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What Is Art?

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  2,300 ratings  ·  211 reviews
During the decades of his world fame as sage & preacher as well as author of War & Peace & Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote prolifically in a series of essays & polemics on issues of morality, social justice & religion. These culminated in What is Art?, published in 1898. Although Tolstoy perceived the question of art to be a religious one, he considered & rejected the idea th ...more
Hardcover, 252 pages
Published February 1st 2000 by Replica Books (first published 1898)
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Ahmad Sharabiani
Что такое искусство? = Chto Takoye Iskusstvo? = What Is Art?, Leo Tolstoy

What is Art? is a book by Leo Tolstoy. It was completed in Russian in 1897 but first published in English due to difficulties with the Russian censors.

Tolstoy cites the time, effort, public funds, and public respect spent on art and artists as well as the imprecision of general opinions on art as reason for writing the book. In his words, "it is difficult to say what is meant by art, and especially what is good, useful
Glenn Russell
Mar 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing

Unlike many works of aesthetics which tend to be overly abstract and dense, using technical terms from philosophy and a layering of sophisticated concepts, Leo Tolstoy’s book is clear-cut, employing language and ideas anybody interested in the subject 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
Kevin Richey
Mar 02, 2012 rated it liked it
I’m so conflicted with Tolstoy. I agree with him about half the time, and the other half, I just wish he’d stop being so damn Puritanical. I don’t disagree with Tolstoy’s basic thesis, that art is defined by the following features: a person (the artist) feels a certain emotion, and captures that emotion in his work (a book, poem, concert, whatever) so that the viewer is infected with that same emotion. That works for me. I agree also with Tolstoy that emotional resonance is more important than t ...more
Sue K H
Jan 31, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I rate this as 5 stars even though I disagree with much of it.  This book is guaranteed to get your bristles up. Well, maybe not yours, but my bristles surely were up.   Shun Beethoven?!  Shun Don Quixote?! Shun Shakespeare?! How dare he.  I didn't agree with much of what Tolstoy said for the 1st 3/4 of this.  I'm a Christian as he is, but I felt it too preachy and offputting until the end where he really brought it home and I could more fully understand where he was coming from.  I already want ...more
May 13, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good works of art to Tolstoy: the works of Victor Hugo, the novels of Charles Dickens, some of the tales of Gogol and Pushkin, the writings of Maupassant, the comedies of Molière (whom Tolstoy refers to as "the most excellent artist of modern times," according to this translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), the writings of Dostoevsky, Schiller's Robbers, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Adam Bede by George Eliot, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, a handful of paintings ...more
Thomas Rogers
Sep 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
I recently read this book on holiday in Austria.


