Notes on Ruskin: The Geography of Gothic

I don’t know what caused Penguin to introduce a Great Ideas series, or by what criteria they determine what ideas are great. I do know that I read Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life, and I enjoyed the packaging as much as the philosophy (Stoicism is a useful ethos, but hard to expand upon. It’s pretty much “life sucks, enjoy the ride” with a lot of contra-cultural argumentation). Of course, I couldn’t stop there, so when I was trying to decide between Montaigne’s On Solitude and Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise, I settled upon John Ruskin’s Art and Life. Because, duh.

I’ve not heard of him before I purchased it, so this was entirely a Blind Buy. But such things can be the most instructive, because you go in with no pre-concieved notions. I was expecting a Victorian-era aesthete exploring Victorian-era understanding What Art Is and how it intersects with Life. And it is that a bit, but it’s many things more.

It’s divided into two sections: a portion from his manuscript The Nature of Gothic, and a lecture given in 1858 entitled The Work of Iron, in Nature, in Art, and Policy. I’ve taken notes as I’ve read, and I’m going to share them with you in pieces, as they are precisely what this blog is about.

Being English, Ruskin can be expected in the first piece to speak up in defense of Gothic architecture (which was rather enjoying a stylistic rebirth in the early 19th century, if perhaps only a nostalgic one). He does not disappoint. On pages 7-9, he treats us to an impressive narratio on the geologic, and therfore biologic, distinctions between Northern & Southern Europe, so as to center the Gothic as a Northern style (as against the Romanesque or NeoClassical styles):

And, having once traversed in thought this gradation of the zoned iris of the earth in all its material vastness, let us go down nearer to it, and watch the parallel change in the belt of animal life; the multitudes of swift and brilliant creatures that glance in the air and sea, or tread the sands of the southern zone; striped zebras and spotted leopards, glistening serpents, and birds arrayed in purple or scarlet. Let us contrast their delicacy and brilliancy of colour, and swiftness of motion, with the frost-cramped strength, and shaggy covering, and dusky plumage of the northern tribes; contrast the Arabian horse and the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey; and then submissively acknowledging the great laws by which the earth and all that it bears are ruled throughout their being, let us not condemn, but rejoice in the expression by man of his own rest in the statutes of the lands that gave him birth.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 9

Form doesn’t merely follow Function, it seems, but follows Place, and Observation of the Diversity therein. The Gothic style rises as a Northern response to Southern cultural imports, especially as an adaptation of the Christianity that was the means by which the Germanic tribes were brought into the Graeco-Roman civilization. I had always observed Gothic as a High Medieval style, a flowering of the Germanic Kingdoms in their purest expression of themselves. I had not observed them as a Northern style against a Mediterranean one, a Savage against a Refined one. But with that frame before my eyes, it becomes very clear what Ruskin was talking of. One perceives a geometric simplicity even as it elegantly reaches to Heaven.

Amiens Cathedral, 13th Century.

Brutalism’s Anti-Aesthetic.

In Ruskin’s On Art and Life, discussion of the features of Gothic archtecture lead to a passage nicely prophetic:

From these facts, we may gather generally that monotony is, and ought to be, in itself painful to us, just as darkness is; that an architecture which is altogether monotonous is a dead architecture; and of those who love it, it may truly be said, “they love darkness rather than light”

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 35

My immediate thought, jotted down in my Bullet Journal (where I have a couple “Notes On Ruskin” pages), was “the perfect condemnation of the Brutalist style”. Brutalism is certainly given to monotony, to an almost deliberate exclusion of the kind of varied detail that Gothic or even Deco goes in for. It’s perhaps the most 20th-Century style, appearing in the immediate postwar era. One associates it with Mid-Century scenes, apartment blocks, government offices, and the like. It’s been left behind in favor of loopy Deconstructionist styles and has very few defenders. Bashing it is a favorite activity of aesthetes and faux-aesthetes, especially on the cultural Right.

But let’s consider that any style is trying to create an effect, as I said the other day. What effect does Brutalism create?

I perceive a few:

  1. The experience of sublime power, in the manner of the Pyramids or other monumental construction,
  2. The eradication of any concept of unnecessary adornment. The beauty of the building would be in its grandeur and in its function, nothing else. This is Bauhaus logic taken to extreme.

These are my takes, of course, but I think them readily evident in the style. Now, note how the first of these is actually trying to say something, to express something real, and the second, isn’t. So the first rises to the level of an aesthetic, by our previous definitions, and the second seems more of an anti-aesthetic, a negation.

These are not new observations. What I find interesting is that Brutalism’s positive aesthetic seems to provoke the more intense dislike. Detractors of the style associate it with totalitarianism, noting the enthusiasm for it in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. One can hardly dispute this intimidating effect. And the anti-aesthetic means that we have nothing else to soften or diminish that effect. It’s a massive stone block, and nothing else.

With nothing to catch the eye, nothing to engage, it quickly becomes a void on the imagination, a bore. It doesn’t even seem to reach skyward so much as take up space. That is why people dislike it so intensely. They strike our eyes like the black monolith in 2001.

Yet, this isn’t an alien power cube. This was a building, designed by humans, for humans to work and live in. We must retain that fact as we examine the whys and wherefores of it. The desire for simplicity and power are not alien to humans. Brutalism evokes both. We may criticize it for its Modernist excesses, for its unintended dwarfing of human spirits. But the error is never all there is.

How the Weather Induced Me to Learn About the Bauhaus Movement

Having been charged with the sole care of Darling Daughter whilst Wifey is compounding tech week and Opening Night into one day for a one-minute play festival, I resolved to get us both out into the sunshine. Daughter was game, despite describing the environs as “co” (cold) when we finally ventured out. We lasted but a few minutes in that biting wind before I resolved upon a hasty retreat. A few minutes outside is better than none, I suppose.

Safely indoors, I snapped a picture on the iPhone and posted it to the Tumblr:

Modesty demands that I do not speculate on where she got the ability to entertain herself with a book.

And, as I often do when I post something to the Tumblr, I scan back over previous posts to see what I’ve had on my mind of late that I considered worth posting to Tumblr, in the hope that I might figure out why on earth I have a Tumblr. It was pretty much an impulse app download when I got my iPhone, and I mostly use it when I want to express a thought or take a picture and I don’t have my computer handy. A kind of online mental diary, if you will (I think I just figured it out. One less thing on the to-do list).

Anyway, I scanned down and found that I had posted this

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