Art’s Sense and Importance: Tolstoy and The Human Value of Art

“It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self… It is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.”

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace’s account of depression:  a solemn display of artistic mastery. From his body of work and biography, we know that the depression Wallace describes is one he himself often felt- and yet, experience with depression is no prerequisite in feeling the power behind his words (Weber). Somehow, through Wallace’s artistic expression, we are able to gain sudden insight into a way of being, a way of feeling, that we may never have comprehended before. This perspective sharing enables us to understand something important about life (depression is, after all, a real thing, which real human beings suffer with) and is a fascinating component of art. Sadly, our study of art often fails to investigate this connection between life and art. The purely formal (“art for art’s sake”) and institutional approaches which can dominate our study do have their own merit, but they never seem to explain this profound link between art and our individual lives.

Broadly speaking then (for details will be forthcoming), our aim here is to utilize Tolstoy’s What is Art?, a work that already determines to represent art as incredibly significant, to explain and justify how art and its value is not only relevant to human life broadly considered (i.e. the meaning and value we find in life), but is, in fact, central to it. We begin with Tolstoy’s attempt at such an explanation and the framework and moralism he thusly establishes. While his framework is orderly and his moralism a very direct solution to tying art and life together, this same moralism provokes many strong objections. These objections threaten to disestablish Tolstoy’s arguments for the human value and significance of art. Thus, our primary focus turns to modifying Tolstoy’s theory to retain the logical framework and life-significance of art that he provides without relying on his particular form of moralism.  This modification completed, it is to be hoped that we will come to see art neither as independently valuable activity nor as moral supplement, but as essential activity, which, when done well, moves all humanity closer to self-understanding.

Let us begin then with our primary text: Tolstoy’s What is Art?. Written in his later years, Tolstoy nursed a growing dissatisfaction with contemporary aesthetics that led him to develop a theory in which he approaches art not with the sophisticated schemas of the elite art lover (beauty especially frustrates him as an ultimately empty and hedonic concept), but with pure human intuitions on what is necessary and valuable. Beginning with these intuitions, Tolstoy derives two components of art that make it a fundamental human activity: communication and emotion. This initial definitional work complete, Tolstoy’s second priority is to demarcate art which we find important or valuable as art which interacts with our “religious perception.” This “religious perception” represents our core concept of normativity in life and Tolstoy concludes his book by identifying his age’s religious perception as universal brotherhood: the moral ideal that all peoples should be treated with love and understanding.

The dissatisfaction Tolstoy finds with beauty aesthetics cannot be overemphasized, for it is exactly his animosity towards beauty that displays what he is attempting to avoid in his definitional work: reliance on a flawed construct that is truly only a convoluted formulation of a hedonistic and classist approach to art. Tolstoy’s critique of beauty depends on his reduction of definitions of beauty into a singular hedonistic assumption. At times, this is a simple leap. For example, Tolstoy notes that subjective definitions of art (he places Kant in this category) often explicitly define beauty as “that which pleases us without evoking in us desire” (49). With other more objective definitions (Tolstoy is primarily considering Hegel and other aestheticians of “mystical” leaning (48)), this reduction is not so straightforward- the beauty found in the object is something “absolutely perfect” and supposedly divorced from our own reaction to it (49). Yet, Tolstoy notes that we recognize this manifestation of perfection only by the sense of pleasure it invokes in us, so that from a human perspective “both [subjective and objective] conceptions of beauty amount to one and the same thing… a certain kind of pleasure” (49). While Tolstoy has a clear moral distaste for any type of hedonism, he is more concerned with its blindness. Tolstoy holds that any purely hedonistic interpretation of art cannot but miss the point, for a thing’s importance (if it has any) is never found in just the pleasure it gives us. To take such an approach, would be as if to assert “that the purpose and aim of food is the pleasure derived [from] consuming it,” rather than the sustenance it provides (Tolstoy 53). The true importance of art should give us stable criteria for evaluating works and tell us about art as a human activity- “in its dependence on its causes… in connection with its effects, and not merely in relation to the pleasure we can get from it” (Tolstoy 50, 52).

