WHY WE NEED RUSKIN
by Gabriel Meyer
Sunday, September 31, 2001
While we are going to talk a good deal today about 19th century British art and social critic John Ruskin, and reflect a little on what he might be saying to us in the 21st century, I feel it fair to warn you right from the outset that we�re also going to let the old man speak for himself. And that, to say the least, was not then, and is not now without its dangers.
In "The Nature of Gothic," perhaps the most famous single chapter in all of Ruskin, part of his 1853 masterwork on architecture, "The Stones of Venice," the critic gives us a fine example of what might be called "the essential Ruskin manner."
Promising to describe the "characteristic or moral elements of Gothic," he launches, not into a straightforward argument (straightforward is not a feature of the Ruskin stylebook), but into a gorgeous, hold-onto-your-britches over flight of the geological, zoological and human landscape of Europe from Africa to the Swiss Alps:
. . . " Let us, for a moment, try to raise ourselves even above the level of [bird] flight, and imagine the Mediterranean lying beneath us like an irregular lake, and all its promontories sleeping in the sun . . . Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue . . . Then let us pass farther towards the north, until we see the orient colours change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green . . . and then, farther north still, to see the earth heave into mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moor . . . until the roots of the last forests fail from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barreness. . . ."
"Let us contrast the delicacy and brilliance of colour [of animal life], and swiftness of motion, with the frost-cramped strength and shaggy covering and dusky plumage of the northern tribes; contrast the Arabian horse with the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey. . . .[As for man,] let us stand by him, when, with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttress and rugged wall . . . . There is . . . no degradation, no reproach in this, but all dignity and honorableness . . . this wildness of thought, and roughness of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alp."
And no sooner are we bedazzled, both by the ideas � that the spire is the mountain�s cousin � and all the winged prose, than Ruskin launches into a denunciation of his reader�s wall moldings.
"And now, reader, look round this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished." (This is from the same essay.)
"Examine again all those accurate mouldings, and perfect polishings and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel.
. . . Alas! If I read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African or the Helot Greek."
As Rochelle Gurstein writes in a recent essay on Ruskin in The New Republic: "It is still a shock to be addressed so personally in a book supposedly about Venetian art and architecture, and to be censured for one�s pride in the perfection of modern ornament."
But, as Gurstein notes, "When Ruskin came face to face with the �perfectnesses� of modern English manufacture, all he could see was the horror of the [soul-destroying] system that had produced them, in which workmen are turned into �mere tools,� �divided into segments of men � broken into small fragments and crumbs of life,� an industrial society in which the �multitudes are sent like fuel to feed the factory smoke, and the strength of them is given daily to be wasted into the fineness of a web, or racked into the exactness of a line.�"
If Ruskin wanted his readers to see Gothic architecture in the enlightening context of physical and human geography � a novel idea at the time � he was doing this, finally, in order to get his readers to see the nature of the world they lived in through the mirror of their own art and architecture. Here, Ruskin is contrasting the freedom, as he saw it, of the Gothic artisan with the dehumanization of the modern assembly line worker. For Ruskin, design is a window into the soul of a world, and even the objects of everyday life are manifestations of the spiritual condition of the person who made and who uses them.
This afternoon�s lecture, "Why We Need Ruskin," is a matter not only of my own musings, for which I take full responsibility, but also of discussions, formal and informal, we�ve had here at the Ruskin Art Club over the past several years. These discussions reflect attempts on the part of many of us, ongoing attempts, to reconnect with our historical roots as an association, and, thus, to re-formulate our mission in the new century. As most of you know, the Ruskin Art Club, founded here in Los Angeles in 1888, was part of the wildfire movement of "Ruskin" societies that swept Great Britain and the US at the end of the 19th century. Against all odds, it has managed to persevere into the 21st century by dint of real estate, hard work, good luck and Margaret Clausen.
These "Ruskin" lectures, starting in 1997 with Joseph Ryan�s lecture on the club�s history, have given us one forum for furthering that exploration of where we have come from, and, more importantly, where we might be going.
An important disclaimer, before I go any further. You won�t be shocked if I say that a Ruskin scholar is not on the podium. We tried to hire the best in the business, so to speak, months ago, Prof. John D. Rosenberg of Columbia University, arguably the dean of Ruskin scholars today, but, while the professor was willing, his students and the academic calendar were not. Hopefully, we will have the privilege one day to welcome him. In the meantime . . .
