Art is the Sharing of Human Subjectivity - Excerpt from Ch. 5 of "What is Art?" by Leo Tolstoy and Some Personal Thoughts
What is Art?
Lately I had a thought about the nature of stories. Why do we find stories entertaining? When people have free time, the pursuit of stories is at the top of the list as a pleasurable way to spend one's time. We go to the movies on opening night, we unwind on the weekends with TV shows, we follow our favorite influencers on social media, some people even read novels. But why, why is this entertaining? Why do we find pleasure in watching stories unfold, even ones that are totally fiction? I'm sure that there may be several answers to this question. One, though, stands out in my mind as a potential answer.
In so many ways, I believe that we are attracted to stories because they allow us to grapple with that part of the human reality that is intangible. When we listen or participate in entertainment, we are grappling with the invisible realm that we all participate in every day. We find insight into the inner world of subjectivity that each of us experiences, finding some shared presence in a realm which no one else but God can directly participate in. We also find wisdom in how to navigate relations with other people. And how much more fascinating could this be, than to more deeply understand that part of reality which science has no major say in.
This is Tolstoy's definition of art. Art is the bridge that allows us to share our inner subjectivity and experience with other people. We certainly cannot do this directly through some type of telekinesis, but we can use mediums to communicate - language, paint, marble, music, etc. Even though Tolstoy doesn't use Personalist language in this chapter, (I-Thou language), his view of art is essentially to explore the Existentialist and Personalist view of philosophy. What does it mean to be an individual person living in this time with these particular problems and in search of these particular ends? That is something which we must look to one another for guidance with. We need companions along the journey, we need wisdom, we need inspiration. Herein lies the nature of artistic expression. "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them."
The Sharing of the I to the Thou Through Art
In chapter five Tolstoy's work What is Art?, he boils down the essence of what he considers the definition of art. He also points out the different definitions of the time that he rejects regarding the nature of art. Art, for Tolstoy, is not the ultimate form of beauty in God, abstract as universal forms are. It is not what the Materialists say it is either, some overflowing of physical energy into other mediums. Likewise, he does not think that it is simply the putting down of one's emotions on paper, it's something more. For sure, he says, it cannot be something so shallow as simply pleasure or creating pleasurable things to partake in.
Rather, Tolstoy gives a very specific definition for art in this chapter. Art is the union that is brought about when one person's subjectivity is able to be experienced by another through the medium that is used. When I undergo some type of experience, and I so craft that experience into an artistic work such that the one who beholds it is able to share in some part in that original experience with me, then I have created art. "Art begins when one person with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling expresses that feeling by certain external indications." or again, "...it is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity."
Whatever the feelings being conveyed isn't necessarily important, what is important is the "infectiousness" of the of the art to draw the other, the viewer, into the subjectivity of the creator. Whether this be related to sorrow, despair, tragedy, or comedy, joy, and laughter, or purpose, love, and happiness, if it can convey itself to the viewer, it is successful. Tolstoy gives three criteria which explain more clearly what "infectiousness" is. Art is more powerful when, first, it most clearly expressed the individuality of the creator, the subjectivity of the I behind the work. Secondly, it is the clearness by which this experience in conveyed. Lastly, it depends on the level of reality that the art represents of life. When the artist is sincere, when he is powerful, when he gives himself to it, then it becomes good art.
"To take the simplest example: a boy having experienced, let us say, fear on encountering a wolf, relates that encounter; and in order to evoke in others the feeling he has experienced, describes himself, his condition before the encounter, the surroundings, the wood, his own lightheartedness, and then the wolf's appearance, its movements, the distance between himself and the wolf, and so forth. All this if only the boy when telling the story again experiences the feelings he had lived through, and infects the hearers and compels them to feel what he had experienced is art.
Even if the boy had not seen a wolf but had frequently been afraid of one, and if wishing to evoke in others the fear he had felt, he invented an encounter with a wolf and recounted it so as to make his hearers share the feelings he experienced when he feared the wolf, that also would be art. And just in the same so way it is art if a man, having experienced either the fear of suffering or the attraction of enjoyment (whether in reality or in imagination), expresses these feelings on canvas or in marble so that others are infected by them. And it is also art if a man feels, or imagines to himself, feelings of delight, gladness, sorrow, despair, courage, or despondency, and the transition from one to another of these feelings, and expresses them by sounds so that the hearers are infected by them and experience them as they were experienced by the composer."
1 - Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art?. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/64908/64908-h/64908-h.htm