Details
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Autograph draft for What is Art?. 1897
Autograph manuscript, a draft for What is Art?, n.p., n.d. [c.1897].

In Russian. Approximately 257 words on two pages, 222 x 175mm, a draft with cancellations and emendations. Provenance: Christie’s New York, 7 June 1990, part of lot 130 (unsold) – with Heritage Book Shop, 2004.

'The movement forward of humanity ... has no limits'. A fragment from the manuscript draft of What is Art?, comprising approximately the second fifth of chapter IX of What is Art?: the passage concentrates on a key concept of the treatise, the range of emotions that can be communicated by art.

'... and there is nothing fresher than the feelings springing from the religious consciousness of each age. It could not be otherwise: man’s enjoyment has limits established by his nature, but the movement forward of humanity, that which is voiced by religious perception, has no limits. At every forward step taken by humanity – and such steps are taken in consequence of the greater and greater elucidation of religious perception – men experience new and fresh feelings. And therefore only on the basis of religious perception (which shows the highest level of life-comprehension reached by the men of a certain period) can fresh emotion, never before felt by man, arise ... / The variety of fresh feelings flowing from religious perception is endless, and they are all new ... But the feelings flowing from the desire for enjoyment are, on the contrary, not only limited, but were long ago experienced and expressed. And therefore the lack of belief of the upper classes of Europe has left them with an art fed on the poorest subject-matter. The impoverishment of the subject-matter of upper-class art was further increased by the fact that, ceasing to be religious, it ceased also to be popular, and this again diminished the range of feelings which it transmitted ...'. (tr. by Aylmer Maude, 1897).

Tolstoy's treatise What is Art? evaluates the traditions of Western art, encompassing literature, music and the fine arts – but also jokes, home decoration and church services – in the light of the uncompromising moralism of the author's latter years. Rejecting simple 'beauty' as a standard, he considers that art should be judged only by how directly and democractically it communicates emotion: anything artificial or obscure is vigorously rejected, and the treatise is in fact famous for Tolstoy's stern condemnation of such canonical figures as Shakespeare, Dante, Wagner – and indeed, of the entirety of his own oeuvre with the exception of two obscure short stories. The present fragment goes to the heart of his argument, that the richness and range of art's emotional content has been narrowed and impoverished over the centuries though elitism. The treatise was completed in 1897, and because of difficulties with the censor in Russia was first published in English in the same year, in the translation by Aylmer Maude.




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