John Ruskin by Miles Mathis

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John Ruskin
by Miles Mathis

You never will love art well, till you love what she mirrors better. —Ruskin

As promised to one of my readers, this paper makes a brief apology for—or explanation of—my dismissal of Ruskin “to the dustiest shelves” in a recent conclusion. 

         To my mind, Ruskin is one of the great preachers of the 19th century.  He was a nearly peerless stylist and moralist, matched only by Emerson and Carlyle and Thoreau.  He was always at his best when lecturing—not about art, but about religion.   One of my favorite lectures of all time, matched only by Emerson’s Self Reliance and a handful of others, is Ruskin’s lecture to the town of Bradford in 1864—a lecture called Traffic.1  Here he is called upon to advise the town leaders on a proper style of architecture for their Exchange.  Instead he delivers a fiery denunciation of their whole way of life, a denunciation in many ways more complete than Thoreau’s denunciation of poor Concord.  He begins by telling them he doesn’t care a fig for their Exchange and ends by telling them he cares even less for their worship of mammon and their hypocrisy in pretending to be interested in architecture.  In the most memorable sentence of the lecture, he says, “I can never make out how it is that. . . [people] will go anywhere barefoot to preach their faith, but must be well bribed to practise it, and are perfectly ready to give the Gospel gratis, but never the loaves and fishes.”  For the form of the Exchange’s architecture, Ruskin finally recommends “decorating its frieze with pendant purses; and making its pillars broad at the base, for the sticking of bills.”    

        In a similar lecture to the city of Dublin in 1868,2  he used the opportunity to critique the whole fabric of modern society, chiding the citizens for their taste for war and their neglect of the commonest charity.  He accused many of being non-believers and of using this non-belief as an excuse for selfishness and vulgarity: “Because you have no heaven to look for, is that any reason that you should remain ignorant of this wonderful and infinite earth, which firmly and instantly given you in possession?”   So might have said Tolstoy, lecturing to this audience’s children thirty years later. 3


But beyond his lovely prose style, Ruskin was never a natural artist.  He was much more comfortable talking of religion and economics and architecture and nature than art.  Every lecture on art soon devolves into one of these.  All these subjects share a border with art, but they are not its equivalent.   As Ruskin himself said many times, art is not mainly preaching, and Ruskin’s first talent was for preaching.  He said in the Dublin lecture, “Art is neither to be achieved by effort of thinking, nor explained by accuracy of speaking.”  Much of Ruskin’s writing is a forgetting of this maxim, but he had it right.  As he did when he said to the same audience, “But the main thing I have to tell you is that art must not be talked about.  The fact that there is talk about it at all signifies that it is ill done or cannot be done.”  And this, “The true possessor of [imagination] knows it to be incommunicable, and the true critic of it, inexplicable.”

       Now, my own writing about art is of art that is extravagantly ill-done—or it is preaching.  I take no exception to Ruskin’s preaching about what he knows best: the landscape, the Bible, and Gothic architecture, among other things.  But I do take exception to his preaching about what he knows less well, and that is painting and sculpture.   In his career Ruskin moved from the discussion of painting to the discussion of religion and economics, which suggests he knew his own strengths.  Even when discussing art in his earlier years, he always tended to move the discussion to morals.  Art was from the beginning a subject of ideas for him.  The most famous idea put forward in the first decade of Modern Painters was the idea that “the greatest art contains the greatest ideas.”  And for Ruskin the greatest ideas were always moral ideas. 

        In some big blurry sense he was right, of course.  Greatness itself is a big moral idea, of a sort, so that a great work of art must have a cultural impact, and that cultural impact must be, in the long run, for good or ill.  Even the most amoral decorations of Whistler might be called virtuous, simply because they give a positive pleasure.  Anything that gives pleasure without any accompanying harm might be called virtuous.   What greater good is there in life than conferring benefits upon others? 

