book This then, is printed using a patented Print on Demand technology. It is printed using a robot that turns and photographs each page. Since the book has been re-typeset, page numbers change and there is no index or table of contents. Also, there are a number of typos. However, none of this really matters as far as the actual content of the thought is concerned and the typos are not too distracting.
"What Is Art"is an interesting read with many aspects applicable to today. For example, in discussing the definition of "beauty", Tolstoy observes, "As is always the case, the more cloudy and confused the conception conveyed by a word, with the more aplomb and self-assurance do people use that word, pretending what is understood by it is so simple and clear that it is not worth while even to discuss what it actually means." Along with gems of insights, Tolstoy betrays his own prejudices as he is against nudity ("female nakedness"), even referring to a ballet as a "lewd performance". He dislikes Wagner, all of Beethoven's later works and the whole Impressionist movement - which, of course, was new back then. However, he is also against realism, "When we appraise a work according to its realism, we only show that we are talking, not of a work of art, but of its counterfeit". He also dislikes art schools- but not art education in public schools-, critics, art about art, and the idea of grants to artists. He believed that artists should earn their living in the real world, so as not to lose a connection to regular life.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Unlike many works of aesthetics which tend to be overly abstract and dense, using technical terms from philosophy and a layering of sophisticated concepts, What is Art by Leo Tolstoy is as clear as clear can be, using language and ideas anybody can understand. Tolstoy is passionate about art and art's place within human experience. For many years, he tells us, he has been observing art and reading about art. And what he sees and reads is not pretty. For instance, he goes to a rehearsal of opera: "All is stopped, and the director, turning to the orchestra, attacks the French horn, scolding him in the rudest of terms, as cabmen abuse each other, for taking the wrong note." Seen through Tolstoy's eyes, the entire production is a ridiculous, grotesque, overblown extravagance. We can imagine Tolstoy shaking his head when he observes, "It would be difficult to find a more repulsive sight."

Tolstoy goes on to give us a detailed sampling of what philosophers and aestheticians have written about art and beauty throughout history, particularly since the eighteenth century, when aesthetics became a subject unto itself. The theories range from art being an expression of divine truth to art being a titillation of the senses of seeing, hearing, feeling and even tasting and smelling. Tolstoy notes toward the end of his study, "Therefore, however strange it may seem to say so, in spite of the mountains of books written about art, no exact definition of art has been constructed. And the reason of this is that the conception of art has been based on the conception of beauty."

Further on in his work, Tolstoy gives us an example of a young art gallery-goer being baffled at the painting of the various modern schools of art, impressionism, post-impressionism and the like.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In this piece Tolstoy asks the hard questions about art by going back to basics: What is art? What is beauty? What is truth? His education and, more importantly, his experience and thought on the subject, force us to realize that we don't have any easy answers. And these are definitely questions that are not satisfied by easy answers. They are also questions that are more important than the answers themselves. These questions take us beyond the answers by forcing us to be sincere with ourselves. Sentas and solas aren't enough.

For his part, Tolstoy makes it clear that this is a subject where he knows the thought of the important thinkers on art (all of them, apparently, of any significance), knows the history of the philosophy of art itself, and knows how to think (which he urges us to do). He also makes it clear that the question of what is art is, for him (and should be for us), more than an intellectual exercise. So if we want to be educated about art we have to let go of our non-ideas, open our minds to the thoughts of others, and admit to ourselves that we probably don't know much about art—and may not know much more about it even after reading Tolstoy's thoughts on art. But at least we'll know that much, and that's a pretty good place to start. We can all draw our own conclusions about what art is and what it means to us, as well as to Tolstoy. I don't want to be the one that tries to sum up the Count's thinking on the subject, but I don't think he would argue too much if I suggest that Keats has summed it up pretty well in his Ode on a Grecian Urn: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all that Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
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