READING RUSKIN WRITING
by Dave Hickey
During the spiritualism craze that swept Victorian London in the 1860s, John Ruskin would occasionally allow himself to be brought along by fashionable ladies to complete the circle at séances. On one such evening, Ruskin and a group of earnest seekers had seated themselves around an elegant table in a darkened Mayfair drawing room. They were trying to access "the other side" when the medium in charge suddenly announced in a quavering voice: "John Ruskin! John Ruskin! Do you wish to speak to your grandmother!?"
"I do not," Ruskin replied with alacrity, "I wish to speak to Paolo Veronese."
This is my favorite anecdote in Tim Hilton’s magisterial, two-volume biography of Ruskin and by far the most intriguing, since Ruskin’s remark sounds like a cool, Wildean boa mot, yet we know that it is no such thing. As always, Ruskin is making an argument, but, as ever, he is doing so with mixed feelings. With his impertinent request to speak to Veronese, he is reducing the whole "spiritualist" occasion to absurdity by conjuring up the afterlife as a vast waiting room within which the legions of the dead mill about through all eternity, awaiting calls from home. (One imagines Ruskin’s grandmother, in the midst of this crowd, turning around and shouting, "Paolo! Paolo Veronese! Call for you!") No one who knows anything about John Ruskin, however, would suspect him of simply speaking for effect or doubt that, had the medium been in actual contact with Ruskin’s grandmother, he would have said anything other than what he did.
The more one knows about John Ruskin, in fact, the more one feels the undertone of petulance in his demand to speak with the Italian painter, because Ruskin was a great critic and a master of English prose, but he was also, always, a sad, excitable boy who made extravagant demands on the world around him. As Hilton puts it, "erudition never calmed him," so, even as Ruskin mocked the fantasies of that beau monde séance, we can be sure that a part of him was hoping against hope that a torrent of demotic Italian might suddenly issue forth from the medium’s lips, presenting him with the opportunity to chat with the noble Veronese. It would have been a good chat, too. No one was better prepared for or more desirous of such a conversation than Ruskin, and this ardent preparation and unquenchable desire, I think, are his great gifts to us. Because Ruskin really cared, and he really looked. In the extremity of his caring and looking, he would ultimately evolve into something of a sacred monster—as much addicted to the realm of the visible as he was an adept of its virtues—but the fact remains that no one before or since, has taken visual art more seriously, or written about it with more passion and eloquence, than John Ruskin.
Today, no critic in the history of art is less read and more subliminally present. It is really to Ruskin that we owe the idea of visual art as the quintessential manifestation of human endeavor, to him that we owe the idea of visual culture as an enduring embodiment of public and private virtue, and to him, for better or worse, that we owe the idea that "the teaching of art . . . is the teaching of all things." Prior to Ruskin, critics had revered works of art and architecture as the products of human genius and divine inspiration, as objects of spiritual devotion and national pride, as instruments of emulation and instruction. Ruskin regarded works of art and architecture as the moral and spiritual substance of human history, as the palpable texture of human culture, and upon this rock our whole idea of the art museum (as distinct from the museum of artifacts) has been constructed. So, it was perfectly appropriate that the old Tate Gallery in London reopened last spring as Tate Britain with an exhibition titled "Ruskin, Turner and the PreRaphaelites," concurrent with the opening of the new Tate Modern across the Thames [see A.i.A., Sept. ‘001.
Both of these institutions (and all such institutions, in fact) are the progeny of Ruskin’s conviction that seeing clearly, "rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing," is a redeeming activity in itself, one that binds us both to the natural world and to our fellow humans. Even the division of mandates between the "old" Tate Britain and the "new~~ Tate Modern acknowledges the great cultural schism that, in Ruskin’s view, made the refuge of the museum necessary: the rise of industrial modernity whose agencies befouled the air, beclouded the waters and regimented thought, thus making clear sight impossible. Along with Marx and Carlyle, Ruskin is one of the three great contemporary critics of burgeoning industrialism, and he shares with them a clear-eyed view of its brutal depredations and a common delusion that the future of humanity is ineluctably bound up with industrialism’s simplifications. Since this has not yet turned out to be the case, we may, perhaps, divine an intimation of Ruskin’s renewed currency from the fact that the "old" Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) feels so much more available to us, in its Georgian intimacy, than the "new" Tate Modern, which, sadly enough, feels like a grandiose period piece—an oppressive, exercise in plangent industrial nostalgia.
"Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites," as organized by Robert Hewison with Ian Warrell and Stephen Wildman, was as thoughtful and scholarly in its conception and selection as anyone could wish. It showed us a great deal about Ruskin at his best and most powerful, at the apogee of his generosity and modesty. We could see in the assembled works why Ruskin’s intellectual contemporaries in Britain found him ‘wild" in his loathing of perfection and order, why Americans like Henry James and Charles Eliot Norton found him "weak" in his revulsion for the "great world" and his retreat into the local and the domestic, In a century obsessed with the grandeur of "great ideas," Ruskin celebrated the fugitive and the factual. In a century devoted to the rigor of intellectual abstractions, to the logical mechanics of global imperialism, industrial expansion and utopian social theory, Ruskin revered the intricate, irregular precision of tiny things, distant prospects and transient atmospheres, clearly seen.
