Without knowing first what art is, we will not be able to tell what good is art. Having studied several different definitions of art, I am most satisfied with Tolstoy’s definition of art from his essay “What is Art?” (pckt pg.21). According to Tolstoy, art is a form of communication, a vehicle which the artist can use to communicate his feelings and emotion; it is a “means of intercourse between man and man” (pckt pg. 23). Tolstoy’s definition of art is hardly based on the beauty of the work, rather he focuses on the communicative qualities of the work namely, infectiousness, clarity and sincerity. Thus, any piece of work displaying all the three conditions in any varying degree, is considered a work of art. The quality of a work of art is determined by the degree to which it is sincere, clear and infectious. Using Tolstoy’s given definition of art my essay attempts to discuss what art is good for, mainly with respect to ethics.
My stand on art is that it can be both for good and for bad when it comes to the question of ethics. For example, literature as art can act in both ways, which way it goes depends on both the writer and reader. Literature, since it’s inception has always been a form of communication, and good literature be it the prose of Trollope, poems of Blake, the plays of Shakespeare or even political propaganda has always had the sincerity of its creator. Throughout history, literature has been able to bring a social, or moral message to the people. And good literature has always been infectious, at times even igniting reform and revolution. Without a doubt, literature brings to the reader or audience a circumstance we are unable to experience in real life and thus raise moral or social concerns. From Swift’s satirical “Gulliver’s Travels” which poked fun at the social mores of his time, to the fiction of Dickens whose plea for reform did not go unheard and pushed a program for reformation into action. Yet literature with its power to move masses can also go bad, for instance, the misinterpretation of Marxist theories led to the regime of suffering and terror we know as Communism. Art, as Tolstoy has described, is infectious, sincere and clear, qualities that make it extremely accessible to the masses, and given its infectious nature, art as a form of expression and communication can fuel changes or destroy whole societies.
“The experience of art is more easily degraded…” (book pg.199) says Murdoch in her essay “The Sovereignty of Good”. Murdoch substantiates Tolstoy’s claim that art is communicative when she describes it as a “human product” that is easily comprehended or “degraded”. Murdoch’s main argument is that moral ethics and virtues are in fact connected to Beauty in Art, or in Nature.(book pg. 198) Her argument is based on two assumptions; namely, that humans are all selfish and that there is no external reason for human life. In view of her assumptions, it follows that whatever makes us less selfish or more objective is virtuous. And beauty be it in Nature or Art, has the ability to make us indulge in “self-forgetful pleasure” (book pg. 198) thus making us less selfish and more objective. Beauty in Art is “more edifying” (book pg.199) since it is a human product; and even more so when we are talking about representational art like literature or paintings. (book pg.199) She claims art to be “concerned with morality”, and that it presents to us what we would be too timid or selfish to discover on our own. Good art is a demonstration of the difficulty of being objective and is a “place in which the nature of morality can be seen.” (book pg.200) In other words, art is where the artist sheds his individualistic veil of perception and creates a work where others can share in his objectivity. This is an act of virtue. In appreciating art, we become less selfish and can see the reality of the world presented. I agree very much that objectivity is introduced to the spectator, and I can think of no more fitting example than when Dickens