In an earlier post
, I gave brief attention to Tolstoy's view
that art is a form of communication, and so is to be evaluated, as art, to the extent that it communicates well what is worth communicating.
Whatever its defects, this view has the merit of making clear the point
of thinking about the essence of art: not to effect a classification, but to derive an evaluative standard. If a work of art is by nature a kind of F
, it is supposed to follow that it is good, as such, such in case it is good as an F
. The essence of art reveals the nature of artistic value.
In this light, the problem with Tolstoy's conception is that it leaves out a great deal of what we ordinarily take to matter in art, as art. For some of the most extraordinary artistic creations, we are hard pressed
to say what the "message" could be. And even where this seems possible, to some extent – as with The Kreutzer Sonata
or Hadji Murad
– it is wrong to conclude that nothing else is relevant. It matters to artistic value how a content is conveyed – and not just how efficiently.
The only way to save the present view is to identify what is communicated by a work of art with everything that is involved in experiencing it. But then the view is deprived of interest. It would have been illuminating to learn that art is good, as such, just to the extent that it is good as communication. It is not helpful to be told that a work of art is good, as such, just in case the comprehending experience of that work is good, as an experience. The question, "What makes an experience good, as such?" is no less obscure than the question of artistic value; and unless restricted in some way, it threatens to be irrelevant. For instance: an experience might be good, as such, because it is morally
good, in ways that have no aesthetic significance.
The fundamental issue raised by Tolstoy's view is about the autonomy
of artistic value: can the value of a work of art be reduced to values of other kinds? No doubt his theory is too simple: art does many things, and can be good in many ways – as communication, as artifice, as entertainment. But this is consistent with his principal, reductive claim.
It is also consistent with his rejection of beauty, that "all-confusing concept". Beauty is an obvious candidate for autonomous artistic value. But even if we can isolate artistic
beauty, as distinct from the beauty of nature, it is hard to see how this could work. If artistic beauty is just artistic value, the proposal says nothing at all. If it is something different, we need to know what it is.
A common suggestion associates the beauty of art with pleasure
. But here, again, we should be moved by Tolstoy's critique. If he is wrong to say that causing pleasure is frivolous
, and thus unworthy to be the aim of art, that is because pleasure is not to be conceived in Bentham's terms. As Aristotle saw, pleasure involves the apparent perception of value. But then the problem of autonomy is simply deferred. (This is why it is misleading to rely on pleasure as the ground for critical judgements, as Frank Kermode purports to do in Pleasure and Change
. If it is relevant here at all, pleasure can only be a symptom of something else: what is the value in which we take pleasure, when we take pleasure in art?)
I should confess that, although I have read some work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, I haven't read that much. I've been trying to isolate the problems I want to think about, first. One problem is about intention
and the meaning of a work of art; the other is about artistic value
. The question is: what should I read next?