Review: Stones of Venice

Review: Stones of Venice

The Stones of VeniceThe Stones of Venice by John Ruskin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many people, capable of quickly sympathizing with any excellence, when once pointed out to them, easily deceive themselves into the supposition that they are judges of art.

I recently went on a short trip to Venice, for which I chose an abridged version of this work to accompany me. Ruskin is an eccentric guide, to say the least. To call him ‘opinionated’ is to risk absurd understatement. For Ruskin uses his survey of Venetian architecture, not merely to instruct, but as evidence for his grand theses of art and society. Few writers could turn descriptions of vaults, capitals, and statues into impassioned social criticism; but Ruskin was no ordinary man.

Ruskin’s primary contention is that gothic art was in every way superior to that of the Renaissance, and this was so because gothic art embodied positive social virtues. The workmen had considerable creative freedom, and did not simply execute the instructions of the master architect; not just nobles and popes, but ordinary citizens and guilds contributed to building projects; and the religious architecture was not done in a special style, but was an elaboration of the normal civic architecture of the town. In short, gothic art was communal, while the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later was individualistic, and suffered accordingly.

It is difficult to even critically engage with this thesis, since it rests on Ruskin’s unconvincing conviction that aesthetic and ethical virtues spring from the same root. Like Tolstoy and Orwell, Ruskin was a man possessed of both keen artistic sensitivity and a burning moral conscience; and like those two Ruskin struggled to reconcile these proclivities. To an extent this issue is troubling for us all. We are disturbed to find that our favorite singer beat his wife, or that our favorite writer is a white supremacist. Can we enjoy the art of such disreputable people? Many opt to boycott the works of artists they deem unacceptable. But Ruskin went further, and asserted that truly immoral people cannot make fine art. In this, Ruskin becomes a proper Platonist, equating beauty and goodness—and throwing truth into the bargain as well—thus cutting the uncomfortable gordian knot.

This position has the intellectual convenience of uniting all the goods on one side. This is very appealing for the social reformer. But this comes with the inconvenience of having to argue palpable absurdities. Ruskin is forced, for example, to make statements such as: “It is very possible that the reader may at first like fig. 14 best. I shall endeavor, in the next chapter, to show why he should not”—vainly trying to argue somebody out of an aesthetic preference. Contrariwise, when great art is made by figures whom history has shown to be immoral, Ruskin must commit the opposite absurdity—opposing his own aesthetic sense to documented fact:

I do not believe, of the majority of the leading Venetians of this period whose portraits have come down to us, that they were deliberately and everlastingly hypocrites. I see no hypocrisy in their countenances. Much capacity of it, much subtlety, much natural and acquired reserve; but no meanness. On the contrary, infinite grandeur, repose, courage, and the peculiar unity and tranquility of expression which come of sinciety or wholeness of heart, and which it would take much demonstration to believe could be any possibility be seen on the countenance of an insincere man.

Few people will be converted to this way of thinking, which submits reality to the whims of Ruskin’s moral and artistic senses. It is, however, refreshing to see a man so passionately convinced of the social importance of art. Ruskin scours to the city of Venice—sketchbook and notepad in one hand, step ladder under the other arm—making detailed studies of statues, capitals, friezes, cornices, and whatever other stone monuments he could find. The original edition of this book includes descriptions of eighty churches. Even in my heavily abridged edition, Ruskin goes through every capital of the Ducal Palace, comparing the representations of the virtues to Giotto’s and to Spenser’s—a tedious yet extraordinary feat. Idle fancy could hardly spur such devotion. He operated with the zeal of a reformer and the conviction of a crusader—ready to show all the world that these stones held the key to social welfare.

Personally I wish there were more people like Ruskin in the world, even if they can be insufferable at times. He wanted to live in a beautiful world, and he wanted that beauty to both reflect and encourage the health of its society. We may be inclined to laugh at Ruskin’s arguments; yet we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to these beautiful places and see them for ourselves—which, like Venice, consequently become hollowed out shells of their former selves from the influx of tourism—without stopping to wonder why we don’t spare ourselves the trouble and make our own cities beautiful. While I suspect the rise of urban ugliness is far more complex than Ruskin is apt to think, I agree with him in seeing a moral and social dimension to this aesthetic problem.

In any case, it is a pleasure to read Ruskin if only for his rococo prose, whose sentences twist, curl, and spiral into little infinities. One can see why Proust was a fan (and, indeed, his Narrator’s visit to Venice owes much to the Victorian critic). Ruskin was true to his principles, and strove to unite literary elegance, moral fervor, and insightful argument into every one of his paragraphs—and most of the time he achieves at least two out of three, which is not bad at all. Even if you disagree with Ruskin from first to last, it is scarcely possible to dive in his book and come out the other side without a few of his cobwebs sticking to your coat.

