Notes on Ruskin: Modern Art is Anti-Art

An intriquing passage from On Art and Life, which nicely explains the aethetic rut that modern art has fallen into:

…that great art, whether expressing itself in words, colours, or stones, does not say the same thing over and over again; that the merit of architectural, as of every other art, consists in saying new and different things; that to repeat itself is no more a characteristic of genius in marble than it is of genius in print; that we may, without offending any laws of good taste, require of an architect, as we do of a novelist, that he should be not only correct, but entertaining.

…Nothing is a great work of art, for the production of which either rules or models can be given. Exactly so far as architecture works on known rules, and from given models, it is not art, but manufacture; and it is, of the two procedures, rather less rational (because more easy) to copy capitols and mouldings from Phidias, and call ourselves architects, than too copy heads or hands from Titian, and call ourselves artists.

John Ruskin, “ON Art and Life” pg. 31

I’m less interested in disputing this argument than in noting the pervasiveness of it in the world of art today. If, as Ruskin seems ready to argue, the industrial world has abandoned art, in favor of infinite replicability, then it seems as predictable as night following day that the art world would abandon industry. Thus the demand for absolute novelty and uselessness in the art world, to the point where Modern art today is really anti-Art: a pose and a hustle, the creation of the maximum of bewilderment and absurdity with the minimum of effort, papered over with post-modernist bafflegab and self-congratulatory obscurantism. This is not accident, it is intentional. The modern artist can only be an artist by running from the world.

And yet, such anti-art is held up as art, is embraced as art, precisely by the same wealthy bourgoisie who are busily corporatizing everything under the sun. They walk away from their number-crunching day jobs and purchase up-market nonsense. They donate to the museums and institutes that celebrate it. They hear themselves excorciated by their artist children and they laugh merrily. It’s as though the left- and right- brains of our culture, completely compartmentalized, acknowledge each other’s existence, and no more.

There are exceptions to this. One could argue that Steve Jobs was less a programmer than an artist, who imposed a particular vision on his chosen industry that was as much aesthetic as it was practical. But overall, one sees industry and art segregated rather than integrated in the modern world. And we must recognize that for art to be entertaining as well as correct, it must be correct as well.

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.

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.