Notes on Ruskin: the Ideal

This will be the last of these, as I’ve finished the book, and am now Observing Nietzsche flop-sweat his way through Why I Am So Wise. I kind of want to smack him, but Ruskin has proven a very informative read. For a 19th Century Englishman, he is both articulate and relatively concise. And he has given me interesting aesthetic ideas to poke about with.

For example:

The Greek Sculptor could neither bear to confess his own feebleness, nor to tell the faults of the form that he portrayed.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life”, pg. 44

This is a reference to the Hellenic habit of idealizing its subject, as contrasted to the Gothic willingness to dance with the Savage and Grotesque. Ancient Greeks, we are told, even carved the backs of columns, the ones the public would never see, while the more practical romans would leave them rough, because who cares? This is because the Greek was aiming at a true Form, a divine Ideal. The permanent expression of a higher ideal is, or ought to be, what all architects aim at.

The Nation whose chief support was in the chase, whose chief interest was in the battle, whose chief pleasure was in the banquet, would take small care respecting the shapes of leaves and flowers.

ibid, pg. 46-47

Here’s he’s contrasting Early Medieval Germanic Art, a simple form, with High Medieval Gothic Art, which has embraced Naturalism. This would seem to be a rebuttal of my point about Art emulating Ideal, but it isn’t. Barbarians idealize the chase, the battle, and the banquet as expressions of power and granduer, which in their theology is the very essence of divinity. Valhalla is very Heaven.

No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple; which refuses to address the eye, except in a few clear and forceful lines; which implies, in offering so little to our regards, that all it has offered is perfect; and disdains, either by the complexity or the attractiveness of its features, to embarrass our investigation, or betray us into delight. That humility, which is the very life of the Gothic school, is shown not only in the imperfection, but in the accumulation, of ornament.

ibid, pg. 54-55

Another prophecy of Brutalism, which expresses nothing but the power of the organization that builds or occupies it. It is Cyclopean, Titanic. And contrary to the Cathedral, which is open to all, high or low, rich or poor, and a center to the life of the whole community, the skyscraper or government office block is for no one but those who have business with it. It is closed off, a fortress of money or of rules, acting to exercise power over those who will never darken its doors. The corporation as the Nietzschean Superman.

Your iron railing always means thieves outside, or Bedlam inside – it can mean nothing else.

ibid, pg. 75

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.