'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

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Tuesday, 4 November 2008

What is Art? Suggestion #1.

Mark Rothko.  Untitled.  1958.

"Art begins when one person, with the object of joining * another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications. To take the simplest example: a boy, having experienced, let us say, fear on encountering a wolf, relates that encounter; and, in order to evoke in others the feeling he has experienced, describes himself, his condition before the encounter, the surroundings, the woods, his own lightheartedness, and then the wolf's appearance, its movements, the distance between himself and the wolf, etc. All this, if only the boy, when telling the story, again experiences the feelings he had lived through and infects the hearers and compels them to feel what the narrator had experienced is art. If even the boy had not seen a wolf but had frequently been afraid of one, and if, wishing to evoke in others the fear he had felt, he invented an encounter with a wolf and recounted it so as to make his hearers share the feelings he experienced when he feared the world, that also would be art. And just in the same way it is art if a man, having experienced either the fear of suffering or the attraction of enjoyment (whether in reality or in imagination) expresses these feelings on canvas or in marble so that others are infected by them. And it is also art if a man feels or imagines to himself feelings of delight, gladness, sorrow, despair, courage, or despondency and the transition from one to another of these feelings, and expresses these feelings by sounds so that the hearers are infected by them and experience them as they were experienced by the composer."
-Leo Tolstoy 1896

* My emphasis.


  1. Wow, Mr. Tolstoi, I have never heard anyone describe art so well (and you certainly knew how to compose it, yourself!). Where did you find this quotation, Katherine? Thanks for sharing!

  2. To receive what the artist is saying I think the viewer has to first suspend all judgement and let the piece of art speak its own truth - it is important not to come with, or project onto the work preconceived ideas, values or judgements - let the work speak.

    It is not even a question of like or dislike, it is whether or not the artist and the work has communicated in some way. I am thinking here of some of Francis Bacons very powerful works which speak of the dark side of our psyche, this sort of work is uncomfortable to view, but is powerful and speaks a truth.

    Real art is not a commodity or a fashion accessory. Its value is its own unique voice held up sometimes like a mirror, sometimes like the voice of a prophet, sometimes like a scientist who has seen new insights.


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