“Without Art Mankind Could Not Exist”: Leo Tolstoy’s Essay What is Art

In his essay “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, defines art as a way to communicate emotion with the ultimate goal of uniting humanity.

Jul 3, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
leo tolstoy ploughed field
Leo Tolstoy in a Ploughed Field, Ilya Repin, 1887, Smithsonian


How can we define art? What is authentic art and what is good art? Leo Tolstoy answered these questions in “What is Art?” (1897), his most comprehensive essay on the theory of art. Tolstoy’s theory has a lot of charming aspects. He believes that art is a means of communicating emotion, with the aim of promoting mutual understanding. By gaining awareness of each other’s feelings we can successfully practice empathy and ultimately unite to further mankind’s collective well-being. 


Furthermore, Tolstoy firmly denies that pleasure is art’s sole purpose. Instead, he supports a moral-based art able to appeal to everyone and not just the privileged few. Although he takes a clear stance in favor of Christianity as a valid foundation for morality, his definition of religious perception is flexible. As a result, it is possible to easily replace it with all sorts of different ideological schemes.


Personally, I do not approach Tolstoy’s theory as a set of laws for understanding art. More than anything, “What is art?” is a piece of art itself. A work about the meaning of art and a fertile foundation on which truly beautiful ideas can flourish.


Most of the paintings used for this article were drawn by realist painter Ilya Repin. The Russian painter created a series of portraits of Tolstoy, which were exhibited together at the 2019 exhibition “Repin: The Myth of Tolstoy” at the State Museum L.N. Tolstoy. More information regarding the relationship between Tolstoy and Repin can be found in this article


Who was Tolstoy?

leo tolstoy in his study
Leo Tolstoy in his Study at Yasnaya Polyana, Ilya Repin, 1887, The Leo Tolstoy State Museum


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Leo Tolstoy (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy) was born in 1828 in his family estate of Yasnaya Polyana, some 200km from Moscow. His family belonged in the Russian aristocracy and thus Leo inherited the title of count. In 1851 he joined the tsarist army to pay off his accumulated debt but quickly regretted this decision. Eventually, he left the army right after the end of the Crimean War in 1856. 


After traveling Europe and witnessing the suffering and cruelty of the world, Tolstoy was transformed. From a privileged aristocrat, he became a Christian anarchist arguing against the State and propagating non-violence. This was the doctrine that inspired Gandhi and was expressed as non-resistance to evil. This means that evil cannot be fought with evil means and one should neither accept nor resist it.  


Tolstoy’s writing made him famous around the world and he is justly considered among the four giants of Russian Literature next to Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Turgenev. His most famous novels are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). However, he also wrote multiple philosophical and theological texts as well as theatrical plays and short stories. Upon completing his masterpiece Anna Karenina, Tolstoy fell into a state of insufferable existential despair.


Charmed by the faith of the common people, he turned to Christianity. Eventually, he dismissed the Russian Church and every other Church as corrupted and looked for his own answers. His theological explorations led to the formulation of his own version of Christianity, which deeply influenced his social vision.  He died in 1910 at the age of 82 after suffering from pneumonia.


Art Based On Beauty And Taste 

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Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, Ilya Repin, 1912, Penaty Estate Museum of Ilya Repin


Tolstoy wrote “What is art?” in 1897. There, he laid down his opinions on several art-related issues. Throughout this essay, he remains confident that he is the first to provide an exact definition for art:

“…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.”


So, what is art for Tolstoy? Before answering the question, the Russian novelist seeks a proper basis for his definition. Examining works of other philosophers and artists, he notices that they usually assume that beauty is art’s foundation. For them beauty is either that which provides a certain kind of pleasure or that which is perfect according to objective, universal laws.


Tolstoy thinks that both cases lead to subjective definitions of beauty and in turn to subjective definitions of art. Those who realize the impossibility of objectively defining beauty, turn to a study of taste asking why a thing pleases. Again, Tolstoy sees no point in this, as taste is also subjective. There is no way of explaining why one thing pleases someone but displeases someone else, he concludes. 


Theories that Justify the Canon

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Sketches of Leo Tolstoy, Ilya Repin, 1891, Private Collection


Theories of art based on beauty or taste inescapably include only that type of art that appeals to certain people:

“First acknowledging a certain set of productions to be art (because they please us) and then framing such a theory of art that all those productions which please a certain circle of people should fit into it.”


These theories are made to justify the existing art canon which covers anything from Greek art to Shakespeare and Beethoven. In reality, the canon is nothing more than the artworks appreciated by the upper classes. To justify new productions that please the elites, new theories that expand and reaffirm the canon are constantly created: 

“No matter what insanities appear in art, when once they find acceptance among the upper classes of our society, a theory is quickly invented to explain and sanction them; just as if there had never been periods in history when certain special circles of people recognized and approved false, deformed, and insensate art which subsequently left no trace and has been utterly forgotten.”


The true definition of art, according to Tolstoy, should be based on moral principles. Before anything, we need to question if a work of art is moral. If it is moral, then it is good art. If it is not moral, it is bad. This rationale leads Tolstoy to a very bizarre idea. At one point in his essay, he states that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and his own War and Peace are immoral and therefore bad art. But what does Tolstoy exactly mean when he says that something is good or bad art? And what is the nature of the morality he uses for his artistic judgments?


What is Art?

