Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Leo Tolstoy blows to smithereens the cosy liberal notion of Truth, Good and Beauty

Tolstoy's polemic against art -- it was against art from Renaissance onwards -- was written when he was quite old, when he turned to religion and when he has finished his literary masterpieces. It is quite the old man's rant, a sensuous man turned puritan's self-flaggelation, and a deep disillusionment with modernity. The book is 'What Is Art?' (Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; Penguin; 1995; Penguin India Rs 250). Many would not want to touch it with a bargepole because it is an unrelenting attack on art as we know it. But not to read it will be intellectual cowardice. It will be difficult and impossible to agree with many of his rude and crude judgments, but it will be good to face up to many of the harsh questions he poses and the acute intellectual situation he depicts with the vividness of a novelist.He is not methodical, he is not clear, he is extremely prejudiced but he is also very incisive in some of the things he says. The most important thing he has to say is the emergence of art as an independent realm which has a superior and sublime status to be seen in works of art, music and literature. He finds this a distortion and indeed it is a distortion. To raise an aspect of our life and civilisation to the highest level is nothing but a distortion. Tolstoy analyses this distortion. He explains his stance on the issue of good, truth and beauty: "Learned men write long, vaporous treatises on beauty as one member of the aesthetic trinity: the beautiful, the true, the good. Das Schone, das Wahre,das Gute -- le Beau, le Vrai, le Bon -- with capital letters are repeated by philosophers, aestheticians, artists, private individuals, novelists, pamphleteers, and everyone seems to think that in pronouncing these sacramental words they are speaking of something quite definite and firm -- something on which one can base one's judgments." Tolstoy says that good and beauty are incompatible, and so are truth and beauty. Of good and beauty, he says: "The concept of beauty not only does not coincide with the good, but is rather the opposite of it, because good for the most part coincides with a triumph over our predilections, while beauty is the basis of all our predilections." And of the difference between truth and beauty, he says with much acuity: "As for beauty, truth has nothing in common with it, and is for most part opposed to it , because while exposing deception , truth destroys illusion the main condition of beauty." It is not at all necessary to agree with Tolstoy's arguments but we have to think on the questions he raises, especially when he accurately describes the social situation of the enjoyment of arts in our modern life: "...the works of art-amusement produced in such frightful quantities by the army of professional artists, enable the wealthy people of our time to live a life that is not only unnatural but contrary to the principle of humaneness professed by these same people. To live as wealthy, idle people live, the women espcially, away from nature and away from animals, in artificial conditions , with muscles atrophied or abnormally developed by gymnastics,, and with a weakened vital energy, would be impossible were it not for what is called art, were it not for the diversion, the amusement which turns these people's eyes from the meaninglessness of their lives and saves them from the boredom that oppresses them. Take from all these people the theatres, concerts, exhibitions, piano playing, ballads, novels with which they occupy themselves in the conviction that this is a very refined, aesthetic and therefore good occupation, take from the Maecenases of art, who buy paintings, patronize musicians, keep company with writers, their role as patron of the important matter of art, and they will be unable to go on with life, they will die of boredom, tedium, the awareness of the meaninglessness and lawlessness of their life. Only occupation with what is considered art among them enables them, in violation of all natural conditions of life, to go on living without noticing the meaninglessness and cruelty of their life. And this supporting of the false life of the wealthy is the second and not insignificant consequence of the perversion of art." It can be argued that it is not just the idle rich but also the plain middle classes and even the poor who are enamoured by art of the amusement kind, and that it is the cultural opium of the age. But this will only be an extension of Tolstoy's general criticism that art is not the highest end of life, and that religion is the highest end because religion, and not art, teaches us to live in love and brotherhood with fellow-human beings. Art can never teach compassion, and to strive for the good. The attempt to create a good life in a society which has no faith in religion can only lead to the perverted idea that art can serve as a substitute for religion. Indian liberals who want to mouth the cliche of Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram will only be talking utter nonsense because they do not understand the true meaning of Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram. To begin with, Sundaram is not just beauty. It is only a small part of the meaning of the word.

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