What Is Art?

Leo Tolstoy’s Question Made Me Think About My Answer

Leo Tolstoy opens his 1897 book What is Art? with a humorous account of a rehearsal that he attended for what he called “one of the most ordinary” of new operas he’d ever experienced. Cynically, he relates his observation of the conductor yelling at a despondent chorus — “Are you all dead, or what? Cows that you are!”, while they process onto the stage in bumbling, awkward lines, singing “Home I bring the bri-i-ide!” again and again to no avail. “Why or how could this be considered art” and “what was it good for”, he asks?

And so Leo Tolstoy begins his book in search for the meaning of Art.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all used the words “THIS is art?”

My own pre-teen sons walked through the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao recently where there was an intriguing exhibition about space and an exploration of the relationships between things. Some of the paintings and art pieces were very simple and at first glance, almost seemed ridiculous. There was a big rock with a hole in it, and the boys spent the rest of the time in the museum saying “We saw an elephant’s butthole”. They weren’t as intrigued as I was, apparently. I loved everything about the museum and its exhibition.

My personal “art” is music as I’m an orchestra conductor. But I am a lover of all of the arts — visual art, drama, dance, music, architecture, movies, poetry and literature — and I believe in their power to change us and to infinitely enrich and deepen our lives.

But just what IS “art” and why do I believe this? Leo Tolstoy’s thoughts caused me to think deeply about my own.

In his book, Tolstoy dismisses the idea that art’s principle value is in beauty.

What is this strange conception “beauty”, which seems so simple to those who talk without thinking, but in defining which all the philosophers of various tendencies and different nationalities can come to no agreement during a century and a half?

What is beauty? Tolstoy summarizes the thinking of many philosophers going back as far as Plato, and to each, beauty means something different — generally that beauty is found in two basic ways — through a searching for and reaching of a higher Ideal or meaning, or, in the bringing about of pleasure.

The arts enhance our lives with their beauty. I seek to explore higher ideals in literature, the arts, and music that my day-to-day life simply can’t offer. I challenge myself to think deeper and live more connectedly and I feel so fulfilled in those amazing moments when I find some new wisdom through their lens and experience. I connect to something much more glorious than I could otherwise have in my life given my own opportunities and capabilities. Art lifts me up.

But I agree with Tolstoy. There is so much more to art than just beauty.

Tolstoy believed that art was principally about communication— one creator communicating the emotions that they feel to others through their art.

Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs — Leo Tolstoy

Certainly we connect directly to creators through their work. How profound to be “let inside” someone’s mind and soul.

But I also believe that music and art writes its own story as it travels through life. It might have represented the creator’s emotions or intentions initially — but this changes as its meaning picks up other meanings and merges with other contexts along the way. War, celebrations, culture, politics, connections to movies or personal experiences — all of these morph and translate new meaning into the art form as it travels and lives on and this will continue to be so as it continues on into the future.

Art does not reside in the actual words, the dabs of paint or notes. This is the mystery of it. It resides in the space in between each element and the connections between them. When we perceive the relationships in Art’s structure, form, or between any of the elements — the protagonist and the antagonist, the foreground and the background, the exposition and the recapitulation — we are transported into unique layers of thought that are deeper in perspective.

One note is almost meaningless. One colour on a canvas is meaningless by itself. It’s the next notes or the next colours that relate to it that gives IT meaning, direction, serenity, conflict or reach. It is the distance between that is EVERYTHING.

This is like life. We learn and grow into our unique selves because of each relationship to an idea that we make, each connection that we have with another thought or feeling or philosophy. We are a painting of a thousand colours, a myriad of thought connections — of the ideas, people, and experiences that we have come into contact with from the moment we were born.

The arts bring us awareness to these relationships.

Most of our lives we are moving, thinking, doing, working, rushing. When we experience the arts, they ask us to stand still, to move in the time that the music moves us, to contemplate the “hows” and the “whys” of why an artist did something. And then we connect that to us.

Art asks us to interact with it — to engage — and it draws out a personal relationship with us. Perhaps its because (except in literature) it doesn’t say a word. It exudes mood or colour and allows us to create, like creators ourselves, our own meaning.

The answer to “What is Art?” becomes personal now.

“Art” is the specific connection that brings meaning, emotion, pondering and questioning between us and it. It is a relationship that starts from us — but then it takes us on a journey of change.

Change. Growth. Exploration. Surprise.

Who wants life to be predictable?

Art shakes us up. We expect something — sometimes those expectations are met and sometimes we are shocked by surprise — and we go in a direction we didn’t expect the creator to take.

This “surprise”, this “confounding of our expectations” is exciting. It’s why contemporary art and music is extraordinary and critical to us. It causes us to question ourselves, to question our expectations, and takes us into an entirely new realm of imagination than we would have gone into on our own.

Art takes us somewhere — into a new perspective or possibility. It’s an idea.

Perhaps this is the most important thing.

It’s about questioning something, looking at something from a different angle, expanding a direction. It can be beautiful or ugly, deep or seem like a joke. But all of it has a meaning because it makes us think and question.

And the extraordinary thing is that it can mean one thing to the creator, and something different to each and every person who experiences it depending on what questions they ask and what life they’ve lived.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire

Art gets us in touch with that part of ourselves that questions ideal and meaning. It offers a wordless passage into wisdom that makes us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

We question — what is art? What is life? What does it mean? Why did they do this?

Now there is a reason for a white painting on a wall, or a hole in a rock.

Music, painting, sculpture, theatre, dance, literature, movies — Art — it takes us on a journey to a new place and a new perspective.

It starts with what we know. It starts with who we are. It reminds us of something that we already know or believe. And then — it takes us from where we are, to who we are next — step by step. Someone we’ve never been, never explored, never experienced.

When we walk out of the hall, the theatre, the book — we are different than we were before.

That is Art.





  1. Windows CMD

    Uważaj, żebyś przez nieuwagę nie stworzył czegoś wiekopomnego i na stałe wpisał się w cyfrowy świat internetu. 🙂

    • Tania

      My apologies for a slow reply to your very kind comment. Thank you very much.


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