By the inclusion of a large selection of Ruskin’s drawings to mediate between the works of J.M.W. Turner and those of the Pre-Raphaelites, Hewison’s exhibition managed to demonstrate the paradigm shift that divides Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites while clarifying the nature of Ruskin’s enthusiasm for each. Turner’s paintings portray a world that is virtually all atmosphere. Their subject is always the tragic fate of empire (and of all human endeavor) when pitted against the sublimity and grandeur of nature. The Pre-Raphaelites, on the other hand, painted sharply focused pictures with virtually no atmosphere at all. The narratives of their pictures concern themselves with the consolations of nature and the "naturalness" of romantic relationships proscribed by traditional society. Turner laments the fate of the old world; the Pre-Raphaelites dramatize the difficulties of the new. What they share is the passion for veracity that we see in Ruskin’s fragmentary drawings, which are bereft of any ideology beyond that passion. Thus, for all their acuity, Ruskin’s drawings are more critic’s art than artist’s art, embodying as they do Ruskin’s own critical edict that we should see what is before our eyes as clearly and as innocently as possible before passing judgment upon it.
At the Tate Britain exhibition, unfortunately, we could only share Ruskin’s passion for veracity while enduring the outrageous, Liberace-Victorian mendacity of the installation design, which rigorously embodied everything that Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites were not about. According to the logic of "New" Historicism, it would seem, works by these artists are damned to hang forever amid the accoutrements of vacuous imperial grandiosity their works set out so urgently to contravene. Or, perhaps, there was another agenda in place. Perhaps the idea was to make the freshness of Ruskin and his contemporaries look dated, so the dated modernity of the new Tate might seem a little fresher. In either case, the ploy probably worked better on the locals than it did on visiting Americans, who could hardly fail to note the eerie resonance between the London art world of the 1850s and ‘60s and the art world in Manhattan a century later.
Both London and Manhattan, in these decades, were undergoing periods of vertiginous urban growth and consequent social fluidity while experiencing a radical transformation of artistic practice. In London, the tragic expressionism of Turner was being supplanted by the graphic domestic comedy of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and, under Ruskin’s aegis, the British bourgeois art market was coming into existence. In New York, the tragic expressionism of Jackson Pollock was being supplanted by the graphic domestic comedy of Pop art, and the American bourgeois art market was coming into existence. To understand Ruskin’s power and importance in his milieu, then, one need only imagine what it would have been like if the most passionate critical advocate of Pollock had been simultaneously the most passionate critical advocate of Andy Warhol—and had been, as well, a best-selling author, a lecturer in much demand and a practitioner himself of a vernacular realism that was distinct from both Warhol and Pollock.
All of which is to say that in London, in the 1859s and ‘60s, John Ruskin was the man of the moment, beloved, respected and listened to, but never quite respectable, you know, and never really accepted by the official administrators of Victorian culture, who found his views too extreme, too ardent, and his private life quite notoriously suspect. As a consequence7 perhaps, of the persistent institutional reservations about Ruskin’s public preeminence, and certainly as a consequence of his loathing for industrial society, Ruskin’s writings have become less and less available to us during the hundred years since his death. Also, there is the problem of religion. During his life, Ruskin fought the 19th-century war between the Art of Religion and the Religion of Art within the confines of his own spirit. Now that the Religion of Art has long since triumphed, the anguish and equivocation of Ruskin’s struggle can seem a bit quaint. The fact that Ruskin was deeply concerned with the nature of the sacred and the substance of devotion, however, should no more diminish the contemporary relevance of his writing than it does that of Walter Benjamin, who was similarly obsessed.
It has diminished it, however. In the current moment, Ruskin’s presence remains as the ghost of his detractors—so much so that a great many of the inconsistencies in high-modernist theory may be traced directly to inconsistencies in Ruskin which modernist critics (setting out to rebut Ruskin point by point) perpetuated. Adolph Loos’s remark that "ornament is crime," for instance, seems strident and peculiar today without the inferred presence of Ruskin’s contention that all great art is praise, and that, in architecture, ornament is the modality of praise. For a utopian like Loos, of course, the very idea of praise was counterproductive, noncritical and an invitation to complacency. It made the utopian rigor of the modernist future seem less necessary, and anything that impeded this ftiture was a crime. All of this is lost, however, with the loss of Ruskin’s prior discourse, leaving contemporary architects the task of reconstituting Ruskin in one form or another to repudiate Loos.
