Tolstoy, Hanslick and Artistic Beauty Essay

Pages: 5 (1513 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 2  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Art  (general)

Tolstoy, Hanslick and Artistic Beauty

On the surface, it may seem satisfying to describe art according to its beauty. Certainly, some of history's most indelible artistic statements have achieved a certain universal familiarity or acclaim by virtue of their beauty. Certainly, when we hold discussion on the elaborate ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or of the muted but celebratory colors of Monet's impressionist paintings, considerations of beauty will enter into the frame. However, as the position by Tolstoy suggestions, these considerations of beauty are either incidental or secondary to the emotional experience invoked by those who behold such masterpieces. This is to assert, in support of Leo Tolstoy's argument, that the attribute of beauty is not inherently present or absent in any one piece of art. Moreover, also in endorsement of Tolstoy's argument, the creation of beauty is not always the purpose of a work of art.

At the root of these contentions is Tolstoy's assumption that art is defined not by its aesthetic qualities or appeal but by its capacity to at once convey the feelings of its creator and evoke correspondent feelings in its beholder. As not all feelings revolve on the experience of beholding beauty, the notion of artistic beauty must be placed into a broader discourse on qualities such as realism or abstraction; darkness or light; classical or modern. In other words, as the discussion here will show, Tolstoy is correct in minimizing the importance of beauty in art, instead demanding recognition of the emotional impact that art can levy. This impact, rather than the supposed beauty of a piece, is what defines it.

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Essay on Tolstoy, Hanslick and Artistic Beauty Assignment

In an 1896 essay on the subject of art, Tolstoy would ponder the question of arts intended and actual impacts. This consideration invokes the philosopher to argue that art may in fact stimulate a broad spectrum of emotional reactions and that, within this spectrum, beauty is merely one factor impacting how we receive said art. According to Tolstoy, "the feelings with which the artist infects others may be most various - very strong or very weak, very important or very insignificant, very bad or very good: feelings of love for one's own country, self-devotion and submission to fate or to God expressed in a drama, raptures of lovers described in a novel, feelings of voluptuousness expressed in a picture, courage expressed in a triumphal march, merriment evoked by a dance, humor evoked by a funny story, the feeling of quietness transmitted by an evening landscape or by a lullaby, or the feeling of admiration evoked by a beautiful arabesque - it is all art." (Tolstoy, p. 1)

Note in the immediate example above that Tolstoy refers to a 'beautiful arabesque.' Here, the author does not describe beauty as the feeling evoked by the work. Admiration is the feeling he describes and, thus, admiration is the emotion that emerges from the experience of beholding the work in question. Beauty is a mere effector that may or may not be perceived by the beholder. As Tolstoy suggests, whether or not one perceives such beauty will have as much if not more to do with the experiences and emotional disposition of the beholder than of the artist.

This is not to argue that beauty is not an ambition of the artist, nor that it does not hold a place of importance in the experience of appreciating art. However, it does suggest that evaluating art in terms of its beauty alone does not accurately reflect to the purpose or art or the ambition of the artist. To take some prominent artistic examples from history, it becomes immediately apparent that some of the most important works of history are not so because of their aesthetic appeal. One is inclined to consider Pablo Picasso's Guernica, which offers a startling representation of the aftermath of a city's firebombing during World War II. The painting's importance is beyond dispute. It is one of the most vivid and effecting artistic images to emerge from a bitter, bloody struggle. As such, it evokes no shortage of emotions from those who experienced the period in time and from those who only understand its carnage and sorrow through the lens of history. One observation that we can make though is that the primary purpose of Guernica is not to achieve beauty.

This historically important piece of abstract, cubist art shows disembodies heads in agony and twisted mass of death and carnage throughout. The painting is most assuredly one of the finest examples of an artist's ability to capture and reflect a feeling not only shared by many but vicariously observable through the artist. It is unlikely though that this work might inspire a sense of beauty in its appreciators. This is simply not the work's intent and, as such, underscore's Tolstoy's views. Namely, such a painting demonstrates that using beauty as a primary gauge for how to evaluate art might cause us to otherwise overlook the value and emotional primacy of works not intended to suggest beauty.


Eduard Hanslick differs on this point and makes his case using the medium of music. Here, Hanslick asserts the opposite position of Tolstoy's, describing the aesthetic value of art as something immutable regardless of how the art is perceived. According to Hanslick, it is to minimize the value of art to suggest that its aesthetic value can simply be altered according to the perceptions of its beholder. For Hanslick, this is to undermine the intent, ambition and distinction of the artist. As Hanslick phrases this argument, "If the contemplation of something beautiful arouses pleasurable feelings, this effect is distinct from the beautiful as such. I may, indeed, place a beautiful object before an observer with the avowed purpose of giving him pleasure, but this purpose in no way affects the beauty of the object. The beautiful is and remains beautiful though it arouse no emotion whatever, and though there be no one to look at it. In other words, although the beautiful exists for the gratification of an observer, it is independent of him." (Hanslick, p. 9)

There is a clear problem of logic in Hanslick's argument however. Hanslick presumes that beauty is something which can simply be deemed true and present. Any opinions differing on its presence, Hanslick suggests, are simply wrong. This type of value judgment is problematic though. One wonders where the final say on the level of beauty present in a work of art comes from. It implies a hegemonic cultural or even religious force that determines collectively what Tolstoy would have us experience as individuals. Essentially, Hanslick's view elevates art to the work of God; beyond question and immutable regardless of how we perceive it. This is a decidedly undemocratic way of looking at this most human pursuit.


Not only is Hanslick's view alienating to our sense of independent artistic perception, but it makes a clear value judgment about what beauty is. No such judgment is found in Tolstoy's writing. To the point, Tolstoy's purpose is not to dismiss the value that beauty might have in positively impacting the beholder. Instead, Tolstoy -- and this essay, by extension -- simply makes the case that beauty is an attribute assigned by the audience and not by the artist. If it be the case that a broad cross-section of the collective perceives beauty in a work of art, then it may be seen as a near-universal acceptance of the beauty of a give piece. This does not make the piece inherently beautiful by any specific definition of the term. Indeed, Tolstoy seems to argue that no unwavering definition for said term exists. Instead, a strict subjectivity governs this evaluation.

This subjectivity applies even when the evaluation of beauty is shared by a majority or all beholders of a piece. However, this… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Tolstoy, Hanslick and Artistic Beauty.  (2013, December 2).  Retrieved September 29, 2020, from

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