[Review] What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

I picked this book up while browsing through Half Priced Books one day. For some reason, a lot of my latest purchases have consisted of classics books and while most of them I’ve bought for the purpose of reading a classic, I bought this book because I was genuinely curious about the answer to the question it poses

As an art student, I spent a lot of my time learning how to work different media but none of my classes ever touched upon what art was. For most of my years as a student I just figured, “well, it’s probably obvious” and never asked. The one time I did ask was during a beginning photography class where I was confused about how photography was art. I thought we’d get the answer to that by the end of the class but I never really learned how photography was art

It came up once more while I was in my figure drawing class and our teacher made a clear distinction between us (art students going to art school) and other artists (those who didn’t go to art school). At this point, I was already a senior and I asked myself again. What is art? What we were doing clearly seemed to be art, but I also believe that art done by anyone else was considered art. What was the difference between someone like us who were going to school and learning how to draw and paint versus someone who learned it without needing to go to school?

Even now when I go to art galleries and look at art I find myself wondering why some stuff is art. I especially feel like this when I look at a piece of canvas with shapes, lines, and color, no actual figures or subjects. Abstract stuff that I can’t understand but that obviously has some value to it (enough that it’s IN a gallery)


In What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy walks us through the history of art, goes over what art has been defined as by different people, the theories behind those thoughts, and how everything in art can be described as a convoluted mess. He defines “good art” and “bad art” and even though this book was published in 1897, a lot of it can still be applied to our times.

Considering this is a classics book and nonfiction, I was surprised I ended up enjoying this book as much as I did. I imagine it has to do with the subject being something I’m truly interested in but also the tone of the book was rather hilarious. Like the back of the book mentions, Tolstoy doesn’t care if you’re some upper class educated guy or some peasant on the street. If he doesn’t think your work or thought process is clear enough, you’re going to get insulted. And it’s hilarious! I didn’t think books like these even knew what the word entertaining was

Aside from it being a funny read, this book ended up being educational for me. It’s structured in a way that even if you didn’t know anything about art, you could understand what he was trying to argue. Tolstoy tells us how the “uneducated” define art and how beauty is not a good way to define “good art”.ย He goes on to talk about how the term beauty is used in different cultures and based on that, he concludes that while something beautiful can be art, art isn’t just something beautiful. In fact, he mentions that we’ve been so caught up in defining art as something beautiful that it has delayed an actual definition from being created

Through the 200+ pages of this book, the biggest takeaway I got was that art (real and true art) is the transmission of the artist’s emotions through his/her craft to the viewer. And depending on how sincere, unique, and clear those emotions are, the better the work of art is. He also talks about the subject matter being another component of good art and how if it coincides with theย religious perception of the given time and society, art is considered good art. At the time the book was published, Tolstoy clearly indicates that the religious perception is Christianity and goes on to argue that Christian art is true and good art

Since I’m an agnostic, the thought that something that wasn’t Christian was bad art seemed unacceptable and confusing. Confusing because he mentions an example of music where Beethoven’s 101st sonata was not true art because it failed to transmit feelings to the audience but a song of happiness sung by a “peasant woman” for someone’s return home was true art because it infected anyone who listened to it with happiness. But then Tolstoy mentions that by Christian art he means art that “lies in the growth of brotherhood among all men”. This I could understand and agree on

Overall I really enjoyed picking up this book. It was clear about the argument and practically walked us through examples of why something was good art while other things were bad art. Tolstoy also mentions a “future art” and I thought his deductions were interesting because some of it lines up with what art is today. The only thing I thought was redundant about the essay were certain parts where he keeps repeating himself. Since it’s an essay I figured it was inevitable to repeat certain points but sometimes he’ll repeat it in the same paragraph. Still, it wasn’t too bad

I ended up giving this book a 4/5 on Goodreads and was even considering giving it a 5

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