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Art and Culture: Leo Tolstoy and Lewis Gordon’ Views Essay

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Updated: Jun 4th, 2020


Culture is a way of life for members of a given community which is achieved through accumulation of knowledge, beliefs and symbols. It is passed down from one generation to the other through socialization avenues such as communication and imitation. Culture is thus the behavior of a group of people which forms their tradition and distinguishes the group from others. Art on the other hand can be viewed as a way of expressing culture and acts as carrier of the same. Culture attempts to justify art with each form of art having a story behind it (Shahid 57). A careful analysis of art is thus vital in understanding a people’s culture. Artists use their art to express how much they appreciate their culture and their way of life.

Many scholars around the world agree that art is more of a condition in the life of human beings than pleasure. This is justification behind the integration of culture and philosophy in many college courses and books. Through their work, artists have helped in developing culture while at the same time providing entertainment (Gordon 46).

Some of the authors who have shown great interest in the study of art and culture include Leo Tolstoy and Lewis R. Gordon. The author of this paper will attempt to analyze art and culture from the perspective of these two thinkers through an in depth analysis of their views and theories regarding the topic. It is evident that there exists a relationship between art and culture since art is a medium for storing culture.

Analysis of Art and Culture by Leo Tolstoy and Lewis R. Gordon

Culture is seen as a way of justifying art. There is therefore no art in absence of culture. For Leo Tolstoy art is a mixture of feelings by means of which the artist shares their emotions and feelings with the audience. Thus, art cannot be attributed to any specific class in the society. As long as the individuals understand the culture behind it, they are entitled to it. Leo Tolstoy is of the view that “…..through sight and hearing, a person can automatically detect the emotions of those expressing it” (Tolstoy 59). I argue that this position is true in that it is only through such processes that one can be understand the feelings of other people. Art should therefore be comprehensible as far as the audience is concerned.

On his part, Lewis R. Gordon views art as a “symbolic expression of culture” (Gordon 44). Professional artists use their trade to express their views by through artistic media such as songs to draw the attention and feelings of their audience. The audience must be conversant with the artist’s culture to fully understand and appreciate the art. This is true in that it is only after understanding the artist’s culture that the audience can fully appreciate the message and values being put across by the artist (Williams 26). Both thinkers appreciate that the audience should be fully conversant with the artist’s culture for any form of art to be successful. The theory however has its shortcomings. One of them is the fact that it people tend to learn other people’s culture through interaction with them and thus they need not fully embrace the other culture to understand the art as the two scholars argue.

Leo Tolstoy states that art is universal and is relevant to all aspects of human life. To achieve this, any form of art should express concepts that can be experienced by all humans. An artist should therefore have the ability “……..to infect individuals from all settings with his or her feelings in the same way as long as the art is expressed in a manner or language understandable to the audience” (Vendler 38). This is true since different settings should not affect the meaning of the art since art is constant and remains unaltered. However, extreme caution should be taken while translating art from its natural form so as not to change its meaning. The originality of art may also be lost when a new culture is introduced.

Lewis R. Gordon on the other hand views culture as man’s way of responding to dangers of nature and the vulnerabilities of the human body. Thus each group or community has to come up with a culture that suits their survival techniques along with developing the necessary arts to supplement their physical capability (Gordon 46). These arts gave man an upper hand over other creatures in nature in terms of response to threats as well as adapting to their surroundings. The two thinkers disagree here. For example Leo Tolstoy suggests that art should be universal and should express concepts experienced by all humans while Lewis R. Gordon suggests that art is a man’s way of dealing with his vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities however tend to vary from one culture to the other and with environmental settings.

Leo Tolstoy suggests that art should have the ability to express moral concepts of the culture of the group involved. Art should help in passing cultural values held by the members of the group from one generation to the other thus promoting peaceful co-existence. I propose that art also goes a long way in instilling religious values among members of the concerned group. In the process it brings about unity since people are made to concentrate. However, this is not always the case with some forms of art in the culture of some groups supporting discriminative values that tend to alienate certain minority groups (Tolstoy 59). This is often highlighted in arts that promote the culture of gender imbalance in the society with the male gender often being viewed as superior in most cultures and religions. Arts and culture should therefore not be taken as an excuse for social injustices.

On his side, Lewis R. Gordon suggests that culture is human’s attempt to respond to challenges of living with others. Art therefore should be modified in a way to ensure fluent communication and interaction among members in a group as well as promoting civilization. To this end, Gordon notes that “art facilitates the development of a mode of communication understandable to the group sharing the culture” (34). Unlike Leo Tolstoy’s theory, Lewis feels that art should be concerned with the facilitation of communication as opposed to promotion of morality and social values. I suggest that this function is more accurate since not all forms of art and cultures promote morality in the society (Williams 26). Despite the presence of these forms of art and the different cultures, cases of immorality are still popular in our society. Both thinkers in their theories however maintain that there is a strong interdependence between culture and art in a society.

Tolstoy holds the view that “art reflects a very independent nature of religion and values” (34). Art cannot be taught and its teaching destroys its spontaneity as well as the artist’s individuality. Individuals are bound to learn the culture behind the art as a result of experience. On his side, Lewis R. Gordon suggests that art and culture is more or less a way of evading choice and freedom prompting one to follow the norms in the society. Both thinkers agree that art compels individuals to follow the culture of the group not because of their will but rather out of a sense of responsibility (Shahid 57). Lewis theory is more comprehensive on this issue suggesting that art and culture are there to serve as a guide to a group of individuals sharing the same culture.


It is evident that art is an effective way of preserving culture. Without culture, art is meaningless to the members of the community of a group of people. The importance of art is manifest especially in occasions such as rituals as well as other cultural ceremonies such as weddings and burials. Culture is there because people believe in it and are therefore willing to continue carrying on with it (Vendler 38). Art gains meaning from the culture of the community, meaning that without culture, art is meaningless. It is also noted that art would have contradicting meanings in different settings.

Works Cited

Gordon, Lewis. “Essentia Africana: Understanding Africana Essential Thoughts.” CBS Interactive Network 45.1(2012): 45-47. Print.

Shahid, Stover. “Brotherwise Dispatch vs. Lewis R. Gordon.” Brotherwise Dispatch Editorial 32.2 (2008): 56-58. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art?, New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1960. Print.

Vendler, Henry. The Poetry of George Herbert, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2005. Print.

Williams, James. The Principal of Psychology, New York: Henry & Holt, 2010. Print.

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