A friend of mine forwarded this recent publication in First Things: On the Square by David Hart, one of my more recently discovered favorite authors. However, in this comparative evaluation of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, while I agree with many of Hart’s points, loving both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I yet find myself diverging in several places, most notably at the more basic point of aesthetic theory which he uses to differentiate their artistic ranking. Here, I have recapitulated my essential response to Hart’s essay from On the Square, but have taken the opportunity to expand a little on the issues I touched upon there.
I would certainly agree that it is possible to “rate/rank” authors/artists to a certain extent, and yet one often has the feeling that, at a certain point, as a friend of mine is want to point out, comparing the relative greatness of, say, Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, begins to get a bit dicey. I do not ascribe to the relativistic stance that simply fulfilling the aesthetic aim which one has set out to achieve creates an equivalency between artists, since it still leaves the more basic question of whether or not the objective beauty which was achieved was greater in one artist than another as well. Just because Michelangelo and Rothko were attempting to do different things with their art, and both were proportionately successful to their aim, it does not follow that somehow Rothko was as great an artist as Michelangelo, because the final result of Michelangelo’s art is, simply at a glance, infinitely more beautiful than Rothko’s. Continue reading