Who is John Ruskin?
He was born in 1819 in London, the only child of a well-to-do Scottish couple, John James and Margaret Ruskin. He grew up in a cultured household in which both his father�s artistic leanings, and love for the Romantic poets, and his mother�s fervent Evangelical faith were contending influences.
It was a very privileged, warm and supportive environment for a young genius, as Ruskin was to prove soon enough. It was also, by all appearances, more than a bit intense. His father wanted him to be a poet like Byron � "only without the immorality," and his mother was determined that he would be a bishop. His family also bequeathed him another legacy that was to cast a very long shadow over his life � mental instability. His paternal grandfather suffered from bouts of insanity and took his own life in 1817, two years before Ruskin was born. To complicate the mix, Ruskin�s parents were also first cousins.
In an age when they encouraged prodigies, Ruskin was prodigious. With a mind "freakishly fine," Ruskin began to sketch everything in sight long before the age of reason � clouds, stones, shells, leaf patterns, rock formations, glaciers, trees, architecture -- and began to turn out serviceable verse at the age of five. The ten-year-old Ruskin wrote a poem entitled "On the Appearance of a Sudden Cloud of Yellow Fog Covering Everything with Darkness" � harbinger of the great sky-watcher to come, and at age eleven churned out an epic of more than 2,000 lines on the Lake District. But, perhaps, the most prescient of these early works is an epic he began at nine that he entitled, "Poem on the Universe." As Rosenberg notes, he worked, in effect, on that wonderful and baffling "epic" for the next seventy years.
The interests of his parents largely dictated the boy Ruskin�s educational curriculum � Tacitus, Cicero, Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt and a little Homer from his father; through readings of the Bible with his mother, who, following the thinking of some "advanced" educational circles of the time, forbade her son toys and playmates.
Ruskin�s unfinished autobiography, "Praeterita," written in the late 1880s, describes what he did instead: He examined patches of color on the floor, counted the bricks in the walls of the neighborhood houses, and with rapturous attention, watched from a nursery window as neighborhood water carts were filled.
It was, as John Rosenberg points out, a strangely fitting preparation for a man who would later delight as no one before him had in the forms and patterns he found in the landscapes of Turner and the surfaces of Fra Angelico.
But his family afforded Ruskin another, even more significant education.
Ruskin pere�s profitable sherry business � Ruskin, Taleford and Domecq � occasioned father-son visits to some of the great houses of England, with their fine art collections. It also enabled the family to make leisurely annual pilgrimages to Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland where Ruskin�s aesthetic appetites were nourished on European architecture, painting and the watercolors and drawing of the British artist J.M.W. Turner his father collected.
His art critical acumen was also on early display. He had written three, and published two essays � one "an inquiry into the color of the Rhine," a spirited defense of Turner intended for Blackwood�s and an article on "the poetry of architecture" � all before he was eighteen.
His university career at Oxford, slated for brilliance, was academically disappointing � it may have had something to do with the fact that his mother insisted on coming along; his father joined them on weekends -- but while there he did win the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1839.
It�s safe to say no one was quite prepared for what Ruskin did next. Reacting to critics who accused his idol Turner of "ludicrous distortion of nature" in his paintings, particularly the seascapes, the 24-year-old Oxford graduate leapt into the fray with a brilliant defense of the artist that simply took everyone�s breath away � including Turner�s.
"Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to All the Ancient Masters, Proved by Examples of the True, the Beautiful and the Intellectual; from the Works of Modern Artists, Especially from those of J.M.W. Turner, Esq., RA" first appeared in 1843. (Ruskin, to his credit, chose a simpler title.) A sprawling, combative, baffling and inspired attack on academic painting, complete with long digressions on cloud formations, color, sky hues, perspective and light effects, "Modern Painters," as Rosenberg points out, "is the first book on art by an English writer of pre-eminent intellectual power; and it remains perhaps the finest."
The book, and its four succeeding volumes, published over a period of eighteen years, made Ruskin famous. Overnight, he became the single most important interpreter of art, and later of architecture, in 19th century Britain, and the arbiter of many of the art battles of the day.
Contemporary readers spoke of the book in nearly revelatory terms. The novelist Charlotte Bronte wrote that "Modern Painters" had taught her to see.
"Hitherto I had only had instinct to guide me in judging art; I feel more as if I have been walking blindfold � �Modern Painters� seems to give me eyes."