But why are beauty aesthetics so prevalent then? If beauty is so obviously irrelevant to the value of art, why have we come to think otherwise? The cause here is perhaps what distresses Tolstoy most about beauty aesthetics: its self-perpetuating elitism. Tolstoy considers the pleasures of particular artworks on particular people to be nearly arbitrary (“there can be no explanation of why one thing pleases one man and displeases another” (50)), and so evaluating works for beauty is to raise the tastes of a specific group of people above the rest- which is exactly what groups with power (specifically, Tolstoy is always referring to “the upper classes” (52)) want. This elevation of the preferences of a few to an objective law for all is achieved and perpetuated through the construction of an inviolable art canon: a set of works so supposedly infallible that any theory or criterion that rejects even part of it is found to be deficient. This leads to less and less useful ad-hoc aesthetic theories as “no matter what insanities appear in art, when once they find acceptance among the upper classes of our society, a theory must quickly be invented to explain and sanction them” (Tolstoy 52).

Having covered what Tolstoy wishes to avoid, let us move to what Tolstoy wishes to capture with his definition. In understanding art as “a condition of human life,” Tolstoy aims for a definition large enough in scope to include any potentially significant role of art in human life (56). Thus, two priorities find manifestation in his definition: (1) art as necessary and endemic to human life and society is captured by considering “art as one of the means of intercourse between man and man” (art as communication) and (2) art as a unique form of self-expression further defines the activity of this intercourse as “man, consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and others are infected by these feelings” (art as manifested emotion received empathically) (56,59). Art, then, is an everyday form of human communication, with emotion as its content and empathic infection as its goal. Anecdotes, jokes, whistled tunes, and home furnishings would all be forms of art in this definition (though note, not yawning or complex lies, for art must be intentional and authentic). The only objects excluded at this stage are counterfeit works. While true artworks are emotional and infectious, they make the recipient “so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own… as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express,” counterfeit works are made dishonestly, with no true emotional inspiration or intent to inspire such (164). Tolstoy has in mind here works which are very complex or are intricately crafted, but have no emotional soul (think of “kitsch” or “cheap entertainment”, works which attempt to provide diversion rather than engagement).

Still, this is quite a corpus of art and so Tolstoy introduces religious perception as a refinement that will allow us to focus on those artworks that perform their function in a particularly significant way (much like the way the term art is traditionally used).  We attach “special importance” to this small fraction of art, signaling a communal acknowledgment that these works mean something more to us than the rest (61). The basis for this assignment is the same basis as all of our assignments of value, importance, good and evil: religious perception. It may seem odd to use the word “religious” here, but Tolstoy understands religion in a very non-traditional sense. Concepts we usually associate with religion (theology, organization, gods, groups, etc.) Tolstoy folds under the term “cult” (169-70).  Religion proper in Tolstoy, means something closer to what we today call “spirituality” or “life philosophy”, a society’s or individual’s set of guiding normative principals and ideas on how the world is. Religious perception specifically, refers to a group’s “perception of the meaning of life,” which, in turn, entails “what they hold to be the good and evil of life” (63). Identifying such a perception is to some extent a case of sociological/psychological analysis, but it is more fundamentally a search for a group’s deepest moral assumptions- the ideals that shape their lives. For example, Tolstoy holds that most (though not necessarily all- a religious perception can be multi-faceted) moral issues of the “Jews” were simply diverse abstractions and extensions of their central meaning of life: a “love of God and His law” (64). Since religious perception defines all value and the very meaning of life, Tolstoy finds it a simple leap to conclude that art of special importance is simply that art which manifests emotions relevant to religious perception. Thus, artworks relating to our religious perception come forward as significant objects that emotionally express our meaning of life, that take center stage[1] in our emotional exploration of what it is be a good human being. In his most charitable moments, Tolstoy is even willing to say that in progressing to become good human beings we are dependent on art, for “the [moral] evolution of feeling proceeds by means of art” (167). This is not to say anything ill of insignificant art, but to instead say deliberately nothing: “all the rest of the immense field of art… was not esteemed at all” (65). Just as these more trivial works have nothing to say about the fundamentals of life, Tolstoy has nothing to say to them. In fact, while we are affected, we do not even really notice these insignificant works- they breeze by, just like the furnishing of a home or garden (we say “oh, how nice” or “eugh, that wasn’t a good idea” and move on).

