Sometimes you just really think of a great idea in the shower in your “It’s 7:30 In The Morning And I Need To Go To Work” delirium, and you put it to paper days later to only realise the attempt at writing it up is going to mentally ruin you. This is one of those cases. Articulating art theory in conjunction with a personal belief that has profoundly shaped my perception on how to go about experiencing culture is harder than it looks. I think I’ve become too used to having conversations with myself in the mirror, gesticulating wildly at an invisible audience gathered at some uppity press conference, instead of deciphering whatever the hell I’m trying to say and expressing myself through a written medium.
I can’t believe I used to bitch and whine at every Sex and the City episode, flogging Carrie Bradshaw’s writing career which consisted of vapid weekly columns and a litany of horrendous books as piss easy. Christ almighty, I can’t actually be wrong about aggressively hating the woman for six seasons can I? No, that’s impossible – she’s the actual worst, but she did make writing look entirely effortless.
So, rolling onto today’s topic: the big man himself.
If you had asked me what I knew about Tolstoy I’d reply with: probably nothing, with the exception of watching BBC’s production of War and Peace over and over again just to catch James Norton in a soldier’s uniform.
So what then made me pick up Tolstoy’s non-fiction publication “What is Art?” – I can’t say. It must come down to my serious obsession of hoarding art theory books with the intention of never reading them. But there I was in Waterstones, wallet at the ready not expecting anything in particular from this little book.
On a different note though, I’d like to say that when it comes down to how I appreciate art I’m an egalitarian at heart. I champion the dismantling of elitism in gallery spaces in all situations. If I could take a pitchfork to the gates of most institutions here in London and bay for better accessibility without getting arrested and deemed a public threat, I would. What I found in Tolstoy, then, was a voice that mirrored my vey own reflections.
It’s strange to think that a work first published in 1897 echoes some of the same worries that circulate galleries today. With the exception of smaller, commercial galleries, have national institutions really pushed art as being a component of culture that can be universally accepted by all demographics? Undeniably there’s been a gradual change, especially with the creation of blockbuster exhibitions that have transformed our relationship with art into something more economically profitable, attracting the burgeoning masses. Blockbuster exhibitions are in my opinion, the simplest form of bridging that social divide; engaging with and introducing people who ordinarily wouldn’t frequent galleries spaces to these quick-fix moments without having to actually modify their permanent collections as more digestible for the masses.
Blockbuster museums are both good and bad. Museums and galleries need to generate profit in order to continue functioning – granted. And if you’re looking for swift injection of funds, look no further than a travelling exhibition. But blockbuster shows, even in all their glory, mask the fact that permanent collections are often left in the need for some form of refreshing. If you ignore most of the major art institutions and museums across the globe that garner crowds regardless, smaller institutions need to work on public outreach by making what they have more accessible.
The problem with galleries is that even if our perceptions of how they function as sanctified cultural warehouses are now altering to see their potential in the community, that blanket of elitism will still persist for many individuals. As a white, middle-class woman, to go into an art gallery especially having an education in the field, which drastically makes me more receptive to the works I’m about to see, is not just fun. It’s easy. There’s nothing I need to worry about in terms of my behaviour: there’s no lingering anxiety in how I’m meant to understand the works, no disappointments in terms of representation. For most racial minorities, however, blue-collar works and low socioeconomic individuals, for those whose religion sits outside Western society’s pseudo-secular and mostly Christian values, and whose sexuality isn’t heteronormative, galleries and the art housed within them aren’t as enabling.
“The task of art is enormous”, writes Tolstoy. And in reality it is. For something to be ubiquitous, to be globally acknowledged and understood by all is by no means a small feat. Looking at Tolstoy’s work, that underlying yearning for art to be redeemed as culturally significant is so utterly poignant in the very fact that the social and cultural disjunctions the author speaks of exist contemporaneously.
In Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” if we set aside his discussion on beauty and study of aestheticism, what we have is a strong argument towards the promulgation of art as cultural asset that needs to be accessible by all facets of society. He likens humanity’s ability in engaging with art to religious devotion. In worshipping God do we understand the scope of mankind’s emotions and overall love that can be directly transmitted into and observed in all art forms. I’m not sure that it’s God who has endowed us with such a gift. It’s an innate ability because of the very fact that we are human. Hence, we are all born equally able to appreciate art. Class doesn’t separate us in our capacities to form emotional connections to what we see framed before us. Art epitomises the human experience and but the physical expression of what we experience and feel.
“Viewing it in this way, we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man. Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship with him who produced or is producing the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously or subsequently receive the same artistic impression”.