       However, in a more focused way, Ruskin was quite mistaken.  When viewing any particular work, the greatest work is not the one that contains the greatest ideas.   Even Ruskin’s own example proves that.  Turner’s art is very far from being an art of ideas.  At a stretch you can cram Turner’s canvases full of big ideas, and this is unfortunately what Ruskin did.  We get big ideas like nature and religion stuffed into Turner’s clouds and fogs in the haziest ways.  At times this stuffing can be quite exhilarating—Ruskin could form a sentence to convince one of anything for the nonce—but in the end it simply won’t do.  Art is not achieved by effort of thinking, nor should it be viewed with an effort of thinking.  If you are standing in front of a Turner with all those big ideas in your head you are confused pedant—you are blocking the emotions that should be falling into your head quite naturally, without the expense of a single analytical thought.  An ignorant costermonger at your side, come in from the rain and passing the canvas by accident, will likely see more in it than you, for he will simply gasp and stand for a moment with his mouth open.  Later it will infect his dreams, and maybe he will tell his daughter of it over a breakfast of muffins and herbs.  

          To take another example, what of The David?   Where is the great idea in that?  Again, one can stuff it full of ideas as long as one likes, ideas Biblical and natural and pagan and sexual.  But the simple fact is that its aesthetic effect is emotional, not ideational.  You don’t need to think anything to get the full artistic impact of it.  You don’t even have to know that it is David from the Bible.  You certainly don’t have to know that it is the symbol of Florence, or know the biography of Michelangelo.  A tour-guide would be nothing more than a pest in the Accademia.   All you have to do is look at it, and, if you have any intuitive artistic sense at all, you will deliquesce, without any help from your critical self at all. 


Ruskin understood this but didn’t often let it stop him from writing at great length of ideas in art.  He said in volume III of Modern Painters,


Much time is wasted by human beings in general on establishment of systems; and it often takes more labour to master the intricacies of an artificial connection, than to remember the separate facts which are so carefully connected.  I suspect that system-makers are not of much more use, each in his own domain, than, in that of Pomona, the old women are who tie cherries upon sticks, for the more convenient portableness of the same.     


And yet he spent an inordinate amount of time, at least in his early years, tying paintings to sticks, that they might better be understood. 

      For many years this defect of Ruskin lay nearly hidden amongst his beautiful sentences.  His readers forgave him his blind spots, since his keenness of sight in other areas was so acute.  His audience truly benefited from his exhortations to the various virtues, as surely as Emerson’s audience benefited from his, or Tolstoy’s from his, or Carlyle’s from his.  And his audiences benefited from his learning true and deep of the Bible, of the Greeks, and so on.  And as he became more a preacher and less a critic, they benefited more.   Ruskin is at his most artistic as a prose writer because there he is most emotional, and most capable of infecting his audience with emotion.  Beyond that, he is most infectious when talking of religion and morality.

       The second half of the 19th century was a strange time for preachers, though perhaps not as strange as now.   God was dying or dead, as Nietzsche was soon to inform the world, and it is probable that young men like Carlyle and Ruskin knew this, in some sense of their own.   That is, they did not accept the end of “good and evil” but they saw that the effectfulness of a preacher was perhaps no longer at a maximum within the doors of the church.  The preacher must follow his audience into the world.  If they would talk of art, so would he.  If they would talk of nature, so would he.  If they would talk of the Greeks and of Gothic architecture, all the better.  A talented preacher could turn any subject to the improvement of his flock.   And so the preacher became the art critic and the social critic.  He wrote “non-religious” treatises for the newspaper and the magazines, somehow turning every treatise to morals nonetheless.  

       This trend that Carlyle and Ruskin followed in the early years of secularization has continued up to the present day.  The sermon is a different one, but the preachers are still at work in art.  Now the text is centered on feminism and tolerance and equality and racial harmony and denial of the past, but the text is still at bottom a moral one.  I have almost as little to say against the brotherhood that is, or poses as, the foundation of this movement, as I have to say against the brotherhood of Tolstoy and Ruskin.  Meaning, it is not so much that I disagree with the fundamental declarations of goodwill underlying all these sermons, as it is that I disagree with their art theory.   Ruskin would appear to be the antithesis of the contemporary critics, since he studied the past with love and care and they study it, if at all, with presumption and contempt; since he built his love for art around his love of nature and they see no connection between art and nature; and since he wrote beautifully and they write on the borders of the legible.   But there is this similarity at least: for both the idea is central to art.   Ruskin’s fundamental idea was religion and theirs is politics, but both see art as a sort of subcategory.   They use it primarily as a didactic or moral tool. 