Tolstoy’s final thoughts focus on defining exactly what it is to be a good human being, and what artistic expression of that ideal looks like. To Tolstoy, religious perception (our understanding of what it is to live a good life) is consistently advancing towards a higher objective truth- “from a lower, more partial and obscure, understanding of life to one more general and more lucid” (63). Good significant art contributes to this evolution and is in harmony with a society’s religious perception, while bad significant art clashes with current religious perception and reflects a lower understanding of life; an understanding that may once have rung true, but that artistic and scientific evolution has shown to be deficient. The moral element here may still be obscure, but the connection becomes clearer with Tolstoy’s establishment of the religious perception of the “Christian” (our) age (170). The “religious perception of our time… is the consciousness that our well-being… lies in the growth of brotherhood among all men- in their loving harmony with one another:” universal peace and mutual understanding (171). In theoretical explorations of a concept, we are limited to the simple yea or nay: do we argue for or against. Emotional expression is not so binary- it has many forms of expressing the same type of sentiment. Thus, artworks can endorse this universal self-understanding in two ways: explicitly or implicitly. The former is accomplished by manifesting the emotions one expects from a universal brotherhood- “feelings of love of… one’s neighbor” (177-8), while the latter is accomplished by prodding us into an affirmation of the brotherhood among all peoples through evoked emotions of “common life, accessible to everyone,” and invoking our empathy to see ourselves in all others (176). Tolstoy derives universal brotherhood from his own reflections on Christian theology and the imperative to “love thy enemy,” but there is also no attempt at philosophical or a priori justification for such a moral stance. Instead, Tolstoy appeals to the intuitions of his readers, asserting that this moral truth becomes apparent (to Tolstoy’s contemporary audience) upon reflection and removal of class corruption. Having established this rule by which all present art should be judged, the rest of Tolstoy’s work is dedicated to applying it to works of his time. Tolstoy’s verdict is grim and unforgiving: only a handful of canonical works survive, and the very soul of traditional upper class art (the hedonistic aesthetic overviewed above) is found to be antithetical to the ideal of universal brotherhood. True art is in the minority and on the decline: a sad state for art indeed.

These three phases of Tolstoy’s argument are intended to guide us from our initial intuitions about art to a vision of art’s true purpose and value. The first phase sets the scope and gives us an aesthetic definition tied to communication and emotion. The second phase links significance in art with religious perception and our core moral values. The final phase spells out those values and identifies the two ways artworks support or deny them.