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Tolstoy in peasant clothing, Ilya Repin, 1901, State Russian Museum


Art is a means of communicating feelings the same way words transmit thoughts. In art, someone transmits a feeling and “infects” others with what he/she feels. Tolstoy encapsulates his definition of art in the following passages:

“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art.

Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hand on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”


In its essence, art is a means of union among men brought together by commonly experienced feelings. It facilitates access to the psychology of others fostering empathy and understanding by tearing down the walls of the Subject. This function of art is not only useful but also necessary for the progress and wellbeing of humanity.


The innumerable feelings experienced by humans both in past and present are available to us only through art. The loss of such a unique ability would be a catastrophe. “Men would be like beasts”, says Tolstoy, and even goes as far as to claim that without art, mankind could not exist. This is a bold declaration, which recalls the Nietzschean aphorism that human existence is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.


Art in the Extended and Limited Sense of the Word

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Leo Tolstoy in the Room with the Arches, Ilya Repin, 1891, State Russian Museum


Tolstoy’s definition expands to almost every aspect of human activity way beyond the fine arts. Even a boy telling the story of how he met a wolf can be art. That is, however, only if the boy succeeds in making the listeners feel the fear and anguish of the encounter. Works of art are everywhere, according to this view. Cradlesong, jest, mimicry, house ornamentation, dress and utensils, even triumphal processions are all works of art. 


This is, in my view, the strongest point of Tolstoy’s theory. Namely, that it considers almost the totality of human activity as art. However, there is a distinction between this expanded art, and art in the limited sense of the word. The latter corresponds to the fine arts and is the area that Tolstoy investigates further in his essay.  A weak point of the theory is that it never examines the act of creation and art that is not shared with others. 


Real and Counterfeit Art

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Leo Tolstoy Takes a Rest in the Woods, Ilya Repin, 1891, State Tretyakov Gallery


The distinction between real and counterfeit, good and bad art is Tolstoy’s contribution to the field of art criticism. Despite its many weaknesses, this system offers an interesting alternative to judging and appreciating art.


Tolstoy names real art (i.e. authentic, true to itself) the one resulting from an honest, internal need for expression. The product of this internal urge becomes a real work of art, if it successfully evokes feelings to other people. In this process, the receiver of the artistic impression becomes so united with the artist’s experience, that he/she feels like the artwork is his/her own. Therefore, real art removes the barrier between Subject and Object, and between receiver and sender of an artistic impression. In addition, it removes the barrier between the receivers who experience unity through a common feeling.


“In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.”

Furthermore, a work that does not evoke feelings and spiritual union with others is counterfeit art. No matter how poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting it is, it must meet these conditions to succeed. Otherwise it is just a counterfeit posing as real art.


Emotional Infectiousness

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Leo Tolstoy in a Pink Armchair, Ilya Repin, 1909, The Leo Tolstoy State Museum


Emotional infectiousness is a necessary quality of a work of art. The degree of infectiousness is not always the same but varies according to three conditions:

  1. The individuality of the feeling transmitted: the more specific to a person the feeling, the more successful the artwork.
  2. The clearness of the feeling transmitted: the clearness of expression assists the transition of feelings and increases the pleasure derived from art.
  3. The sincerity of the artist: the force with which the artist feels the emotion he/she transmits through his/her art. 


Out of all three, sincerity is the most important. Without it, the other two conditions cannot exist. Worth noting is that Tolstoy finds sincerity almost always present in “peasant art” but almost always absent in “upper-class art”. If a work lacks even one of the three qualities, it is counterfeit art. In contrast, it is real if it possesses all three. In that case, it only remains to judge whether this real artwork is good or bad, more or less successful. The success of an artwork is based firstly on the degree of its infectiousness. The more infectious the artwork, the better.  


The Religious Perception of Art

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The Entombment of Christ by Greco, El Greco, 1570-1576, National Gallery – Alexandros Soutsos Museum


Tolstoy believes that art is a means of progress towards perfection. With time, art evolves rendering accessible the experience of humanity for humanity’s sake. This is a process of moral realization and results in society becoming kinder and more compassionate. A genuinely good artwork ought to make accessible these good feelings that move humanity closer to its moral completion. Within this framework, a good work of art must also be moral. 


But how can we judge what feelings are morally good? Tolstoy’s answer lies in what he calls “the religious perception of the age”. This is defined as the understanding of the meaning of life as conceived by a group of people. This understanding is the moral compass of a society and always points towards certain values. For Tolstoy, the religious perception of his time is found in Christianity. As a result, all good art must carry the foundational message of this religion understood as brotherhood among all people. This union of man aiming at his collective well-being, argues Tolstoy, must be revered as the highest value of all. 


Although it relates to religion, religious perception is not the same with religious cult. In fact, the definition of religious perception is so wide, that it describes ideology in general. To this interpretation leads Tolstoy’s view that, even if a society recognizes no religion, it always has a religious morality. This can be compared with the direction of a flowing river:

If the river flows at all, it must have a direction. If a society lives, there must be a religious perception indicating the direction in which, more or less consciously, all its members tend.



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“What is truth” Christ and Pilate, Nikolai Ge, 1890, State Tretyakov Gallery


It is safe to say that more than a century after Tolstoy’s death, “What is Art?” retains its appeal. We should not easily dismiss the idea that (good) art communicates feelings and promotes unity through universal understanding. This is especially the case in our time where many question art’s importance and see it as a source of confusion and division. 




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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.