With the release of the recent theatrical adaptation of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy has been trending as of late. Although sited as Tolstoy's greatest work, Anna Karenina certainly was not his only great work. He published many other literary wonders such as War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilych as well as a number of non-fiction books on life, religion, and art.
Tolstoy published What Is Art? in 1897, at the tail-end of Realism and the beginning of burgeoning Impressionism; a time of tumult among artists and critics. Breaking from the literary and historical inspiration of Romanticism and Medievalism, artists turned their sites on 19th century society (specifically the laboring class) making Realism itself a difficult pill to swallow. Furthering the progression with the advent of Impressionism, artists rejected the traditional, academic representations of the world. Many critics rightly saw Impressionism as an assault on tradition. Tostoy, being a man of great vision, saw it as progress.
“[…] the art of the future will not require that complex technique which disfigures the works of art of our time and requires great effort and expenditure of time, but, on the contrary, will require clarity, simplicity and brevity – conditions acquired not by mechanical exercises but by the education of taste.”
Take street art for example; a product of the 1980s which is now at the forefront of popular contemporary art. As shown by the likes of Shepard Ferry and Banksy, simply importing a photo into Photoshop and making a few adjustments can create a stencil, which, when applied to urban elements such as a building wall, creates an impactful image.
This has transcended down to (or rather began with) the base level of artists. Due to increased accessibility, the proletariat has taken to pen and brush (or mouse and keyboard in the case of street art) to make their voices heard, which was also prophesized by Tolstoy.
"[...] artistic activity will become accessible to all members of the people, because instead of the existing professional schools, accessible only to the few, in the people's primary schools everyone will study music and painting (singing and drawing), together with reading and writing, so that each person, having acquired the first principles of painting and music, could, if he felt an ability and a calling for one of the arts, become perfected in it[.] It will be perfected because all the artists of genius now hidden among the people will participate in art, and, needing no complicated technical training, as now, and having examples of true art before them, will give new examples of genuine art, which will be, as it has always been, the best school of technique for artists."
Although ability to participate in the arts has ebbed and flowed over recent years, as a whole, we do support art in our public institutions starting from kindergarten and advancing through high school. As Tolstoy states, we do not need technical schools perpetuating complex technique, but rather, examples of true art and life experience. We need to plant the seed at an early age in our public institutions and allow for those who take root to flourish.
"Even now, every true artist learns not at school, but from life[.] [...] [A]rt is not a handicraft, but the conveying of a feeling experienced by the artist. And Feeling can be born in a man only if he lives the many-sided life natural and proper for human beings."
We see this time and time again in modern art when a urinal rotated 90 degrees can be as impactful (if not more impactful) than the likes of Birth of Venus. This does not require the technical aspects as displayed in the Renaissance and Realist art movements, but follows the trajectory and progression of art. Realism gave way to Impressionism, which gave way to Fauvism, which gave way to Expressionism, which gave way to Abstract Expressionism, which gave way to Pop Art and Street Art; a progression toward simplicity and brevity, and an education of taste rather than education of technique.