The years between 1843 and 1860, when Ruskin completed "Modern Painters," also oversaw the writing of what might well be called Ruskin�s "five-foot shelf": his central and most enduring works � "Modern Painters," "The Seven Lamps of Architecture," and "The Stones of Venice." While Ruskin would amend a thing or two in the arts criticism he wrote after 1860, he would never set out his basic perceptions with greater clarity than he does here. After "The Stones of Venice," Ruskin managed to write no more "real" books. The rest of his huge output, much of it given rather grand Latin titles, is composed of loose anthologies of published lectures, essays, magazine articles, children�s stories and journalism.
To trace the outlines of some of those central perceptions:
On beauty: Ruskin wrote, "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way." The eye here is a metaphor for the whole range of faculties that not only register, but order, interpret and, most importantly, learn to love what they perceive. Such ideas, writes Rosenberg, enabled Ruskin to build the broadest possible bridge between the perception of art and the activities of life.
On architecture: scholar Rosenberg notes that Ruskin asserted as early as age eighteen, in "The Poetry of Architecture," that no one can be an architect who is not a metaphysician. "He meant," says Rosenberg, "that no architect can be without a hierarchy of values, and I suppose no good one ever has been, regardless of other gifts. Yet," he goes on, "even if architects need not be metaphysicians, the great ones, like Wright, are moralists, and it is as a superbly articulate moralist who could not divorce the science of building from the art of living that Ruskin compels attention."
It�s worth noting, however, that there�s a shift in Ruskin�s aesthetic outlook during these years from the pious and lyrical tone of the first volumes of "Modern Painters" where nature alone could be trusted, to a vision that grows perceptibly more humanist and tragic. In the early volumes, as Rosenberg notes, "Ruskin looked at the peaks of mountains and saw God." In the later volumes, Ruskin examines the slopes and finds deforestation and impoverished villages.
The late 1840s and early �50s also witnessed Ruskin�s ill-fated six-year marriage to his cousin Effie Gray � a sorry business that reflects badly not only on the "clueless" Ruskin, but on his cloying relatives. Effie won an annulment in 1854 on grounds of non-consummation. She later married Ruskin�s Pre-Raphaelite prot�g�, John Everett Millais.
While Ruskin never stopped writing and lecturing about art, by 1860 his focus had shifted decisively to social criticism. Increasingly tormented by the poverty and squalor he saw around him in Victorian Britain, Ruskin began to use his "art credentials" to challenge in vivid, passionate, "biblical" language, the political, economic and ethical assumptions of industrialized Britain, and to propose a radical link between art and social reform.
In works from "Unto This Last" (1860) to "Fors Clavigera" (the title is drawn from Horace) (1871-1884), his series of ninety-six letters to the workers of Great Britain, Ruskin laid out a visionary program that would, increasingly, bewilder, and, finally, alienate much of his conventional audience.
"Unto This Last," a violent attack on political economy, Ruskin�s first essay in the new manner, so scandalized readers that Thackeray was forced to halt its publication in Cornhill Magazine after only four installments.
His famous lecture, "Traffic," one of his best, is a typical specimen of the "new" Ruskin. He had been invited to address the citizens of Bradford on the proper architecture style for their new stock exchange. Instead of advising his audience on the latest fashion in pinnacles, he attacked their corrupted taste, and through it, their values, suggesting, in the interests of honesty, that they decorate their friezes with purses, make their pillars broad at the base for the posting of bills and erect a statue to the goddess Britannia of the Market.
Ruskin was a master of invective, noted George Bernard Shaw in a 1921 essay on "Ruskin�s Politics," "because he delivered it without hatred, and, therefore, with magnificent thoroughness."
The new alienated audience included his father, and his father�s friends, wealthy amateur connoisseurs and collectors, weekend draftsmen, watercolorists and art patrons who had relied on Ruskin the Younger�s aesthetic cues. (We sometimes forget when we ask what the "sheltered" Ruskin knew about economics is that he had spent a lifetime entertaining his father�s business associates.) With "Unto This Last," Ruskin, at age forty-one, effectively struck out on his own, speaking about the world in a way that was dictated by his own unique perceptions, not by his family or his patrons.
The break was not without its harbingers. For one thing, Ruskin�s writings on art, from the very beginning, had always had this moral dimension, this connection between aesthetic "sight" and empathy. Ruskin�s growing humanist spirituality had also broken with the family past in 1858, when, in Turin, traveling without his parents, Ruskin had had what he called his "unconversion," when he quietly renounced his mother�s Evangelical faith before a Veronese canvas�s "gorgeousness of life."