Ruskin is always there, in other words, and always returning, yet never quite codifiable, and the charm of his legacy might be said to reside in the proliferation of his protean inconsistency. As Ruskin himself remarked in 1858, in an inaugural address to the Cambridge School of Art "I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly until I have contradicted myself at least three times." This may sound whimsical, but Ruskin was deadly serious in both his argument and its application. His entire critique of industrial society began with his detestation of specialization and the division of labor, which, he argued, resulted in the division and diminution of human beings, enacted through the fracturing of thought and sensation, of time and space, of body and mind, of act and intention, of planning and execution. Thus he became mildly hysterical at the proposition of either "pure thought" or "pure sensation," and, in this, he quarreled with utilitarians and romantics alike. Here, from the third volume of Modern Painters, is his response to Walter Scott’s and William Wordsworth’s contentions that their delight in nature was the benison of thoughtless, pure sensation:
[Wordsworth’s and Scott’s] delight, so far from being without thought, is more than half made up of thought, but of thought in so curiously languid and neutralized a condition that they cannot trace it. And observe, farther, that this comparative Dimness and Untraceableness of the thoughts, which are the sources of our imagination, is not a fault in the thoughts at such a time. It is, on the contrary, a necessary condition of their subordination to the pleasures of Sight. If the thoughts were more distinct we should not see so well, and beginning definitely to think, we must comparatively cease to see.
This observation rather succinctly defines the discomfort modern readers feel when reading Ruskin. His writing never ascends into the geometry of pure thought, nor does it descend into the atmospheres of pure sensation. Ruskin argues (as does Gilles Deleuze) that neither event can actually take place—that, in our vanity, we only mimic the pretense of such pure disassociation. Embodying this conviction, Ruskin’s writing cleaves to the world; it rides the fulcrum of cognition and sensation, so when we are reading him, we are never reading books or encountering thought, we are dwelling in the realm of sense, reading Ruskin writing and experiencing the flow of Ruskin thinking on the edge of sensation. Our experience in this realm is further complicated by the fact that Ruskin is probably the most learned writer in English literature without the faintest scholarly inclination. His colleagues at Oxford would remark that he seemed to possess virtually no "knowledge" yet somehow maintained the full resources of Latin and Greek, the whole of the Bible and the bulk of English literature not in his head but on the tip of his tongue, in a condition of intricate verbal readiness, as a vehicle for his passion.
So the writing is dense and the later writing even more so. English literature would have to wait until James Joyce for more elaborate explosions of cultural reference and allusion than those found in Fors Clavigera, a series of personal meditations Ruskin published as pamphlets between 1871 and 1884. For spirits like Ruskin’s fellow dons at Oxford and their contemporary descendants, in search of ready knowledge, such explosions of allusion and reference are invariably exasperating, in Joyce or Ruskin. This, however, is no reason not to read Ruskin, because we don’t read Ruskin for his thoughts, we read him for his vision and conviction—for his writing, and because he makes us think. We read him because even though Ruskin is occasionally a fool, he is never stupid, never cold and never boring. Here he is responding in a letter to a believer’s assertion that the Bible is the "word of God":
Nothing could ever persuade me that God writes vulgar Greek. If an angel [with] all over peacock’s feathers were to appear in the blue sky now over Castle crag—and write on it in star letters— ‘God writes vulgar Greek—I would say—You are the devil, peacock’s feathers and all.’
A contemporary reader, having been exposed to excerpted apercus of this sort, and confronting the intimidating mass of Ruskin’s writings, has a right to ask about the possibility of personally gaining access to them. The tendency is to stand in a state of extreme frustration at the edge of what seems to be an impenetrable jungle, fully aware that it is populated by angels in peacock’s feathers and at a loss for a way in, By way of entrance, I would suggest The Stones of Venice (1851), Ruskin’s history of Venetian culture as told by its architecture. Specifically, I would suggest an unabridged version of the section entitled "The Nature of the Gothic," which expounds at some length on Ruskin’s primary, informing idea that human beings, being predisposed to resist boredom, invariably resist authority and seek freedom, whose physical signifier is irregularity, variety and intricacy. From this premise, Ruskin derives his critique of contemporary architecture and contemporary government as "planning practices" that isolate themselves from the actual creative work of building. Ruskin’s question is this: How can an ethical architect, or an ethical bureaucrat, possibly design a structure that degrades the spirits and steals the souls of the beings who actually build it—that destroys them with repetitive labor which requires of them nothing of their humanity?
From this question, one may achieve access not only to the writings of Ruskin but to the entire discourse of postindustrial culture as well; and one may locate Ruskin within this discourse by regarding The Stones of Venice as the only achieved precursor of Walter Benjamin’s unrealized Arcades Project, which was planned to be what Ruskin’s volumes are—a cultural history told through the proliferating relationships of material artifacts, in Benjamin’s case the shopping arcades of 19th-century Paris. Benjamin’s writings, in general, offer us the most congenial contemporary entry point into Ruskin’s sensibility. Ruskin is by far the better writer of the two, but both Ruskin and Benjamin are confirmed mystical materialists, lovers rather than fighters, who understand the technological and economic changes afflicting the world they live in and, fully aware that one cannot go back, remain irrevocably nostalgic for a lost way of seeing and being. When Ruskin laments the loss of "awe" and Benjamin laments the loss of "aura," they are lamenting the same loss, equally unaware that the industrial culture they saw flourishing around them was not going to last forever, that another time might present itself in which freedom, eccentricity, foolishness, clear streams, blue skies, variety and intricate diversity might once again attain the status of virtues toward which human beings would aspire.