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Review: Selected Writing (Ruskin)

Review: Selected Writing (Ruskin)

Selected WritingsSelected Writings by John Ruskin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Taste is not only a part and an index of morality;—it is the ONLY morality.

John Ruskin can be said to be the John the Baptist of the religion of art, a herald of things to come. He was shortly followed by the great aesthetes, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust—who all read and were deeply influenced by his work. But Ruskin himself cannot be called an aesthete—at least, not in the sense that he considered aesthetic appreciate the central goal of life. For Ruskin, art provided not only aesthetic pleasure but genuine moral instruction; great paintings could be read like psalms, and great buildings were sermons in stone.

In this, as in so many other ways, Ruskin can be jarring for the modern reader. Indeed, his ideas were jarring even back then. He made a profession of insistently, dogmatically, and unequivocally asserting opinions that, to most people, seem manifestly untrue. The most notorious of these opinions is thus summed up by him: “You can have noble art only from noble persons, associated under laws fitted to their time and circumstances.” Unethical people, therefore, could produce only base art. And if an entire age habitually produced shoddy paintings and buildings—as Ruskin believed of his own age—then there must obviously be something deeply wrong with that society.

Art and society were thus, for Ruskin, deeply intertwined. This is the bridge that connects his art and his social criticism. Art is never just for art’s sake; it has a didactic and a moral purpose. A work of art is great in proportion to the greatness of its ideas; and these ideas are not the products of an eccentric individual, but of a whole culture, evolving and refining itself through generations. Every great work that results from this evolution “is the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History, and Religious Faith of nations.” As such, these works have a vital social purpose; and it is the job of the art critic to explicate their moral significance. We see this most clearly in Ruskin’s major works on architecture, The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which are concerned, above all, with the ethical lessons inherent in gothic architecture.

For Ruskin, however, art was not only moral, but truthful. From this conviction came his youthful defense of J.W. Turner in his five-volume Modern Painters. Turner’s works, he thought, revealed a deep insight into the workings of nature; and since Ruskin was himself keenly sensitive to natural beauty, especially mountains, he became Turner’s champion. The job of the landscape painter, like that of the poet, is to record nature as faithfully as possible. Inferior painters and poets allow themselves to be overpowered by emotions, which lead them to personify or to distort nature: Ruskin called this the “pathetic fallacy.” But the truly great painter or poet, the Turners and Dantes, are always in complete control of themselves.

One can see why this was jarring. Most of us naturally distinguish whether something is good, beautiful, or true; but Ruskin insisted that these qualities were inextricable. Art could not be great if it was immoral or if it was untrue. Indeed, for Ruskin, you might say that these qualities were not separable at all; having any of them without having all three was inconceivable. But their existence was not dependent on solitary, virtuous geniuses. To the contrary: the ability to understand nature only exists in developed cultures; moral systems are the products of peoples; and great art can only exist within a school and a tradition. Society was therefore deeply important for Ruskin, being the wellspring of everything he admired and sought.

The later half of his life was, as a result, spent in social reform. Specifically, Ruskin set himself up as the enemy of industrial capitalism. Gothic art was great because each workman was an artist; but in mass-production the workers are reduced to machines. The division of labor is, as he said, really the division of souls, allowing for efficiency but stunting human growth. The ethic of enlightened selfishness could never inspire any great works, since the highest ethical value is selflessness. The environmental destruction wrought by industrialism was not only a crime against future generations but a crime against ourselves, since we were destroying the truth and beauty of nature, which is one of the vital sources of happiness.

This is the quickest summary I can give this selection of Ruskin’s work, whose volumes fill many shells and touch on many different disciplines. There are many reasons to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas. The relationship of beauty to truth and to goodness is obviously more complicated than he insisted. Murderers, rapists, and thieves have been great painters. Honorable men have built ugly houses. And what is the truth of a symphony? But for me it is a relief to find someone who finds beauty so socially vital.

I have spent far too long in concrete landscapes, surrounded by endless rows of identical houses, each one ugly in itself and uglier en masse. The effect that such thoughtless dreariness has on my mood—in contrast with the great enlivening freshness I feel when in a lovely city—has convinced me that architectural beauty is not merely an added frill or an extra perk, but is a positive social good. And it is difficult to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas on architecture, society, and the economy when one goes from a modern suburb to a well-preserved medieval town. How is it that finer houses were built by peasants? How is it that the most wealthy society in history can produce only the most mindless repetition, vast labyrinths of stupidity, destroying whole landscapes in the process?

Ruskin is the prophet of this phenomenon, and thus valuable now more than ever. But apart from this, Ruskin is worth reading just for the quality of his writing. His early style, flowery and involuted, gave way to a clearer strain later in life. But throughout his career his prose is rich with observation and abounding in memorable phrases. Even if one disagrees with all of his conclusions, it is impossible to read him without some stimulating thought.

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