If Ruskin had lost one audience, he had gained another. As early as 1854, Ruskin had been hailed as a hero and prophet by the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly the painter Burnes-Jones and the poet-painter-designer-printer-polymath William Morris, who called the best of Ruskin�s work nothing less than "a new gospel."
Trade unionists and labor organizers lionized him, and later, under Clement Atlee, would call Ruskin the spiritual founder of the British Labor Party. Tolstoy, Shaw and Whitman were avid readers of a writer whose sheer range of interests has, perhaps, never been equaled. (It�s not for nothing that Anthony Lane in the New Yorker calls him an "encyclopedia with sideburns.") In 1875, for example, two years after writing a book on birds, and one year after a book on Tuscan sculpture, Ruskin published the first installments of a book on Florence, while finding time to produce "Proserpina," a botanical study, and "Deucalion," a further contribution to his lifelong preoccupation with geology.
In France, the young Marcel Proust adopted Ruskin as his master, calling him "the gate" of his inspiration, and spend years trying to get his works translated into French. He claimed to know Ruskin�s autobiography, "Praeterita" by heart, and to have based his own "Remembrance of Things Past" on it.
Later, a young South African lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, would find his life "instantaneous transformed" by reading "Unto This Last" in 1904. He immediately adopted a simple life of farming, weaving and renunciation of property, according to his own, highly individual reading of Ruskin�s economic views.
Novelist George Eliot, a constant reader of Ruskin, hailed him as a great teacher, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.
As for the master, he was doing a great deal more than writing about social change. Acting on his own critique, Ruskin taught drawing free of charge at the Working Men�s College in London. As the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in the 1870s, Ruskin not only taught Tintoretto to capacity student audiences, but also organized Oxford�s finest into "diggers� brigades" after class to pave roads and raise building projects in the slums. When his father�s death in 1864 put a fortune at his disposal, he endowed schools, museums and libraries in working-class areas, supported a small retinue of artists and founded a craft-based community, St. George�s Guild, on a dozen acres of land, into which he poured his now considerable resources.
Throughout the 1870s, �80s, and �90s, as Ruskin�s new work began circulating in anthologies, "Ruskin" societies, clubs, associations and reading guilds sprang up in Britain and America to debate the master�s ideas. The Ruskin Art Club, founded in Los Angeles in 1888, is a living example of that impulse.
By the 1890s, industrial experiments employing Ruskin�s humanist economics were operating: notably, Ruskin-inspired linen industries, and G. Thompson and Co., a highly successful wool firm that had eight-hour work days, fixed wages, profit-sharing and pension plans.
And, of course, in 1888, at Ruskin�s express urging, the trade guild leader, and thorough Ruskinite, William Morris, had launched the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Society � an event that would set the stage for the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement, one of the great craft-based design traditions, one that would shape so much of the domestic architecture of 20th century America.
If his movement was gaining strength, by the late 1870s, Ruskin�s own health was deteriorating. The death of his "muse," Rose La Touche, in a mental institution in 1875, was a blow from which he never recovered. The painter Whistler sued him for libel in 1878 for insulting one of his "Nocturnes" in a review � and won. Ruskin was fined a farthing�s damages, and court costs bankrupted the painter, but the increasingly brittle Ruskin was humiliated. Nightmarish premonitions of ecological disaster hovered over his thoughts, and found expression in one of his last, and greatest public lectures, "The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century," in which Ruskin conjures up visions of global slums, plague-carrying winds, "blanched sun," "blighted grass," "blinded man."
In the 1880s, Ruskin�s life alternated between a series of mental breakdowns and lonely, desperate attempts to influence what he, wrongly, perceived to be a largely indifferent public. That struggle culminated in the hauntingly beautiful, unfinished memoir, "Praeterita," and, in 1889, with a mental collapse from he never recovered.
In the last, silent decade, Ruskin lived at Brantwood, the estate in the Lake District he had purchased after the deaths of his parents, in a twilight world of madness and lucidity. Cared for by his cousin Joan and her husband Arthur Severn, son of the man who had cared for the dying Keats, Ruskin saw few visitors.
