Tolstoy had very controversial views on art which are still debated among art theorists. Briefly, he claimed that art should deliver feelings of an artist, and it must do so in a way understandable and accessible to everyone. From this Tolstoy drew conclusions that art should not be institutionalized, that artists should not use complex techniques that might deem them elitist.
This gives way to kitsch art – a term coined by Clement Greenberg, which means something vulgar and popular with mass appeal. The term is a softened version of saying that some artworks are of low taste. Among the paintings these are usually depictions of natural scenery or historical events. While those might be arguably beautiful technique-wise, they convey no message, they have no intellectual value. Closer and more understandable example would come from the modern film industry: Transformers (with apex usage of technology and effects) versus Eyes Wide Shut (subtle beauty in intellectual aspects which becomes available only through attentive inspection by knowledgeable viewers).
Key point of socialist ideology vaguely coincides with Tolstoy’s aesthetic views: abolishment of elitism, equality (of perception) and judgement left in the hand of the masses. Such a philosophy might seem to be the best in the interests of the society. However, it actually oppresses independent artists who would like to boldly experiment in their relative fields.
Is art doomed to hit the dead-end under the pressures of inevitable populism under any kind of socialist society? The following quote from Marx gives a reason to think otherwise: “socialism is an effort to try to solve man’s animal problems, and after having solved the animal problems, then we can face the human problems – but it’s not a part of socialism to solve the human problems; socialism is an effort to get you to the point where you can face the human problems.” To paraphrase, Marx says that socialism does not necessarily imply complete equality in every aspect (for it is impossible to do so), it instead promises people to provide reasonable basic standards. Therefore, when an artist has secured basic needs, he would be ready to create comfortably. Thus, socialism might be either art’s death sentence or boosting propeller, no in-between.
Another problem socialism might be a cure for is an unfair art market. The market consumes every creation, even the ones that protest against it, especially the ones that protest it. The anti-capitalist and anti-system artworks, when presented at the marketplace, become a mere mockery of their initial stance. The examples would be: Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (which instead of challenging the definition of art only widened it by becoming yet another pop-icon), Banksy’s works (most of which demonstrate flaws of capitalism but, ironically, are being sold for millions now), iconic symbols of anarchism such as ‘Supreme’ and ‘OBEY’ (which have become expensive trademarks). Correctly applied socialist policies might prevent artworks from becoming corporate sellouts and once again prioritize their intellectual properties. So, there might possibly be socialist system that does not mute art under strict censorship (as it happened in Stalinist Russia), but instead actually provides grounds for “art for the sake of art” without price tags.