Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Leo Tolstoy on 'Good, Truth and Beauty' in Art

Leo Tolstoy discusses the differences between Good, Truth and Beauty in Chapter VII of What is Art?

Tolstoy writes:

Aesthetic theories, and the very name of this science, emerged about one hundred and fifty years ago among the wealthy classes of the Christian European world, simultaneously in various nations — Italian, Dutch, French, English. Its founder, its shaper, the one who gave it scientific, theoretical form, was Baumgarten. [...]

If a theory justifies the false position which a certain part of society is in, then, however baseless and even obviously false the theory may be, it will get adopted and become the belief of that part of society. [...]

Such, too, is the astonishing theory of Baumgarten’s trinity — Good, Truth and Beauty — according to which it turns out that the best that can be done by the art of peoples who have lived eighteen hundred years of Christian life is to adopt as its ideal the same one that was held by a small, half-savage, slave-owning people two thousand years ago, who portrayed naked human bodies very well and built buildings pleasing to the eye. [...]

The good, the beautiful and the true are put on the same level, and all three concepts are recognized as fundamental and metaphysical. Yet the reality is nothing of the sort.

The good is the eternal, the highest aim of our life. No matter how we understand the good, our life is nothing else than a striving towards the good — that is, towards God.

The good is indeed a fundamental concept, which metaphysically constitutes the essence of our consciousness, a concept undefinable by reason.

The good is that which no one can define, but which defines everything else.

But the beautiful, if we are not to content ourselves with words, but speak of what we understand — the beautiful is nothing other than what is pleasing to us.

The concept of beauty not only does not coincide with the good, but is rather the opposite of it, because the good for the most part coincides with a triumph over our predilections, while beauty is the basis of all our predilections.

The more we give ourselves to beauty, the more removed we are from the good. [...]

The concepts of beauty and truth not only are not equal with the good, not only are not of one essence with the good, but do not even coincide with it.

Truth is the correspondence between the manifestation and the essence of the object, and is therefore one means of attaining to the good, but in itself truth is neither the good nor the beautiful, and does not even coincide with them.

Thus, for instance, Socrates and Pascal, and many others as well, regarded a knowledge of the truth of useless objects as discordant with the good. As for beauty, truth has nothing in common with it, and is for the most part opposed to it, because, while exposing deception, truth destroys illusion, the main condition of beauty.

And so the arbitrary uniting of these three incommensurable and mutually alien concepts served as the basis for the astonishing theory according to which the difference between good art, conveying good feelings, and bad art, conveying wicked feelings, was totally obliterated; and one of the lowest manifestations of art, art for mere pleasure — against which all teachers of mankind have warned people — came to be regarded as the highest art. And art became, not the important thing it was intended to be, but the empty amusement of idle people.

[My emphasis]

For more quotes by Tolstoy on the role of art in society see World (Social) Realism and Global Solidarity [also from What is Art?].

World (Social) Realist Art (Index of Countries)
This blog page is part of an ongoing project by artist and part-time lecturer Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin (http://gaelart.net/) to explore Realist / Social Realist art from around the world. The term Realism is used in its broadest sense to include 19th century Realism and Naturalism as well as 20th century Impressionism (which after all was following in the path of Courbet and Millet). Social Realism covers art that seeks to examine the living and working conditions of ordinary people (examples include German Expressionism, American Ashcan School and the Mexican Muralists).

Click here for (Social) Realist Art Definitions, World (Social) Realism and Global Solidarity, Art and Politics, Social Realism in history and Country Index.

Suggestions for appropriate artists from around the world welcome to caoimhghin@yahoo.com.

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