Modern readings of Tolstoy, especially those which dismiss or pay little attention to him, are carried away by this concluding directive from Tolstoy. Hearing, at the end of the book, that we must only value artworks that glorify a righteous moral law, it is indeed tempting to class Tolstoy’s theory as radical, yet straightforward, moralism: a position which dismisses or subordinates formal and other types of aesthetic value to moral value. To make matters more complicated, it is no misreading to say that Tolstoy thinks this is true. Indeed, Tolstoy does think that “ethical acceptability is a necessary condition for a work to have aesthetic merit” and that “most works of art in the European tradition since Shakespeare and Dante [should be denied as] works of art:” two of the reasons he is so often not taken seriously as aesthetic philosopher (Gaut 65, Diffey 1). However, understanding Tolstoy through his moralism is to understand his theory through its value judgments: its ranking of “subject matter [as] ideologically approved” or not approved (Wilkinson- qtd. in Mounce). Tolstoy’s analysis of ideological failure in art is interesting, but can come across to the less patient reader as “bitter polemics…. Narrow, exclusive, and arbitrary” judgments on what should be considered good in life and in art (Jahn). This is likely because, as we stated earlier, Tolstoy is uninterested in philosophically justifying his moral viewpoint. If one is reading What is Art? with moralism is mind, the lack of such a justification feels like the lack of any foundation whatsoever- if morality is the cause for such a massive reworking of art, why must we believe it? Thus, readings of Tolstoy focusing on moralism make the work appear “so unorthodox in its main conclusions that its serious challenges [are] generally shrugged off.” (Beardsley 308).

The much more productive approach to Tolstoy’s theory is to consider moralism as Tolstoy’s tool for a particular problem. In What is Art?, Tolstoy tells us from the beginning that he looks to find the necessity of art to human life, the “sake for which we condone such sacrifices at its shrine” (16). Life in general to Tolstoy is about being moral (hence his understanding of meaning of life as what is good and evil) and thus moralism becomes his tool for explaining the importance of art to life. The important realization in utilizing Tolstoy is that this tool can be substituted. The framework that Tolstoy provides us shows us a model for how art can be shown to be relevant and necessary to art. This framework, the build-up from defining art as human activity to eventually evaluating its significance to human life, is the essence of his theory- not the moralism.

Let us, therefore, refine Tolstoy’s framework to its essential assertions and rather than moralism, maintain that it is universal significance which is art’s unique contribution to human life. From Tolstoy’s basic definition of art, we can continue to defend the intertwined nature of art and life. From further analysis of religious perception, we can conclude that art’s significance is its contribution to our meaning of life. These two components understood, we can come to understand universal brotherhood as criterion for artworks that evaluates them based on the principles of their own design.

Let us begin with the assertion that sets the ground for all the rest: art is to be understood as part of life. As we previously covered, Tolstoy is already invested in identifying art as part of a broader scheme of human activity. He speaks of art as “a means of communication” and “emotional”, but he is really intuiting two roles for art: art is a form of communication and art is the form of affective infection. These may be intuitions, but they do point to features of artworks we find undeniably prominent. The communicative nature of art seems both life-relevant and empirically reliable, for art has accompanied every society and nearly every arena of human interaction, from games to politics. To consider art in a vacuum would be to miss its most vital feature. And certainly any understanding of art must include the power it has to affect us- whatever the nature of this effect may be (whether it is understood as pleasure, being at play, emotional power, spiritual connection, power of manifested truth, etc.), it seems an unquestionably relevant aspect of art that it can serve this forceful role in our lives.

In speaking of communication, Tolstoy wishes to incorporate a very straightforward model of communication where A, having some idea or emotion x, intentionally communicates x to B, and B comes to hold x themselves. This is a working model of communication, but its insistence on intentionality (the communicator deliberately means to communicate) and authenticity (the message communicated is exactly something the communicator already thought or felt) makes it difficult to maintain in an artistic context. In a time of computer generated art and art as popular commodity, it seems untenable to reject otherwise meritorious works because their creator had ulterior motives or because they intended a different reception to their work. This admitted, we should not give up communication altogether, for dismissing intentionality and authenticity is to disregard something very obvious: that our perception of an artist’s intentions effects our reception of the work. Consider the common criticism of entertainment which alienates its audience: “they sold out” or “they’re just trying to appeal to demographic x”. These statements are rarely rooted in intentional fact, but instead reflect a reaction to the object itself- that it comes across as if inauthentic. Intention must then be something we perceive in artworks, very possibly divorced from the literal intentionality of the artist.

