This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
Count Tolstoi's book is, for the most part,averyfierce and trenchant attack upon modern, as well as some ancientart, from the point of view of a social reformer and an ascetic and iconoclastic zealot. In a true Christian spirit he denounces nearly everybody and everything, and indeed, metaphorically speaking, and to his own satisfaction at least, first sacks and burns the houses of the aesthetic philosophers from Baum-garten to Grant Allen, flinging their various definitions of beauty to the winds; and he proceeds to make a bonfire of the most eminent names and works, both ancient and modern, and including Sophocles, Euripides, AEschylus, Aristophanes, Dante, Tasso, Milton, Shakespeare; Raphael, Michael Angelo's "Last judgement," parts of Bach and Beethoven; Ibsen, Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Mallarme, Pu-vis de Chavannes, Klinger, Bocklin, Stuck, Schneider, Wagner, Liszt, Berlioz, Brahms, and Richard Strauss; - no English need apply, I was about to say, but he includes Burne-Jones. And then, waving his torch, he points to the regeneration of art in the re-organization of Society, tempered by the opinion of the plain man and - leaves the question still burning.
Of an ideal of beauty in art he will have none. Beauty appears to his ascetic mind (or mood) as something synonymous with pleasure, and therefore more or less sinful and to be avoided : yet, realist as he appears to be at times, he is quite as vague and idealistic as the idealists he scorns when he speaks of a "Christian art" which is to take the place of modern corruptions. Tolstoi's view of art, too, is practically limited to literature, the drama, music, painting, and sculpture. (I am afraid he did not know of the Art Workers' Guild when he wrote his book, and seems ignorant of William Morris and the English movement.)
Only towards the end of the work (p. 171) does he mention "ornamental" art, or rather he speaks of "ornaments" (including "China dolls") and remarks that such as these "for instance, ornaments of all kinds are either not considered to be art, or considered to be art of a low quality. In reality" (however, he says), "all such objects, if only they transmit a true feeling experienced by the artist and comprehensible to everyone (however insignificant it may seem to us to be) are works of real good Christian art."
He then becomes aware, recalling his denial of "the conception of beauty" as supplying "a standard for works of art" that he is in an inconsistent position, and turns round and says that "the subject-matter of all" kinds of ornamentation consists not in the beauty, but in the feeling (of admiration of, and delight in, the combination of lines and colours) which the artist has experienced and with which he infects the spectator." This seems to be a cumbrous and roundabout way of saying that the thing is admired because it is beautiful.
Tolstoi, however, seems to have a rooted idea that there is something essentially selfish and narrow about the conception and ideal of Beauty and that it must be something necessarily exclusive, appealing only to a privileged or cultured class. He condemns the beauty which only appeals to a few, but admits that which appeals to many, though not because of its beauty, but because it unites so many in a common feeling of admiration.
The horrible word "infection" is constantly used. I do not know how far this may be the fault of the translation, and whether it is the exact equivalent for the Russian phrase, but somehow it has not a pleasant association as applied to the reception of ideas of art. Tolstoi says: "Art remains what it was and what it must be - nothing but the infection by one man of another, or of others, with the feelings experienced by the infector."
This is his main point throughout - the communicable power of art, and he values it, apparently, solely for this power.
But this power of infection, as he calls it, is not the exclusive possession or distinctive characteristic of art. A man with a disease may "infect" another, but you don't call it art. A fire may communicate some of its warmth to those who are cold, but we don't call it art. An angry man may punch you and infect you with his anger, so that you punch him in return, but we don't call it art - unless the art of self-defence is allowed to be an art.
It is true one is aware of the sort of physical test of good poetry - that it causes a shiver down the spinal column; and it is generally a true one, but whether it represents the shiver felt by the poet in writing one is not quite certain.
Besides, surely a work of art may communicate or suggest something more than was actually in the mind or emotions of the artist at the time, as by the power of association it may awaken different thoughts and feelings in many different minds.
To limit fine art only to those forms which are capable of appealing to everybody, and which communicate feelings and ideas which can be shared by humanity at large, must necessarily limit it to few and simple forms and types. No doubt Tolstoi fully realizes this, and he even recognizes that the art of the most universal appeal at the present day is apt to be rather trivial in form, such as "a song, or an amusing jest, intelligible to every one, or a touching story, or a drawing, or a little doll" (p. 165), and he elsewhere says that the producer of such things is doing far more good than the elaboration of a work to be appreciated only by a few.
Historic, romantic, or poetic art seems to have no attractions for Tolstoi. In fact, he jumps upon what he terms poetic art with immense vigour, and reserves his greatest vials of scorn for some of its modern exponents. He seems to have little perception of the law of evolution either in life or in art, which accounts for its very varied forms, and different spirit in different ages, and among different races and social conditions. Nor does he seem to recognize that every age demands a fresh interpretation of life in art. Form, spirit, and methods in art all change with the different temper of the times.
Tolstoi plays havoc with the critics, and his exposure of the shams, imitations, and pretentiousness in many forms of modern art is unsparing and often too true; and one feels in hearty sympathy with his desire for spontaneity and sincerity in art, as well as for a social state, a true co-operative commonwealth in which again might be realized that unity of purpose and sentiment upon which all forms of art depend for their widest appeal.
Tolstoi's ideal of a state in which all contribute to the useful labour of the community is a fine one, and, of course, this would condemn none to a life of monotonous toil or drudgery; but would afford leisure for thought and cultivation of the arts by those who had the real capacity in them; no one being attracted by commercial advantage or material profits, since, under these conditions, arts would be the spontaneous outcome of life, and freely offered for the good of the community in the joy of producing it.
Tolstoi's real strength lies in his zeal for and advocacy of such a simple communal life, and this gives the real force to his arguments for a corresponding simple and universal art; and, indeed, one feels that it is this conception and his religious views that are always dominant in his mind, and existing forms of art are frankly condemned or approved so far as their influence is unfavourable or favourable to such views of life.
In a remarkable footnote on p. 170, however, he allows that he is "insufficiently informed " in all branches of art, and that he belongs to the class of people whose taste is "perverted," that "old inured habits" may cause him to "err," and he goes on to consign certain works of his own to the category of "bad art."
His deeply rooted idea that all good art must convey a definite message which can be universally understood gives the impression that he only values art in so far as this definite message can be read in it; and, by his denial of the validity of beauty as an ideal and object in art, he removes himself, curiously enough, from where his sympathies lie really, from the acknowledgment and appreciation of the far-reaching influence of beauty in the commonest things of daily life - things of use which the touch of art makes vocal - things without which even the Tolstoian ideal of simple useful life would be impossible, to which the spontaneous and traditional handicraft art of the peasant in primitive countries has so largely contributed, and which reveal more definitely the character and artistic capacity and feeling of a people than whole galleries of self-conscious painting and sculpture.