What is Art, The Kingdom of God is Within You
by Leo Tolstoy, 1897
A preview of chapter 1 of What is Art, The Kingdom of God is Within You:
If we say that the aim of any activity is merely our pleasure, and define it
solely by that pleasure, our definition will evidently be a false one. But
this is precisely what has occurred in the efforts to define art. Now, if we
consider the food question it will not occur to anyone to affirm that the
importance of food consists in the pleasure we receive when eating it.
Everyone understands that the satisfaction of our taste cannot serve as a
basis for our definition of the merits of food, and that we have therefore
no right to presuppose that the dinners with cayenne pepper, Limburg
cheese, alcohol, etc., to which we are accustomed and which please us,
form the very best human food.
And in the same way, beauty, or that which pleases us, can in no sense serve as the basis for the definition of art; nor can a series of objects which afford us pleasure serve as the model of what art should be. To see the aim and purpose of art in the pleasure we get from it is like assuming (as is done by people of the lowest moral development, e.g., by savages) that the purpose and aim of food is the pleasure derived when consuming it.
Just as people who conceive the aim and purpose of food to be pleasure cannot recognize the real meaning of eating, so people who consider the aim of art to be pleasure cannot realize its true meaning and purpose because they attribute to an activity the meaning of which lies in its connection with other phenomena of life, the false and exceptional aim of pleasure. People come to understand that the meaning of eating lies in the nourishment of the body only when they cease to consider that the object of that activity is pleasure. And it is the same with regard to art. People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e., pleasure. The acknowledgment of beauty (i.e., of a certain kind of pleasure received from art) as being the aim of art not only fails to assist us in finding a definition of what art is, but, on the contrary, by transferring the question into a region quite foreign to art (into metaphysical, psychological, physiological, and even historical discussions as to why such a production pleases one person, and such another displeases or pleases someone else), it renders such definition impossible.