What Is Art?: Tolstoy's Criteria in the Light of Works by Mikhail Bulgakov and Friedrich Durrenmatt

By Wright, A. Colin | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

What Is Art?: Tolstoy's Criteria in the Light of Works by Mikhail Bulgakov and Friedrich Durrenmatt


Wright, A. Colin, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Widely criticized since its first appearance in 1898, Tolstoy's What is Art? (Chto takoe iskusstvo?) remains of interest not so much for the author's own definitions of art as for his fundamental approach. His question is, of course, an old one, which has given rise to whole theories of aesthetics, some of which he mentions, and dismisses, in his essay. He himself spent a lifetime trying to determine what art should be, and indeed wrote other articles on the subject. But the strength and originality of What is Art?-for all its undoubted prejudice, exaggeration and sheer dogmatism-lies precisely in Tolstoy's attempt to cut through differing views to ask the simple question: why do we put such an effort into the production of art, is it worth it, and what should art be? We may not agree with his conclusions, which at times are dubious if not preposterous, but his overall treatment of the problem, resulting from his lifelong struggle to discover what human existence is all about, at least provides a framework which, with certain modifications, allows us to make some kind of judgment.

Tolstoy, of course, tries to define art anew, prescribing what it should be rather than describing what it is. "Instead of giving a definition of true art," he complains, "and then deciding what is and what is not good art by judging whether a work conforms or does not conform to the definition, a certain class of works which for some reason pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as being art, and a definition of art is then devised to cover all these productions" (115).2 His own attempt to by-pass existing works, however, would seem to be an exercise in futility, for it is artistic production itself that has given rise to the very concept of art and for most of us any definition which does not include Shakespeare, Tolstoy himself, and other familiar names, must fail. Here we shall simply try to test specific authors against Tolstoy's criteria-basing our discussion on literature while bearing in mind the extent to which this may be appropriate to other art forms too.

For the purposes of a short paper I have chosen two widely recognized twentieth-century writers: Mikhail Bulgakov, representing Russian literature, and Friedrich Durrenmatt, representing Western. Both sons of ministers-Bulgakov of a professor of theology, Durrenmatt of a Lutheran pastor-they also show a non-dogmatic concern with religion, important to Tolstoy's ideas about art in a sense which we shall examine later. We should note, of course, that neither has an immediately obvious affinity with Tolstoy. Durrenmatt barely mentions him in his writings and, at least on the surface, refuses to divulge his own artistic theories (although some of his more general attitudes are apparent in his many articles): "I too have a theory of art," he writes, "...but I hold it back as being my private opinion (otherwise I would have to comply with it) and prefer to be considered as a somewhat confused child of nature lacking a will for form" (5:142).3 Bulgakov has usually been seen as closer to Gogol, even if critics have found some similarity between his The White Guard (Belaia gvardiia) and Tolstoy's War and Peace (Voina i mir)-of which he also made a somewhat mechanical stage adaptation.4 But his most frequently quoted reference to Tolstoy concerns the broader matter of artistic truth: "The fact that he existed... that there existed the phenomenon of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy obliges every Russian writer after Tolstoy... to be mercilessly strict towards himself and others"; it obliges him: "To complete truth of thought and word.... To utter sincerity. To knowing why and for what end you are writing! To a merciless intolerance towards every untruth in your own compositions! That's what the fact that there was a Lev Tolstoy in Russia obliges us to!"5 Apart from this necessity for "artistic truth," Bulgakov says little about his own views on art.6

Comparatively few writers, in fact, talk of their theories, notwithstanding such documents as the Russian Futurist Manifesto of 1912, with its bombastic rhetoric which says little more than that its creators, more suited to the current age than past writers, demand to do their own thing. …

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