        But art cannot be and should not be a conscious tool of acculturation.   It may be rational to fulminate against immoral art, as Tolstoy and Ruskin did, since immoral art can and does have a real cultural effect.  But the solution is not to require that artists become consciously moral.   In fact, it is more sensible to censor after the fact than to try to force art under the umbrella of the superego.  The first solution is debatable but possible.  Some limited censorship may be salutary, if it is done by the right people in the right way for the right reasons.   Leaving our children, and ourselves, some degree of innocence might be one such reason.  The second solution is impossible.  Beyond a very limited extent, an artist simply cannot respond to group expectations and be creative at the same time.  That is not what creative means.  One part of the mind creates art; another part is moral.  One part responds to inspiration; another part responds to group expectations.  The two cannot be joined.  To make art a subcategory or a tool is to destroy it, nothing less.

         This is not a call for absolute artistic freedom, in the way that it is currently understood.  I don’t think that artists are always right or that everything artists do is valuable just because they do it.  Most contemporary art created under the cry of absolute freedom is worse than garbage.  But the answer to this is not to require that artists begin to consciously paint and sculpt highly moral ideas.   The answer is to return to an old-fashioned discrimination after the fact.   Put only the wonderful stuff in the museum and give the rest back to the artist, to incinerate as he or she sees fit.  If we don’t get any wonderful stuff this year or the next, well, let the museum sit empty as a sign.   We will then know where we stand.

        The other answer is to educate all our children as moral people from the beginning, and to let them decide what art to create when they reach the age where they want to make things.   This is the natural way to get high art: ensure the existence of high-minded people.  Presently we seem to think the only way to educate is through a constant barrage of late-arriving propaganda.   That is, we bring our children up like monkeys, teaching them little more than how to eat and dress and drive a car, and then expect them to absorb the correct politics—in or around college age—by watching a series of public service announcements, seeing a modern dance, and reading the blurbs on a couple of art installations.   But this is madness.  You cannot build a monument to the ages on a base of silly putty.  Virtues must be taught, with or without the known religions, and they must be taught very early, and constantly.  Whenever we shore up education, we can think of nothing to do but add math and science, or maybe a foreign language, or maybe more reading comprehension.  But what reading are the children comprehending, in whatever language?   Is it worthy of comprehension?  We think it somehow impertinent to ask the question, or intolerant.   But no question is more pertinent.  We must choose some wisdom from the past or present, and admit that it is wise, and hold to it.   If we don’t we have delegated our most important decision to the winds, and all else is hopeless.  If there are no known wisdoms or virtues, then our politics is left without an anchor, and all education or propaganda or indoctrination is feckless and bootless and all-too-late. 


The other place that Ruskin betrays some connection to contemporary critics is in his Puritanism.  Many will think my argument that the Moderns are Puritans is extravagant, seeing the depths of vulgarity and brutality they have been willing to go to shock and outrage.  But I remind that the Puritans were prone to shock and outrage.  One might say they reveled in it.  They liked nothing better than to melt into a paroxysm of outrage, especially in sexual matters.  Rather than become sexually excited, they became excited against sex, somehow achieving a similar release.  Puritans have also not been averse to either physical or mental brutality.  The witch trials were not as great an anomaly as is thought.    They were an extreme example of a commonplace.  

         Modern art and criticism have been stridently anti-sensual, as I have argued elsewhere. The vulgarity and brutality of contemporary art is all arrayed against sensuality, not for it.  Only a theory that put little value on the body and on sex could use them to frighten and repel.  Ruskin’s pathology no doubt paled in comparison to the contemporary pathology, but his sexual problems are well-documented.   These problems could not help but color his views on subject matter in art.  I suspect that he would have little patience with my subjects.  I can’t remember if it was Carlyle or Ruskin who was frightened into permanent celibacy by his first sight of feminine pubic hair, but you can imagine what my oeuvre would do to such a man.   I would guess that this cathexis was far from rare in Victorian England.   It is still common, if my experience with clients and galleries in the US is any measure.  Even in avant garde galleries, you will sooner see hacked up corpses than a tuft of pretty netherhair.   What can I have in common with this outlook?  It would be like me being frightened into a permanent fear of landscapes by my first sight of a wooly sheep.  Could Ruskin ever take me seriously on a stroll in the Alps?