When Ruskin�s publisher was granted an interview in 1898, two years before Ruskin�s death, he reported that Ruskin "says but little." And when he told him that his books were winning a wider and wider audience, Ruskin replied in a low kind of whisper that he no longer thought about his books.
The turn of the new 20th century found Ruskin in a strikingly lucid phase. On the night of January 18, Ruskin ate pheasant and sole and drank champagne, and then went to pay a sick call on one of his servants who had come down with influenza. That night, he himself fell ill, and passed away peacefully the next day on January 20, 1900. He was eighty years old.
As Rosenberg summarized so trenchantly, in a recent review of Timothy Hilton�s book, in the New York Review of Books: In Ruskin, "the pathological and the profoundly sane are interwoven throughout his writings, and those writings have helped to shape our world. Ruskin wrote at one of the last moments in our history when a single mind of the very first rank could take as its province the whole range of western culture � its art, architecture, its literature, science, politics, ethics and economic organization � and leave a mark on everything it touched."
The Ruskin Revival
Tolstoy wrote on hearing of the death of Ruskin: "[He] was one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but of all countries and all times. He was one of those rare men who think with their hearts, and so he thought and said not only what he himself had seen and felt, but what everyone will think and say in the future."
In 1900, that would not have been an unusual sentiment. Only a few decades later, it would have seemed incredible.
The critic Amabell Williams-Ellis, writing in the prestigious Saturday Review of Literature in 1933 spoke for many, if not most of her age, when she asked: "Why bother about Ruskin? The view of the contemporary generation is that Ruskin is the fusing together of every maiden aunt you�ve ever known."
The post-World War I generation, as a whole, wanted nothing to do with him or with the Victorian idealism he epitomized. As Ruskin had once been uncritically reverenced, he was now just as uncritically shelved.
By the 1950s, however, new winds were blowing. Scholar John Fain could write that Ruskin was no longer a dusty figure of fun in his landmark essay, "The Road Back to Ruskin."
People on both sides of the Atlantic were rediscovering the charms of Craftsman design, an interest that would, inevitably, lead them back to the ideas that had inspired it.
Twentieth century architects, with or without encouragement, continued to find their vocations in the pages of "The Stones of Venice."
By the 1960s, Ruskin was well on his way to being "reclaimed" by the culture, attracting disciples as diverse in our times as he had in his: from Kenneth Clark and Harold Bloom, to historian John Rosenberg, architect Robert Venturi, the biologist and city planner Patrick Geddes, economist John Hobson, and, more recently, by the feisty art critic and writer Dave Hickey.
Few, I think, would dispute the fact that there�s a Ruskin revival going on.
In terms of media, we see signs of revival in the rush of Ruskin articles in elite journals this past year. The New Yorker, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, to mention a few, have all published feature-length pieces on Ruskin.
Then, of course, there�s last year�s publication of the long-awaited, second volume of Timothy Hilton�s two volume biography of Ruskin, "John Ruskin: The Later Years." "The Early Years" was published in 1985.
A magisterial sampling of Ruskin�s drawings was included in last year�s inaugural exhibition, "Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites" at the reopened Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in London.
Gregory Murphy�s play, "The Countess," on the sordid disaster of Ruskin�s marriage to Effie Gray, showed that Ruskin was not being ignored by the popular culture, either.
Clearly, the commemoration of the centenary of Ruskin�s death in January 2000 accounts for some of this flurry of activity; but there�s more to it than that.
For one thing, Ruskin, unlike many of his Victorian contemporaries � Carlyle, say � is one of the seminal figures of the age. He�s not just an eminent 19th century critic. He is, as Rosenberg suggests, one of the fathers of the modern world.
Ruskin�s aesthetic theories created a sensibility that inspired not only the Arts and Crafts movement, with its significant influences on American architecture, furniture design and urban planning, but also influenced French plein-air painting, and, through it, aspects of the modernist avant-garde.
The language of modern architecture is inconceivable without him. Frank Lloyd Wright read Ruskin�s "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" and "Stones of Venice" in his formative years, and took from Ruskin his notion of "organic form" � architecture rooted in function and fitted to landscape. Catalonian architect Antonio Gaudi, with his modernist Gothic churches and apartment buildings that eschew right angles, considered Ruskin his master.
Ruskin is one of the fathers of modern ecological concern; a still potent witness to a vision of a responsible human life lived in harmony with nature.