We can account for this form of intention by considering an altered model of communication, in which we have a “virtualized artist,” a mind of our own imagining to which we attribute all the properties of an actual communicator (i.e. authenticity and intention). It is this simulated artist who literally infects us with his/her emotion. Wayne Booth sets forth a similar concept in The Rhetoric of Fiction, speaking of an “implied author” who is a simulated entity implied by the “sum of his own [artistic] choices” in a work- the “extractable meanings… the moral and emotional content of each bit of action and suffering of all of the characters. It includes, in short, the intuitive apprehension of the completed artistic whole” (75, 73). The imagined nature of the implied author (he/she does not exist until we begin to read a work and need to attribute artistic decisions to someone) is a helpful parallel in understanding the virtual artist, but implied author and virtual artist are significantly different. The implied author is a strictly literary device and, more importantly, is an objective quality of the work itself. There is “one single right reading-” a “true” implied author responsible for “the unity of the work” (Kindt and Müller 54-5). The virtual artist is much more removed from the work and closer to the audience. It is, at its core, a psychological function: “This crime drama feels so realistic, I bet the writers used to be police reporters or journalists”. In contrast, the implied author is an analytic function: “Why must poor Anna suffer so? I guess the author really thought her sins were totally unforgiveable.” Such a psychological faculty might seem far-fetched, but in fact, we execute this type of empathy simulation all the time. Anyone who has cared for a pet (or who has laughed at the absurdity of their behavior[2]), will recognize that our perception of an animal is more akin to our perception of a human. When we see an animal in pain, in confusion, or in delight, we do not carefully consider the unique nature of their mind and construct a modified emotional state to empathize with, we simulate a human mind, and empathize with the simulated animal-as-if-it-were-human. Similarly, in an artwork, we do not (or, at least, very rarely) consult biographical information or psychoanalyze the object to construct an accurate model of the artist- we simply take in the content, and build our image of the artist from this.[3] With this new model of communication, we can continue to use authentic intentionality as aesthetic criteria, for the virtual artist motivated by a work becomes a part of its content and a work that does not motivate a virtual artist at all, is a work that is communicating nothing and thus has no content.

What about this content? What is it that is actually communicated? Tolstoy wants to say emotion- for good reason, art seems to enjoy some elevated privileges when interacting with our emotional lives. Our emotional dispositions, as stubborn and irrational as they may be, can be molded or challenged by a sufficiently powerful artwork. This ability, which few things beside art possess, makes emotionality a prominent and (perhaps, most) important aesthetic property, but it need not be a necessary one. If we are unwilling to consider emotions as aesthetic requirement, it changes little in Tolstoy’s overall system to substitute world-view or personal perspective for emotion. The important distinction to maintain is that of art being precisely not intellectual. Tolstoy sees meaning as bilateral: there can be emotional truth and theoretical truth. The former is expressed in art, the latter in science and logic. We could easily say that describing the former aspect as emotional is too limiting- that irrational intuitions, states of being, ways of seeing the world and other such subjective expressions should also count. So long as these expressions are not resolved through intellect or logic (rhetoric and philosophy, for example, even if they pray on emotions cannot count as art, for they are modes of communication that are parsed theoretically and intellectually) they qualify as potential artistic content.  This widens the artistic field and allows us to account for the less emotive artworks that have become popular in modern times.

By refining the requirements of Tolstoy’s definition, we come now to the core feature of Tolstoyan art: it forcefully transmits. Through discussion of communication we have modified the what and how, but it is the power of the transmission itself that is art’s signature capability as human mode of communication. We often casually remark that an artwork is powerful (in fact, we literally did so not a few paragraphs above), but we mean this in a very specific way: that art has power over us. Whether we will it or not, once we engage with an artwork it infects us. Perhaps we hate it, perhaps we love it, perhaps we try to suppress it- but the work will always infect us with some taste of its perspective or emotion, the very attempt at suppression already implies this (otherwise, what is it that one is attempting to suppress?). This is not to say that every artwork (or even a well-crafted artwork) must leave one in a state of uncontrollable passion, but it is true that one cannot engage with an artwork unscathed- however one handles the emotion or perspective, one will receive it. True, one can refuse to engage with an artwork by avoiding exposure to it or by approaching it with such hostility that none of the work’s content is actually perceived (think of humming a different tune when a song you particularly detest is played), but this is not a failure of infection, but rather a failure of contact.