        I must imagine that a painting like one of my nudes must affect him like a painting of Teniers that he calls, “a prolonged contemplation of a vile thing.”  For him a picture should be “the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing.  That is an entirely moral quality—it is the taste of angels.”   Tolstoy as well as Ruskin would judge my Blue Bed, for instance, as prurient if not worse, I think.  A naked woman, painted so immodestly—from both her view and mine—must have more in common with Teniers’ sots over their dice than with a lovely landscape.  And yet, Ruskin says that all delight in art resolves into “simple love for that which deserves love.”  Can a landscape deserve love more than a woman?  Only in the abstract, if at all.  For me the naked woman’s body is quite simply the nearest sacred landscape, one that is lovely beyond all sacred grove and mountain.  And, unlike them, it can be loved both abstractly and actually, with body as well as mind.  This inclusion of the body and of real action is no reason to lump sexuality and the nude in with gambling and drunkenness.   Just the opposite.  Some nudity and sexual subject matter may certainly corrupt.  I don’t deny it.   Much non-nudity and non-sexual subject matter may also corrupt.  Much is meant to.   But there is nothing inherently corrupting about nudity or sexuality, and a naked woman is no temptation to evil for a virtuous man.  To assume so is to assume that sex is evil and must be evil.  A naked woman is only a temptation to sex, and may be even less than that.  It may be simply an allowance that she is admirable, and an invitation to admire her without blushes on either side.   Finally, sex may itself be virtuous.  Good sex is a virtue, like any other good.  To love well that which is lovely, as Ruskin says, is not only an artistic act, it is a moral one.  Only an artist who implied that he did not love well what he presented as lovely, or who loved what he presented as vile, could be accused of bad taste. 

Another reason I have trouble being convinced by Ruskin the closer he gets to art is his attack on Whistler.  This was my first knowledge of Ruskin and can’t help but be prejudicial.  I still can’t comprehend how a critic whose first darling was Turner could work up such emotion against Whistler.  In my eyes they are closer than any two artists in history, with all that foggy mystery and soupy paint handling.  The exact same things that Ruskin said about Whistler in 1878 he was defending Turner against in 1844.   The critics in the 40’s found Turner formless and lazy and lacking in detail and definition.  Whistler’s only sin appears to be that he did not allow Ruskin to be his main promoter, as Turner had. 

        We must remember that Ruskin was now almost 60 and had suffered 45 years of chastity and sexual humiliation.  At least two pretty young girls had refused him and broken his heart.   Who of us would not be a bit grumpy by then? 

        Carlyle did not mind the airing of his sexual problems, believing that a hero’s faults were both fair game and forgivable.  I agree with him.  He and Ruskin were heroes, and what is more, my heroes.  I only meant to relegate Ruskin’s views on art to the dusty shelves.  I never meant to send the bulk of his work there.   I could wish that he, or any of his caliber, were alive now, to lecture the ubiquitous Bradfordians and Concordians and Pottersvillians who make up the present age.   But who of these new citizens, these fellows of ours, would hire him to speak? 

           That is finally the difference between his time and ours: his audience was at least educated enough to sense its own lack of education.   It had not reached that level of smug self-satisfaction and strident ignorance that allows our present burghers to wallow away in the 19th hole or the high-rise club.   His Bradfordians and Dubliners may have been crass, but they were apparently able to follow the speech of John Ruskin.  What graduating class of Princeton or Oxford could follow it now, much less the rotary club of Dallas or Denver?  What group, moneyed in whatever way, would not much rather hire Robin Williams or Tiger Woods or Oprah Winfrey?  Even Woody Allen is too erudite for American audiences; how could Ruskin make it to the end of a sentence?  He would have to remove all historical, literary, Biblical, and artistic references, all uncommon words and phrasing, 90% of the commas, 80% of the opinion, and 75% of the emotion.   What is left?   Speak slowly from the teleprompter, John.  Oh, and wear a red tie with a dark suit.


1Published in The Crown of Wild Olive, 1866.

2Published as “The Mystery of Life and its Arts,” in Sesame and Lilies, 1871.

3Not surprisingly, Tolstoy was a fan of Ruskin, calling him “a man who thinks with his heart.”

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