Notes on Ruskin: The Absurd Rule

Much of Ruskin’s On the Nature of Gothic involves a pre-Marxist critique of industrialization. I’m not sure if it qualifies as being From the Right, as I’m not certain of Ruskin’s politics, but it reads very Romantic, which is at least half a Reactionary movement. The old-school Romantics and Goths gazed back at pre-modern “natural” conceptions and the light footprint man had on Nature with longing. Rationalism and Enlightenment were, in their eyes, as tyrannical as they were liberating.

But so too are the critiques. There is much to sympathize with in Ruskin’s dislike of the Grand Standardization that industrialization entails, but he arrives at conclusions that boggle the mind. For example, he advocates regulation of industry in order to preserve human invention, human art. He creates three broad rules for this:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 20

Let’s not spend any time arguing about how such a schema would be practically enforced, as that’s the least of the difficulties with it. We could get lost in haggling about such terms as “necessary”, “noble”, or “imitation”, and even if we agree on what exactly Ruskin meant, we might not agree to be bound by them. This is the problem many 19th century texts leave us with.

But in his examples, he constructs a thing I have noticed many times among those who establish a strong rule, and implement it strongly: a rule yielding absurd results. And by “absurd” I mean widely divergent results among things of minor variation. You see it often in the self-flattering exceptions our Modern Puritans make for their particular prejudices and bigotries. I will refer to it as The Absurd Rule:

So again, the cutting of precious stones, in all ordinary cases, requires little exertion of any mental faculty, some tact and judgment in avoiding flaws, and so on, but nothing to bring out the whole mind. Every person who wears cut jewels merely for the sake of their value is, therefore, a slave-driver.

But the working of the goldsmith, and the various designing of grouped jewelry and enamel-work, may become the subject of the most noble human intelligence. Therefore, money spent in the purchase of well-designed plate, of precious engraved vases, cameos, or enamels, does good to humanity; and in work of this kind, jewels may be employed to heighten its splendour; and their cutting is then a price paid for the attainment of a noble end, and is thus perfectly allowable.

Ruskin, pg. 21

We have thus created a rule under which jewels may be used to adorn objects, but not people. This has nothing to do with the nature of jewels, objects, or people, and even less to do with the goals and results, but the way cut jewels are created. It’s a highly specific distinction being made, and the results is quite strange. And in any case, jewels are going to be cut.

And let me stipulate that I understand his distinction: between creative and monotonous work. I even agree with the criticism that monotonous work is degrading to the human spirit. But the center of our value should therefore be on the humans who do the work, not the objects. The market for jewels and the market for plate, vases, and other goods are the same market, that of having beautiful things. If there’s no reason why someone can’t both cut jewels and make fine plate – and evidently to Ruskin, there isn’t – then we can simply create a rule allowing workers time to work on stimulating projects, and not spend all their time on dull repetitive work. That pus the humans at the center, rather than the objects, and does not anathemetize something (wearing jewels) that carries almost no moral value.

One finds the correct solution by focusing on the primary value.

Originality is not Art.

All aesthetic positions are going to offend someone, because concepts of the beautiful are perpetually wrapped up in concepts of the true, and that makes sense in poets’ vomitings but not as an ontological baseline. Whether the beautiful and the true are connected in some way doesn’t really help us to define the beautiful.

The philosophy of aesthetics suffer in a different way from the post-modern inversion. A long time ago Edmund Burke took a shot at defining The Beautiful and The Sublime, and it’s so 18th century you could powder your wig with it. Make an art student read it today and she won’t be able to get past it. Feminism owns the dialogue on what’s considered beautiful, because women have historically been far more concerned with beauty, and all women today feel obligated to at least nod to feminism lest they be accused of harboring the desire to surrender their franchise or some such nonsense. And Feminists regard beauty as a conspiracy against women, because… reasons.

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

So aesthetics has to appeal to presuppositions about what people like. If you like horror and your wife doesn’t, then no objective statement about the aesthetic value of say, The Shining, is going to be possible between you. She might agree that, on the whole, The Shining is a better movie that Bye Bye Man, but she doesn’t enjoy either, so she doesn’t care.

Where am I going with this?

I’m aiming at the reality that art of any form needs to be some kind of communication. There has to be something that The Shining is communicating, even if it’s something as simple as dread, mystery, and heart palpitations. So the first judgement of a piece of art is how well in accomplishes its intent (here the po-mo’s shriek that intent isn’t real and there aren’t any authors, because po-mo’s are nerds who think inverting things is valuable and clever). What does it want to convey to its audience? Did it do so successfully?

The second judgement would be the relative value of its intent. This must be judged on a gradient. What Animal House communicates and what Citizen Kane communicates are vastly different, and what the latter communicates is grander in scope, so it gets taken more seriously. That doesn’t mean Animal House has no aesthetic value, or that you shouldn’t watch it (I’m not bringing in any moral objections here. That’s beyond the scope), just that it’s ambitions are obviously more modest.

But in order to say something succesfully, you must find an audience that can hear it. I may have a very clear idea of what I mean when I say “wickle-bickle-num-bum-jarf-jarf-jarf,” but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, so I’m failing in communication. So originality isn’t always a bonus to art. You want to be unique, because you want to be heard as you, but originality gets in the way of communication as often as not. If Citizen Kane were a shade weirder, it would not have worked as well, and it would not be as successful a piece of art, by any standard.

Art can be original. They’re not synonyms.