So the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote a book called What is Art?, and I never read it but Roger Fry did and he disagrees with its premises. History has lost count of the number of people, across the centuries, who’ve caustically denounced, vigorously defended and elegantly essayed to explain art and its purposes. Plato was the first Western thinker to make a case against art, and his disciple, Aristotle, the first to justify it on its moralising effects on people. These two opposing approaches to art remained in vogue for millennia, with those who wanted to keep art out of the city and those who defended it because it taught people many good qualities and virtues. If we stop to reflect, neither position makes a lot of sense. Whatever value art may have, humans care too deeply about it to live without it. However, as many of its enemies have rightfully pointed out, art is so full of filth, vices, crimes, sensationalism, appeals to the basest instincts, and repugnant characters, there’s little evidence it can have a civilizing effect on people. That doesn’t mean these positions don’t continue to be hotly argued and defended in modern times.
Roger Fry, painter and art critic, opted for the third path, the one of art for art’s sake. It was hardly a new development in his time, around the turn of the 20th century. Fry and other men who have devoted their lives to art were caught between two poles: the prevailing schools of naturalism and realism in literature and the visual arts, that is, art conceived as having the purpose of, if nothing else, social criticism; and the Philistines who saw art as an aberration. “The general conception of life,” writes Fry in ‘Art and Life,’ “in the mid-nineteenth century ruled out art as noxious, or at best, a useless frivolity, and above all a mere survival of more primitive stages of evolution.”
The reader would be mistaken in presuming Fry to be especially concerned about this latter group, but in fact he wastes little time on them. The universal prevalence of art in all human cultures leaves no room to doubt that something is wrong with these people. Fry’s main contention is with those who think art must serve some subservient role. An ancillary theme is the role of imitation in the visual arts, and we’ll quickly see why this is important. In the essay “An Essay in Aesthetics” he writes:
Can we arrive at a any conclusions as to the nature of the graphic arts, which will explain our feelings about them, which will at least put them into some kind of relation with the other arts, and not leave us in the extreme perplexity, engendered by any theory of mere imitation? For, I suppose, it must be admitted that if imitation is the sole purpose of the graphic arts, it is surprising that the works of such arts are ever looked upon as more than curiosities, or ingenious toys, are ever taken seriously by grown-up people. Moreover, it will be surprising that they have no recognisable affinity with other arts, such as music or architecture, in which the imitation of actual objects is a negligible quantity.
Fry doesn’t include literature, perhaps because it would have complicated his argument. It can be argued that literature since the turn of the 19th century has been deeply concerned with realism, with mimicry: of conventions, of speech, of ways of living and thinking. Writers made remarkable efforts for the sake of realism in the 19th century in order to get details right. Let us remember for instance Émile Zola’s going down mines in order to write Germinal. One wonders if he wouldn’t have saved a lot of trouble simply making things up.
I jest but in fact imagination is a relatively recent paradigm in art, owing much to Romanticism. Before originality and personal creativity were consecrated as the kernel of art, artists imitated. The reasons were many. Not until a long time ago it was considered a sign of culture and refinement to be beholden to the authors of Ancient Greece and Rome. To be a good author was to understand and imitate the forms of the past. Reverence for the ancient world was only surpassed by devotion to Christianity, whose teachings maintained that the world was finished and there was nothing else to add to God’s world. Those who have read The Name of the Rose will probably remember, or not, the speech Jorge of Burgos gives on how the job of learned men is to recapitulate what is already known, not to discover anything new. So it was with art.
By Fry’s time, however, the Romantics had already shown a radically new way of writing, based on subjective impressions, where what mattered was how the world was transfigured by the feelings and temperaments of the writer. The Post-Impressionists were the equivalent in the visual arts. Still the notion that art should exist for its own sake was so young at Fry’s time, it required robust championing, especially when one of the opponents was none other than Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy is one of the greatest novelists that ever lived, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. It is also know that after he wrote these two masterpieces he underwent a crisis of conscience and became a religious mystic. That is to say, the man who published War and Peace in 1869 was not the same who wrote What Is Art? in 1897, a fact Fry doesn’t overlook when he dives into Tolstoy’s thoughts about art. In a nutshell, Tolstoy valued art in so far as it served a moral purpose. Instead for Fry, morality ‘appreciates emotion by the standard of resultant action,’ that is what art accomplishes in the real world, works that expose social evils and pave the way for social reforms. Art, however, argues Fry, ‘appreciates emotion in and of itself.’ To illustrate his difference he discusses the examples of art in Tolstoy’s ‘marvellously original and yet perverse and even exasperating book:’
He gives an example of what he means by calling art the means of communicating emotions. He says, let us suppose a boy to have been pursued in the forest by a bear. If he returns to the village and merely states that he was pursued by a bear and escaped, that is ordinary language, the means of communicating facts or ideas; but if he describes his state first of heedlessness, then of sudden alarm and terror as the bear appears, and finally of relief when he gets away, and describes this so that his hearers share his emotions, then his description is a work of art.
Now in so far as the boy does this in order to urge the villagers to go out and kill the bear, though he may be using artistic methods, his speech is not a pure work of art; but if of a winter evening the boy relates his experience for the sake of the enjoyment of his adventure in retrospect, or better still, if he makes up the whole story for the sake of the imagined emotions, then his speech becomes a pure work of art. But Tolstoy takes the other view, and values the emotions aroused by art entirely for their reaction upon actual life, a view which he courageously maintains even when it leads him to condemn the whole of Michaelangelo, Raphael and Titian, and most of Beethoven, not to mention nearly everything he himself has written, as bad or false art.
Such a view would, I think, give pause to any less heroic spirit. He would wonder whether mankind could have always been so radically wrong about a function that, whatever its value be, is almost universal. And in point of fact he will have to find some other word to denote what we now call art. Nor does Tolstoy’s theory even carry him safely through his own book, since, in his examples of morally desirable and therefore good art, he has to admit that these are to be found, for the most part, among works of inferior quality.
This argument isn’t yet resolved in our times, and I doubt it will ever be. If I may add my own idea about the matter, I believe artists in general deeply want their work to have extra-aesthetic importance, that is, to transcend their role as art and have concrete, beneficial, effect on the world. At the same time art for art’s sake is so ingrained in the mind of the modern artist that he has to put up a charade and feign repellence (a few exceptions exist, of course) at the idea of being subservient to political, social, mundane causes. But this takes me away from Fry’s points.
Next time, Roger Fry’s tour of world art.