Review: What Is Art?

A friend pointed me at Tolstoy’s extended essay on the nature of art and I found it thought-provoking, though I didn’t agree with much of it. Primarily I enjoyed watching the result of a disciplined and deep intellect grappling with an abstract, important, and interesting question.

From the beginning he is careful to define and motivate the question. He’s not interested in a purely navel-gazing assessment of art as an activity, but as a societal investment. Taxes can be used to support it, for example, but beyond that larger works of art require societies to be structured to create the time and resources for artists to work on art. That implies them working less on pure survival so some people will have to shoulder that burden.

Considering the issue from that position – what artistic activities are worth paying for as a societal cost – puts many an interesting slant on it. His motivations tend away from the frivolous and toward the edifying. His ideas of edification are motivated from his religious convictions, so we have some disagreements.

Overall, this is a formidable work that I expect I will think much more about.


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