I am a Fine Art student attending Falmouth University Cornwall, going into my final year, and a devout follower of Jesus.
Throughout the course of my degree I have constantly struggled to reconcile my beliefs, with fine art.
Most of the time art seemed pretty pointless to me, it seemed completely self-indulgent, and a total waste of my time along with everybody else's - when considering the state of this world and the majority of it's in
Jun 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: russia, favorites, art
"But if the majority do not understand, they must be given an explanation, the knowledge necessary for understanding. But it turns out that this knowledge does not exist, that the works cannot be explained, and therefore those who say that the majority do not understand good works of art give no explanations, but say that in order to understand one must read, look at, or listen to the same work over and over again. But this is not to explain, it is to make accustomed. And one can get accustomed ...more
Mar 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Art is an infection of feeling and experience. Despite the title and author, this is a down to earth layman's discussion on the definition of art. You don't need to have any particular passion for the arts to enjoy this book. It's more about art's impact on societal issues. You will never go to a museum or art gallery and see things the same afterwards. ...more
Nov 16, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Todd by: H.O. Mounce
Tolstoy's work in aesthetics, What is Art? deals with two main issues: (1) Is there a moral justification for the lives, money, and resources spent in the artworld, and (2) What is the nature of art? Tolstoy claims that the nature of genuine art is to transfer feelings from the artist to others, thereby uniting the artist and audience; thus, art is a means of communion. And Tolstoy argues that there is no justification for most of what passes as art in the contemporary world. Most of it, he says ...more
Apr 24, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: in-portuguese
Having never read Tolstoi before, this seemed like an interesting start since knowing his perspective about art in general would make me understand his own work better, especially his novels.
This being said, I was clearly not ready for this book. The amount of research I had to do in order to understand his ideas about some writers, musicians, painters, sculptures, etc. (or at least know who he was talking about) was, at times, overwhelming, which made me fall behind on schedule to finish the bo
Kendall Davis
Oct 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, compelling, and powerfully written. I think I may disagree deeply with Tolstoy, but I am challenged by and respect his contribution to this conversation in this volume.
John Pistelli
This late polemic was written over the course of 15 years following the author’s religious conversion and published in 1898. It begins in characteristic Tolstoyan fashion—with a visit to the opera. There Tolstoy observes that, “[b]esides the costumed men and women, two other men in short jackets were running and fussing about the stage.” Viktor Shklovsky later founded the literary critical school of Russian Formalism on this tactic of defamiliarization, in which, Shklovsky famously writes in his ...more
Jun 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
brillant and very challenging to what our conventional view of art is. Tolstoys main point is that the art that we see today (and in his time also) is on the whole very immitative and not true art. for him true is is when the artist feels something and wants to convey that through his work so that the person viewing it "feels" what the artist felt also. there are lots of other very challenging views in here which are very thought provoking. Some of my favourite bits:

"But among these works of va
David Withun
Jul 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: arts
Feb 13, 2021 rated it really liked it
Late life tolstoy is a bit of a contradiction. He, one of the greatest novelists of all time, disparaged and distanced himself from his older work. In What Is Art, he bemoans the Artistic Industrial Complex, and how much effort and labor it takes up, when he believes that it could be better used. I would side with Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson that art is something (especially in terms of architecture) which far outlives its investment (of time, money, or personnel).

He was wondering who this
James Klagge
Not an engaging book--more like a diatribe by an Old Testament prophet. Tolstoy here is an old depressed curmudgeon heaping scorn on all the "art" that we hold dear. It was written toward the end of his life, after he had rejected much of his own great work, and here added to that a wholesale rejection of the pillars of Western culture (pp. 96-97)--Greek tragedians, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven (he singles out the 9th for detailed discussion, and hates the late quartets), Wagner ( ...more
Fraser Kinnear
Dec 24, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: culture, art
The tl;dr
Q: What is art?
A: "To call up in oneself a feeling once experienced and, having called it up, to convey it by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, images expressed in words, so that others experience the same feeling - in this consists the activity of art. Ar is that human activity which consists in one man's consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them."p.39-4
Justin Evans
Much better and more convincing than I was expecting. Even Tolstoy's literature review is entertaining. And yes, it gets a bit repetitive, and it's not perfectly thought through, but as a work of social and cultural criticism, this deserves (even) more praise than it receives. ...more
Dec 01, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
So, an old guy walks into a theatre while a company rehearses an opera, and starts to form an idea about how much the art's world consumes people's lives, to such humiliating results, and he spends the next fifteen years writing about how bad false art is, while suggesting the true art is something akin to true Christianity. One key element that is missing is that people have as much passion for their art, and such passion may not be a bad thing. I was only sorta persuaded by his many arguments, ...more
Peter Landau
You think you’re an artist? You’re no artist, punk! That’s what Leo Tolstoy says in his essay WHAT IS ART? He dismisses everyone from Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Baudelaire, Wagner to even some of his own writings as counterfeit. For Tolstoy art is twofold, an expression of divine devotion and brotherly love. It is not overly complex or striving for beauty, but a simple and pure emotion of the artist that has never been shared before. For Tolstoy only that of God can be infinite ...more
This is a fascinating and iconoclastic reinterpretation of the meaning of art by Tolstoy. In this work, the world-renowned novelist disavows much of his own artistic work, and much of what passes for art. Tolstoy criticizes the understanding of art as merely the expression of beauty (or pleasure). Indeed, he redefines art as cultural expressions motivated by a given emotion which lead their audiences to feel the same or similarly to the artist conceiving of the work. For Tolstoy in this work, ar ...more
Thiên Nguyễn
Jan 21, 2019 rated it it was ok
As very frequently met with, great artists could be terrible critics.
Tolstoy thought a creative artist is bound to be a critic, and tried to do both, and failed disastrously. Soon after his criticism went ripe, his creative mind got rotten.
Creative artists, leave criticism alone! But especially critics, leave creating alone!
Mar 22, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: my fellow art snobs
Recommended to Jeff by: Anna Karenina
I'm gonna break from tradition and actually write about what i liked rather than just trying (and failing) to express how, where, and why i was amused while reading & thinking about this book.