In political and economic terms, his influence can hardly be exaggerated: free public education, slum clearance, labor unions, public libraries, municipal museums, public art academies, old age pensions, social security, the graduated income tax, land conservation � all were, and are part of Ruskin�s vision of social reform, of what he calls "common wealth."
In fact, the Ruskin disciple John Howard Whitehouse suggests that one of the reasons Ruskin disappeared from view in the 1920s was that his reforms, so controversial in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism in the 1860s and �70s, had become mainstream after the First World War.
Ruskin scholar John Unrau says something similar about architects: "Though it was still unfashionable among architects in the 1950s to refer to Ruskin with anything but Modernist contempt, the great Victorian�s ideas about methods of visual analysis had been absorbed deeply enough by our visual culture to retain their influence even though their source was no longer recognized."
As Dave Hickey wrote last year: "Today, no critic in the history of art is less read and more subliminally present."
A figure that looms this large will always inspire revivals and reconsiderations; his work, to one degree or another, in one way or another, remains part of the complex living present.
Hickey, again, from an essay in last year�s Art in America: "Ruskin is always there, in other words, and always returning, yet never quite codifiable."
But the Ruskin revival, if we can call it that, is, I believe, more than a matter of welcoming a modernist forebear in out of the cold. We�re reading Ruskin, I believe, because he has things to say to us now at the dawn of the 21st century.
There are others who could speak more eloquently than I would ever dare to on aspects of Ruskin�s thought that address specific "hot button" items in today�s architecture, aesthetics, or political economy.
Ruskin�s rather radical views of the restoration of ancient buildings and artifacts � in short, don�t do it � is finding new advocates today.
Ruskin�s prophetic warnings about the geological and oceanographic threats to his beloved Venice, voiced more than a hundred and fifty years ago, have proved all too prescient. (He erected a little waterfall on his estate, complete with a hand-carved stone chair facing it, in order to facilitate his attempts to establish that Alpine erosion causes the silting up of Venice. He was right, of course.)
And one can always find passages in Ruskin that, a century after his death, speak as clearly, perhaps more so, than when they were written. This one, for example, on suburbia:
"I look upon those pitiful concretions of lime and clay which spring up, in mildewed forwardness, out of the kneaded fields about out capital � upon those thin, tottering, foundationless shells of splintered wood and imitated stone � upon those gloomy rows of formalized minuteness, alike without difference and without fellowship, as solitary as similar � not merely with the careless disgust of an offended eye, not merely with sorrow for a desecrated landscape, but with a painful foreboding that the roots of our national greatness must be deeply cankered when they are thus loosely struck in the ground."
What I want to do is to speak at once more generally and more personally about what I think Ruskin may be saying to us, and, I suppose, about the "Ruskin moment" we may be finding ourselves in.
He lived and wrote in the midst of one technological revolution, the industrial age of factories, mechanized labor, and Darwinian social policy. We are living in the midst of another, a vastly different age, the electronic, the information age, and, whether we know it or not, we are asking his questions.
Questions about the lure of mass culture; about the strategy of individual choices; about isolation and community in the modern world; about aesthetics; about hope; about lifestyle; about engaging reality and resisting the daydream; about place; about communion with the earth; about restraint; about form; about architecture and the human scale; about the meaning of labor; about being awake.
Ruskin�s whole critique of industrial society was fueled by a simple paradox, as Rochelle Gurstein points out in a perceptive recent article: How was it possible that material progress had brought not spiritual advancement, but corruption and blight?
We, too, in the face of urban sprawl, endless freeways and strip malls, have to ask, with Gurstein, "what all this monotony and shoddiness, this sterility, tell us about the social conditions that produced it, and about the moral and spiritual condition of the people who made such a world, and of those who choose, consent, or are forced to live there?"
As Barry Saunders of Pitzer College, who helped inaugurate these lectures, pointed out to us several years ago, a central question for Ruskin and his followers, particularly those in the Arts and Crafts tradition, was: What is all this mechanization, this standardization, this compression of reality that characterizes the modern world doing to us anthropologically, as human persons? What human, even neurological capacities are we losing by allowing ourselves to be organized as we are?
It�s our question, too. What is the even more potentially isolating and fragmentizing information age doing to us? We hear much about expansions of consciousness due to the new technology; but what about potential losses of human consciousness?
Poet Frederick Turner published this Ruskin-tinged manifesto, "The Birth of Natural Classicism," five years ago in the Wilson Quarterly, describing a movement of artists and poets seeking "an alternative view of the world" from that of modernist and postmodernist consensus, and who were "rethinking our aesthetics from the ground up."
