Accidental Art: Tolstoj's Practical Poetics of Unintentionality

Michael A. Denner, Stetson University

It is often said, even by those who have read the work, that L. N. Tolstoj "rejects" art in What Is Art?. Granted, much of the book excoriates much of the art of the ages, but one must not overlook the paramount position that art plays in Tolstoj's cosmology. Art is a demiurgic tool: Its function is remaking the individual by exacting an enduring and significant change in his or her psychology, something Tolstoj explicitly addresses when he remarks that the best kind of art, Christian religious art, by evoking "under imaginary conditions" a sense of brotherhood and love essential to Christian teaching, will "train men to experience those same feelings under similar circumstances in actual life; it will lay in the souls of men the rails along which the actions of those whom art educates will naturally pass" (Maude 288). We are to understand that art accomplishes an almost physiological change in the mind of the perceiver.

If you accept his argument that art is a powerful "tool" capable of hypnotizing and effecting change in the psyche of the masses, then naturally no small interest obtains as to how to gain control of such a thing. One valid way to read Tolstoj's literary criticism and art theory is for practical insights on how artists in general produce art, or more particularly how Tolstoj himself produced art or thought others should produce it. Given Tolstoj's theory that art offers a means of shaping the human psychology, the next logical question that What Is Art? seems to invite is: How does one manufacture this powerful tool?

I hazard in my paper that What Is Art? contains an explicit (though ultimately paradoxical) methodology for making art. Tolstoj maintains throughout his literary criticism and aesthetic philosophy written during his "post-conversion" phase that the only requirement for creating an authentic work of art is sincerity, a state Tolstoj defines as a real, unaffected relationship to the thing described that generates "an irresistible inner need" to produce a work of art. A true artist creates a work of art because he cannot not create it. A necessary (for Tolstoj at least) correlate to this condition is that the artist has absolutely no adventitious motive: no desire for recognition or reward. Any awareness of the created thing's potential as a work of art, i.e., any concern on the part of the artist for the reaction of a potential audience, vitiates the thing as art, making it counterfeit art. To be authentic, a work of art must originate as a supremely private enterprise—it is produced solely for the "satisfaction" of its creator, who is oblivious of a potential audience.

Thus the practical aesthetics, the model for the production of art in What Is Art? hinges on a paradox: The key to creating an authentic work of art is the absence of any intention to produce art. Put otherwise, the surest method for producing counterfeit art is, according to Tolstoj, premeditated striving to create a work of art. All authentic art must be accidental.

My paper will cover Tolstoj's theoretical foundations for his claims and will also trace the idea of accidental art and its related manifestations in Tolstoj's literary criticism and own writing.