It is a final proof of art’s role in human life that its most unique ability, forceful infection, is also its most undebatable. Even the most estranged aesthetic theories would accept infection as quality of art. Without infectiousness an artwork no longer interacts with an audience (and without force, any audience could simply opt out). If an artwork transmits nothing to no one, it is difficult to see what would make it an artwork: the idea of the uncommunicative but successful artwork appears incoherent.

Very well, we have proved the intertwined nature of art and life, but is the modified definition we have come up with rigorous and practical in its application?  Well, we can include works of any medium easily, for all relevant aesthetic mediums are essentially communicative. Literature is an easy fit, being explicitly communicative with theme and plot, but so too is music and dance, for they have emotions or patterns of feeling to communicate. We can also reject the content-less manifestations within these mediums, the mass produced home, the soulless documentary, as well as mediums which themselves have no content and are mere distraction or stimulation: sports or perfumery. The theory also accounts for degrees of artistry, the universally infectious classic of world literature is more artistic than the hand-painting of a child which only affects the child’s mother.

Our definitional modifications complete, we move closer now to how art becomes significant: its contribution (positive or negative) to religious perception (our meaning of life).  Until now, we have limited analysis to the relevancy of art, proving that art, as activity, is natural to human life. Now we begin to discuss how art is significant to human life, how it plays a central role in our understanding of life’s importance.

Our first concern with religious perception should be verifying what Tolstoy assumes from the beginning: that religious perception is psychologically and aesthetically applicable. Do we have coherent meanings of life? Does art?  Is it not possible, after all, that an individual may find an artwork (or anything for that matter) valuable or important with no explicit meaning of life in mind? It is true that unless we have broached Socratic levels of philosophy as lifestyle, meaning of life is not usually an ever-present ideal in our minds. However, this does not make religious perception irrelevant- just implicit. In the case of reflections on and assignments of value (the kind of work most art critics do), religious perception continues its work in the background, for no logical assertion about goodness can be made without somehow addressing or relying on a meaning of life (one can always approach a value assertion and ask “why?” until eventually we drill down to the foundational value concept- the implied meaning of life). In the more practical case of decision making, meaning of life is simply an organizational schema for a set of patterns and reactions. For example, one might be trying to decide whether or not to buy the latest book in a popular fiction series. Deciding that it is not worth the price, one moves on and buys a recently released movie instead. Regardless of the thought process behind such a decision, it illustrates a pattern of value and preference (in this case, a preference for movies over books) that, all totaled, produce an emergent meaning of life. Finally, for artworks themselves, under our new understanding of intentionality it is unimportant whether the artist crafted the work as addressing a meaning of life, so long as the audience receives it as such. We have already discussed the content of artworks, emotional, intuitive perspectives on the worlds, and it is not so difficult to track how such content can become perceived as relevant to the meaning of life: all it requires is provocative content. By provocative here, we only mean some element of an artwork (an action, theme, pattern, emotion, etc.) that communicates a perspective on something we find important. A documentary, for example, might contain gruesome, tragic footage about the lives of injured soldiers. This is only a particular perspective. However, should we have a religious perception that finds meaning in violence and war, then a perspective on the consequences of war develops that religious perception. The documentary has come to have something to add to meaning of life.

It seems then, that we can think of human activity and art as defined by meaning of life, but the question remains are we right to place meaning of life as the source of art’s significance and value? After all, there seem to be alternative paths to value in artworks. Formalism, for example, seems like an entire aesthetic approach that pays no mind to a work’s commentary on life. If we pursue the implications of religious perception however, we will find that any such dismissal of meaning of life is quite difficult.

