Monday, January 02, 2006

Tolstoy without God

Why resist the conception of art as communication proposed by Tolstoy in What is Art?
Art is that human activity which consists in one man's consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.
One reason, already mentioned here is that it depends on a facile equation of communication with sharing. But this is easily remedied: what is conveyed when feelings are communicated is a way of understanding those feelings. Nor are we limited to "feelings" in a narrow sense: art communicates ideas of all kinds, ways of taking the world.

A more fundamental objection is that, when it thus revised, Tolstoy's picture "involves a confusion between life and art, even a failure to allow for the existence of art at all."
[This] appears as the belief that all good books are good primarily because they give us knowledge, teach us 'truths' about 'life'.
(These sentences are from C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.)

If the point of art is to provide us with understanding, don't we have to say that literature is best "because it is the only art capable of reasoning"? (Thus John Carey, in What Good are the Arts?) Presumably, philosophy and science are best of all, at least when they are done well.

But these objections rest on a mistake. The understanding conveyed by art, on Tolstoy's conception, is non-discursive. We shouldn't be suspicious of this. To reject the idea of "non-discursive understanding" is to engage in the heresy of paraphrase: the view that the knowledge contained in a metaphor must be something we can express in non-metaphorical terms.

The same point applies to kinds of art: we should no more expect to put musical and visual understanding into words than to produce a discursive translation of John Donne. In the latter case, it may be tempting – but still hopeless. In the case of music, discursive expression is obviously limited. We reach for metaphors, and even these fall short. Tolstoy's conception does not imply that discursive literature is best.

It does neglect "the all-confusing concept of beauty", and deliberately so. But even this point can be exaggerated. Tolstoy's picture need not ignore mode of expression, or style. Rather, it presents these things as means: tools deployed in the communication of feelings or ideas. If art communicates well what is worth communicating, it cannot be defective in mode of expression. It must be well-written or well-composed. What artifice lacks, for Tolstoy, is final value.

It does not follow from this that the value of communication is merely instrumental, so that art is to be assessed, as such, by its consequences. It is this further claim that explains Tolstoy's hostility to difficult art, and his notorious view of what is "worth communicating":
[The] evolution of feelings takes place by means of art, replacing lower feelings, less kind and less needed for the good of humanity, by kinder feelings more needed for that good. This is the purpose of art. And therefore art is better in its content in so far as it fulfils this purpose better, and is worse in so far as it fulfils it less.
Since the best feelings are contained in the "the religious consciousness of a given time", the best art must be religious.

We can detach this conclusion from the communicative theory of art if we insist that communication is something good in itself. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: the question "What good are the arts?" is like the question "What is the good of listening to what anyone says?"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carey's statement about literature being the only art capable of reasoning is very wrong. So much visual art is capable of reasoning - and does so - that one imagines Carey must be blind. Some examples: contemporary conceptual art; Australian Aboriginal art; the art of painters exiled from the court after the Manchu dynasty in China in the late 17th century.

And wasn't it Felix Mendelssohn who said that he wrote music to express what could not be said in words?

11:35 AM  

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