Tolstoy writes that when the elite lost their sense of religion, they turned to art as a means of devotion instead. Pleasure replaced religion, and in turn, skewed human expression and turned into something degenerate to suit the needs of the rich. Hence art became filtered and devoid, so that it came to represent that same hedonism the rich sought and in doing so, art lost its inherent ability to influence the masses. The aggrandisement of the appreciation and production of art redefined the practice as a uniquely intellectual and aristocratic pursuit. In the bid to make art selective, art faded from existence in the lives of the common public and came to symbolise leisure and nobility – two characteristics that echo in the minds of many today. Tolstoy writes: “I can only conclude that art, becoming ever more and more exclusive has become more and more incomprehensible to an ever-increasing number of people…”
Whilst there is a certain truth to this, this deviation from religion that Tolstoy describes is code for modernism. Tolstoy obviously wasn’t a fan. I personally love a bit of cubism to rewrite the way in which I can identify a human head from a mishmash of scrambled shapes. However, as the world was beginning to awaken to capitalism and industrial leaps, the avant-garde movement at the beginning of the 20th century matched this social, economic and psychological development by completely revolutionising the way one saw art and the world around us. What Tolstoy sees, as he’s writing, is a breakdown in traditional art forms: we have a reversal of what art represents. It’s no longer a mirror reflecting the natural world and humanity as we physically see it – it’s fractured, formalistic and alien. In removing itself from the known, it transforms itself into the unknown, and in being restrictive, can only be understood by a few. This creation of a visual language foreign to most individuals is what Tolstoy rebukes as damning, for its existence could only by supported by the upper-classes who were supported by a rich education and financial stability, as everyday people given their circumstances in life stopped responding to art in ways they once could.
Whilst Tolstoy is right in the sense that art in the time he was writing, had very certainly become incomprehensible to society at large, art has always mirrored the lifestyles of those who can commission it. During the Middle Ages, with most serfs illiterate, I don’t think they’d be able to grapple with the subtleties of iconography in manuscripts in the same way the nobility did. Art has always been produced to suit the whims of the upper classes regardless of time and place. The difference between an icon of Jesus and Bauhaus artworks is that the work coming out of the turn of the 20th century were so far removed from the visual language that society could comprehend that it created a complete schism. But the problem isn’t only with art itself. Yes we’re all capable of understanding art even if it is a single fluorescent light bulb propped in a warehouse in the middle of a desert. It’s not our level of comprehension that’s the issue – it’s the barriers that have been put up to impede how and whether or not we can respond to art that is the underlying issue. You need to dissect the problem layer by layer.
Simplistically put, if we begin with the avant-garde artists and the rise of modernism, the break from tradition stylistically speaking saw institutions like national museums and galleries no longer displaying up-and-coming work. Site-specific exhibitions became the new trend meaning accessibility was considerably lessened. So, no longer is the general public included in the display of art. Art dealers, art markets, and galleries that collected art for private buyers begin to pop up; consequently we have that seclusion cementing itself even further in society. Private buyers in the 80’s, with the unregulated banking sector investing in art faster than McDonald’s pumping out chicken nuggets to drunks at 3 in the morning, mean that the actual proliferation of art into the wider public conscious is lessened. Although this buying frenzy weakens considerably in the 90’s paving the way for institutions to regain their cultural importance as they transform into multi-purpose centres of culture, the damage is already done.
Art, being barricaded under so many fortifications of snobbery and ignorance, is no longer part of the cultural norm for most. And this separation between art and the general public is exacerbated by institutions that continue to allow art to exist without explanation. It’s elevation as the pinnacle of intellectual expression meant that we got rid of any need for teaching the meaning behind the work. The rich had the right tools to understand the language behind abstraction and minimalism and surrealism and every other push towards the avant-garde because it had become unique to their life experiences. They were exposed to such art, thus they inherently understood it, unwilling to impart any knowledge and include the rest of society in their appreciation for this new art. This narrow-mindedness originating from the elite seeped its way into galleries and museums alike that perpetuate this kind of mentality.
What I’m getting at is that now we as a society collectively suffer the repercussions of evolution of art: most don’t feel comfortable in art galleries because the work displayed holds no immediate recognition. The environment feels forced and odd. Why are the labels so damn small? What am I meant to get from a square canvas with a rip in it? Do I stand from the back to gaze on the object, or should I go up close? The monologue of anxiety that affects most people is demonstrative of how difficult it is to assimilate in an environment like a gallery, all of which ignores the fact that the limited information museums and galleries give us assume we’re all huge fans of what we’re being forced to look at. It’s an issue prominent in modern and contemporary art especially. There needs to be an change in the way we approach galleries and an educative change that brings light to how we understand art and why we go to such great lengths in even attempting to give meaning to works without shunning the vast majority of society. Slowly, there’s a global effort in widening audiences and opening doors to newcomers, but the issue of elitism is pervasive and so deeply embedded in the fabrics of the art world, armed with a hundred litres of weed killer you’d still find it hard to get rid of the stuff.
Also Tolstoy is a pretty cool dude.