“Vanity, Laziness, and Skepticism Still Possess Me. But I Continue to Fight...”: Tolstoy’s Aesthetic Cure for Doubt

Lecture
Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 12:00pm
4217 Posvar Hall

From his earliest writing on art to his magisterial treatise What is Art? Tolstoy strenuously opposed the idea that aesthetic pleasure is merely sensuous pleasure, which might vary from person to person. He wanted to secure the objectivity and universality of aesthetic judgment, to identify not only what he or his milieu happened to consider true art, but what all people must consider true art. It was not enough for Tolstoy to say that the poems of the Decadents were not his cup of tea; he wished to say they were false and bad and anyone who liked them a corrupt, befuddled, opium-smoking fool—and to be justified in saying so. Why did Tolstoy object so strongly to the idea that our aesthetic response might be subjective? Why was he so zealous in his rejection of aesthetic subjectivism, when so many other artists, particularly in the later decades of the 19th century, accepted it? I will argue that resisting aesthetic subjectivism was not merely an artistic or political imperative for Tolstoy but an existential one. He saw objective aesthetic judgment as a bulwark against a kind of solipsism into which the very process of making art threatened to thrust him.