As the nineteenth century was packing its bags in early 1898, Leo Tolstoy published the most outlandish book ever written on one of that century’s favorite subjects: art. Approaching his seventieth birthday, Tolstoy distilled in What Is Art? the moralistic bile that had been rising in him for two decades and spewed it over virtually the entire artistic culture of his century—and of modern times. He spared almost nothing, including his own great works. For he had come to believe most of it exemplified “false art,” perpetrating a variety of social evils and depriving Western civilization of the necessary virtues of true art. “Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement,” he cried, bent on awakening modernity from its complacency; “art is a great matter.”

Eccentric and lucid, cranky and brilliant, funny and fierce, What Is Art? resounds with the effusions of a moral convert ...