First of all, i was very amused at many points. Tolstoy's ideas about art amuse me when he gets all, "This is Good and that is Bad." Cracks me up, but i also feel like i understand why he felt that way. And i appreciate his ideals.

I can't imagine anybody else would ever make this comparison, but David Sklan
Nirav Varia
Jun 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
More important than the fact that Tolstoy chose to write about art is the fact that he has put a lot of effort and time in forming his own thoughts about the topic by extensive research, trying to understand what historically various people have thought about art, why they defined art in a particular manner, and why is it that we don't have a clear understanding of what art is?

I must say, Tolstoy makes very convincing arguments relating to the meaning of art, what it signifies, why there is a sk
Brantley Vosler
Sep 03, 2019 rated it liked it
I really enjoyed reading this but it's so wildly negative it was hard to handle. I suppose that doesn't mean he is wrong about it though. Much of what he critiqued I agreed with. If someone who didn't write War and Peace and Anna Karenina said what was in this book I would not take it seriously. But... He did... so - I took it seriously. I need a good challenge now and again and ole Leo does not hold back when it comes to challenging the status quo on art making. ...more
Aug 17, 2018 added it
that’s it. i don’t know how to rate it. i hate it so much but it’s so funny to read how much of a stupid cuck Tolstoy is that it’s entertaining in its own right. five star entertainment and one star content. congrats Lev T
Kennedy Ifeh
Jul 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What is Art by Leo Tolstoy presents Tolstoy’s views on the question of what a good work of art should entail. The book attacks the foundation of modern art. It gives flesh to my own critical impressions about contemporary literature, which has become synonymous with poetry, style, beauty and all sort of nonsense.

True to Tolstoy, the book starts with details of his own experience. He attends a rehearsal of one of the ordinary new operas of his days. He recounts that the event made no impression i
Jun 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
ottom Line: Tolstoy's "What is Art" contains an earlier draft and a final extended essay by the author of several of the world's greatest novels. He grapples with the question of what he thinks should be considered as art. Art he believes should not merely be pretty or entertaining. Art must be the original, inspired product of a naturally superior, creative person. It must clearly express the unique emotional message of a person who has experienced a spontaneous, and unique creative moment. Thi ...more
- What has started as a religious and folk art, turned into art for rich estates. Art for rich people is what gives them some sort of pleasure (different kinds of beauty)
- Religious art was pushed aside and all money, critics, art schools were concentrated in art for rich estates.
- True art has to express some feeling that was experienced by an artist him/herself, while art for rich estates demands beauty and grace, each time more and more sophisticated.
- That art for rich estates, which nowdays
Dec 08, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this because it was mentioned in the end notes for Anna Karenina.

This book summarizes fifteen years of Tolstoy's pondering the questions, "What is Art?" "What is the current state of artistic expression in Western Culture?" and "What should art be?"

First question: What is Art?
The book begins with Tolstoy summarizing the philosophical discussions and attempts at definition up to that time. He finds that the idea of "beauty" has derailed the discussion, and dismisses beauty as mere pleasu
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Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Russian: Лев Николаевич Толстой|18479204; most appropriately used Liev Tolstoy; commonly Leo Tolstoy in Anglophone countries) was a Russian writer who primarily wrote novels and short stories. Later in life, he also wrote plays and essays. His two most famous works, the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are acknowledged as two of the greatest novels of all time and ...more

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