There was a range of works I responded to, some aesthetically pleasing, some more thought provoking. As I perused spaces filled with works, a central question began emerging from the notes in my sketchbook: If the work seems popular (among the general public, or among people who practice the discipline), does that necessarily mean that it’s good?
My observation is that in our contemporary moment, sometimes good marketing convinces us how worthy works, both literary and visual, are of consideration. I’d like to suggest that in a hyper-consumer-driven society, such marketing often misses the mark. Think fast food: Widely popular; widely consumed. Not at all good, nor good for us.
For over two millennia philosophers, critics, and artists have debated the question of what art is, and what makes it good. These are questions about which we should remain in conversation. But I find my own sensibilities of how to answer these questions aligning with Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).
An 18th century writer and philosopher, perhaps best known for his works War and Peace
and Anna Karenina
, Tolstoy considered art to be an essential means of communicating emotions and feelings between people. But his viewpoint was not that art conveyed only individuated emotions and feelings to other individuals. In Tolstoy’s estimation, to reach the classification of Art, works had to convey one’s thoughts and emotions regarding the times and the world in which an artist lives to others. To be identified as good art, such communication needed to reach into others in a way that helped, or inspired them to consider fundamental questions of being:
why are we here, how do we live life with nobility and grace, and how may we invest in the commonwealth of our neighbors near and far?
In my understanding of Tolstoy’s perspective, art, and more precisely good art, is especially needed in times of economic hardship. He did not consider art periphery to existence and citizenship. Rather, art that moves people to consider the world beyond their own experience, consider and then respond to the world around them, is absolutely essential. Tolstoy understood that taste is manufactured by the sensibilities of a fickle class of elites. Taste is essentially good marketing that manipulates popular opinion, and cannot bolster meaningful content where there is genuine lack. But if a work is communicative, and compels viewers and readers to consider longstanding questions of character, justice, love, and forgiveness, then it has merit that transcends taste.
I think that given the concrete realities of financial hardship, increasing propensity for corporations to value profit above the welfare of people, and the increasing deficit of meaningful connection between people, Tolstoy’s version of art is especially necessary. We need art that utilizes visual language to express the sensibilities of people, for the people.
We are not simply enriched by, but actually need art that uses visual language to reflect back to us who we are — the good, the bad, and the reprehensible. We don’t need propaganda; we need art that reminds us of what it means on an essential level to be human. Most importantly — we need art that connects us to one another in a manner that challenges us to empathize with and attend to the commonwealth.
If you’re interested in reading more about Tolstoy’s perspective on art, check out What is Art
, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Penguin Classics, 1995). And I hope that you take some time to kick around your town to see what’s on the walls of galleries, museums, and perhaps unexpected venues. Let us know if you find works that you think Tolstoy would identify as Art.
Stefani Rossi studied painting and printmaking at the University of Puget Sound. In 2010 she received her MFA in painting from Colorado State University. Her work has been exhibited nationally in solo and group exhibitions. Stefani has worked with Ruminate Magazine as visual art editor since 2008. More of Stefani’s work can be viewed at www.stefanirossi.com
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I spent several days this month kickin’ around town in Chicago, looking at art in museums and galleries.