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.