If we claim that Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in the Iliad is good because it is beautiful or that a novice artist’s painting is bad because it is imitative, we are then positing that beauty and creativity (the opposite of imitation) are concepts valuable to us. If we continue to pressure these concepts, and ask “why is beauty valuable?” or “what makes creativity worthwhile?” we will find underlying all such statements, assumptions about what is valuable in human life in general. In the case of beauty, Tolstoy has done the work for us: conceptions of beauty rely on the human reception of pleasure, the reception of pleasure as valuable must in turn rely on some sort of hedonism and hedonism is an assertion that life is (to whatever extent) about pleasure. This reduction works on other concepts too. We may find creativity worthwhile because we see it as a form of divine inspiration. We find divine inspiration valuable because we believe it to be an indirect commandment from God and we find God to be a perfect entity. Thus, (this conception of) creativity as aesthetic maxim assumes that the meaning of life is obeying and imitating God.

An ardent defender of purely aesthetic value might react to such an analysis by retreating into non-evaluative criticism, but such criticism can only be limiting and presumptive. Not only are we restricted to merely making connections between observational data and existing concepts, but the entire question of whether the object of our study is valuable goes unanswered. To justify such work, we must make the very same moral assumptions (“x is good”) we had sought to avoid. To illustrate these limitations, consider the seemingly non-evaluative statement “the use of a stream-of-consciousness style is a good execution of Joyce’s intentions in Ulysses.” Here we see an observation (“Joyce uses a stream-of-consciousness style”) being connected to a chosen concept (authorial intention). Yet, this tells us nothing about whether Joyce’s intentions themselves are valuable and begs the question of why such an observation is worth noting in the first place.

Another response would be to separate the issue, to claim that aesthetic goods are equal but separate from moral goods, and that both could fit equally into a perception of the meaning of life. In some ways, this is just another assertion about the nature of life (that there are many equal goods- value pluralism) with its own moral consequences, but it is also a view divorced from the real human decision-making we discussed previously. In making decisions of evaluation, we do not fracture into multiple equal impulses, we compare our options and choose the best one. When we find a book immoral and exploitative, but too funny not to buy, we have not transitioned from one value to a new one: we have actively chosen to override one value (moral) with another (humor, pleasure). All values meet in the same battleground- and there is always a victor.

If one still wishes to keep aesthetic value isolated, the only option remaining seems to be a whole-hearted, uncritical adoption of an aesthetic maxim as itself a meaning of life. Tolstoy himself considers this, and finds it morally repulsive. Yet Tolstoy’s approach itself assumes much about objective morality and is thus somewhat circular in reasoning. A much more pressing concern is that such an approach itself ignores obvious aspects of art, life and its meaning. Nietzsche, speaking on art for art’s sake, notes that with exactly such an approach we are unable to ask obvious psychological questions: “what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer?” (A.24). All of these features, the “great stimulus [that art is] to life” and its choices, must be dismissed as “merely a moreover…. an accident” (Nietzsche A.24). If the value of art is an end-stop value, a meaning of life in itself, then no link between other aspects of life and art can be acknowledged. This hobbles both life and art itself: life has lost one of its most powerful activities, art has lost its power and immediacy, its closeness to our day-to-day hearts and minds. Thus, if we wish to continue with a full understanding of life and art, there can be no way of understanding the significance of art other than through its contribution to meaning of life.

