Sometimes I have to wonder whether or not people really understand that, as Richard Weaver put it, ideas have consequences. In my recent PhD coursework, we have been discussing fine art, and we had to read Tolstoy’s What Is Art?
Tolstoy argues that, “As the word which conveys men’s thoughts and experiences serves to unite people, so art serves in exactly the same way. The peculiarity of this means of communion, which distinguishes it from communion by means of the word, is that through the word a man conveys his thoughts to another, while through art people convey their feelings to each other.”
Tolstoy is making the point that art is truly a means of communication at its core, and it is vitally important for us to realize that the aim of art is not beauty. The chief purpose is to get the feelings from my mind to yours as well as possible. If I do not create a good work of art, then you are not going to receive my communication. It will fail to make it from me to you, but the responsibility is on me as the artist to do a good job in my efforts of communication.
I mention this in the context of ideas having consequences because I also think that feelings have consequences. We find ourselves in a highly emotional, individualistic society at present. We care about our own interests. I am as guilty as the next, but I do not listen to the radio. I listen to Spotify. I choose the music that I want to listen to and communicates to me. I don’t listen to the music that apparently is most popular and therefore played on the radio. As a result, we have very specific sub genres of music. Our culture does not so much have an appreciation for great music as it does for music that seems great to me.
I’m not writing this to defend popular music, but I am writing this to defend the idea of shared cultural icons. On the Fourth of July, I would bet you that you heard the song God Bless the USA somewhere. That song fulfills this necessary criteria of artwork in that it communicates rather clearly to everyone what is intended by the author. Maybe not everyone will agree with the conclusion of the song, but it is hard to take that song and assume that it is communicating any other message than American patriotism.
If you heard that song in a public forum such as a parade, other people were sharing that experience with you, and again, I think it is very hard to misrepresent this particular song and the message it is trying to communicate. We understand the feelings of Lee Greenwood as a result of hearing that song, and I think that many of us, for all of our country’s flaws, are grateful to be Americans. Again, there is a shared cultural belief that is remembered as a result of this shared experience. Those feelings bring us closer together because we can relate to one another on some level. If I am patriotic, and if you are patriotic, there is some bridge between us that we can connect over.
Because it is all individualized, the focus is inherently on my own feelings. The types of media that are going to be created in this type of system fly right in the face of what Tolstoy was talking about. Nobody creates art anymore to communicate to everyone because they don’t have to. The great cultural icons that have been embraced by societies throughout history simply are not created anymore. Even if the artist is able to create something that would communicate effectively to everyone if they saw it, these masterpieces are not widespread anymore because of our narrowing of vision. We only operate in our little sphere, and we miss the things that might actually build these bridges in our culture.
I apologize that I kind of rambled a little bit on this, and if you got lost anywhere, please feel free to email me, but I think that there is a clear connection here between the idea that all we care about are our own individual feelings, and as a result, we lose out on the bridges that can be built through culture that is communicated clearly and effectively, but we just don’t see it since it is not in our little bubble.
 Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (Penguin Classics) (New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1995), Kindle Locations 947-949, Kindle Edition.