From what we have shown so far about religious perception, it is further possible to add depth to one of Tolstoy’s brief explanations. Tolstoy says little of how religious perceptions themselves are to be evaluated, only that they get better and become more accurate with time. Yet art itself can tell us more. Significant art is, as we have just reviewed, an expressed emotion or subjective perception that contributes to our meaning of life. Meaning of life is, almost by definition, a theory which attempts to accurately explain what it is in human life that is important and valuable. Bringing these two definitions together, we know art to be an intuitive or emotional expression of how human life is important or valuable. Art, therefore, develops the aspects of a meaning of life which require psychological understanding. If, for example, we consider power the meaning of life, theory may tell us how to get that power or what form of power is best, but art will tell us what it feels like to have power, what it is like to exercise it, what it is like to have it exercised upon you. Thus, all religious perceptions which incorporate psychological understanding of humanity require art. However, the exact opposite, a foreignness to art, exists in religious perceptions which resist such understanding of humanity. There are many meanings of life which are functional, but have no interest in reconciling with what it truly means to be human. We could, for example, consider service to our particular nation as a meaning of life. Not patriotism, which is simply loyalty to one’s respective country (and which could have deep-seated psychological foundations), but nationalism, wherein we believe that all peoples should come to worship and serve the particular nation we inhabit. We might well be morally and philosophically right, perhaps our nation is, in fact, objectively superior to all others and if all came to embrace our nation, human happiness and fulfillment would finally be at hand. This does not change the fact that in asserting a location, coat of arms, and government as the most important things in human life, we are out of touch with the type of things humanity as a whole finds important. This is why art is resistant to expression of such religious perceptions, because art is, by its nature, in touch with humanity. We can summate this trend as art’s correlation with universality. When a meaning of life has no psychological depth, when it cannot be generalized to all humanity, significant art is weakened. When a meaning of life relies on psychological strength, when its applicability to humanity is universal, significant art is necessary.


It should be no wonder then, that Tolstoy chooses universal brotherhood as the meaning of life, for every element of art seems to already speak to it. In our definitional work, we saw how the degree of artistry, the potency of a work’s infectiousness, only increased with universality. Infection in its ultimate expression is universal. Just so, we saw the same end in religious perception. The religious perceptions most appropriate for art were those which were universal. And the communication of subjective perspectives? Is this definition of art not only a few steps from being described as manifested empathy? The very brotherhood Tolstoy speaks of? It seems not too far-fetched then, to take universal brotherhood as the maxim of art’s nature. This is not to say that art must be about universal brotherhood or even that universal brotherhood is our current religious perception, but only that art’s function in human life, taken to its ultimate end, seems to be uniting all people in brotherhood and companionship. Is this the most valuable element of art? Is this what all art should be about? Perhaps, perhaps not. Deciding whether the natural tendency of art is it’s most valuable function requires a discussion of morality and value that we do not have space for here (it is possible, for example, that a society’s religious perception could be the pleasure of cruelty, in which case suppressing art’s nature might seem best for them), but the fact that art has a natural tendency, is, if nothing else, a hint. This is the importance that other theories which take art only on its own terms fail to capture. Because they are preoccupied with the value and puzzles of art in and of itself, they fail to see that artistic activity itself has a way it wishes life to be. That art’s continuous production is made with the intent to create a true art world in which there are no barriers to slow down its spread and no misconceptions about human nature to hamper its intuitions. How much world-building art could accomplish if we let it…


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[1] As with every stage, there are both heroes and villains. While Tolstoy reviles works that obscure our emotional exploration for goodness, they are still significant (just in a bad way). Even these evil works are major players in our development of religious perception.

[2] Look among any of the multitude of comedic animal pictures, videos, or .GIFs that are now ubiquitously shared through the internet and always the joke hinges on the ridiculousness of approaching animal behavior as logical. A cat grabbing a human to avoid falling into water is not silly but a natural feline response. Yet when a cat grabs a toddler to avoid falling in water, and throws in the toddler instead, we laugh because we have attributed some sense of vengeance or selfishness to the cat that it cannot possibly have.

[3] This would also account for the persistence of our faulty conceptions of artists. Once we have constructed our vision of the artist, we often suppress the true artist, rather than abandon our imagined one.

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