"The human person ha[s] been denatured," he wrote. "As artists, we [have been] expected to dismiss the constraints of nature itself � this t a time when the planet urgently require[s] human beings to accept their ecological responsibilities as part of a larger ecosystem not created by social fiat." He goes on to state, "the political separatism and cultural fragmentation encouraged [by modernism has] dangerously attenuated that sense of human fellowship that is the womb of artistic creativity."
Ruskin could not have said it better himself � though he would doubtless have taken up considerably more space saying it.
So, in an often-surprising way, Ruskin speaks to us on themes that are central to the contemporary agenda. We sense in Ruskin�s most trenchant insights, but, even more, in his questions, his dilemmas, a challenge unfulfilled, perhaps even a revolution deferred.
This is simply to say that, if we�re listening to Ruskin again, it�s not the way we did it a hundred years ago. We�re not inclined to worship Ruskin now. We don�t read him at face value or take his positions as gospel; or, as some of our grandparents might have, look up particular paintings in Ruskin�s books to see whether we should like them or not.
If we�re going to listen to Ruskin at all, we�re going to want to listen to him more deeply than that; to pay attention to the larger themes of his work, to question him closely, and to use his probing, critical insights as launching pads for our own aesthetic and personal journeys.
For example, if we�re examining William Morris�s wallpaper designs, designs based on Ruskin�s ideas about organic form, that is, form drawn from the natural world, it may not be to decide whether or not we want it on our walls. In the early 20th century, in the early years of the Ruskin Art Club, that may have been the focus. Here�s the latest item from the catalog!
The point is not, it seems to me, whether or not to decorate your house in Craftsman style, or surround yourself with Craftsman furniture; it�s understanding that what Ruskin was talking about was an integrated life, and about an architecture that celebrated that ongoing integration; the home, not as shelter from nature or from human community, but as setting for the encounter -- the interior in dialogue with the exterior, an intersection of worlds, man and nature in communion through the play of light and texture.
The Craftsman style was an attempt to realize aspects of Ruskin�s (and his disciples�) architectural vision. But it�s by no means the last word on the subject, as the architects who are reading Ruskin today would attest as they try to create their own domestic and civic architectures rooted in local colors, textures and building materials, as Ruskin would have urged, and that are similarly engaged in a dialogue with history, land and light.
Ruskin would approve this style of discipleship, I think, since he encouraged it himself in his introduction to the book "St. Mark�s Rest" in 1878. James Reddie Anderson, Ruskin�s chief assistant in Venice, put much of the book together before and during Ruskin�s major breakdown that year. Ruskin wrote the introduction at Brantwood as he was picking up the pieces from that terrible collapse and contemplating, with quiet realism, the threat of permanent impairment.
". . . I have never applied myself to discover anything, being content to praise what had already been discovered; and the only doctrine or system peculiar to me is the abhorrence of all that is doctrinal instead of demonstrable, and of all that is systematic instead of useful: so that no true disciple of mine will ever be a �Ruskinian�! � he will follow, not me, but the instincts of his own soul, and the guidance of its Creator. . . I know myself to be a true master because my pupils are well on their way to do better than I have done. . . ."
What is Ruskin saying to us today? What, if anything, is his legacy to us?
As I read it, it�s something far more personal, intimate even, than you�d expect from someone who could fill thirty-nine volumes (not counting the letters and diaries) and had firm opinions on everything under the sun.
The answer is to be found in Ruskin�s whole pedagogy; what we started with this afternoon, the passage from "The Nature of Gothic" in which we swoop down from the Alps into your home, that shocking, even impertinent way Ruskin has of seducing you with panoramic vision only to push his way into your life with a zoom lens, asking you all sorts of stern questions, confronting you with your choices, and with what they say about who you are.
Far more than handmade pottery, aesthetic theory and rural communes, Ruskin�s legacy is a vision of what it means to be alive.
"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see," says Ruskin, "and tell what it saw in a plain way." (And then the crux.) "To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion � all in one."
To see is to bear responsibility for one�s perceptions. For Ruskin, to see, finally, is to love.
This, it seems to me, is the central Ruskinian project: to see, to know, to embrace, to serve. More even than "art," or "beauty" or "truth," "life" is Ruskin�s operative word, the key to his thought:
"The real science of political economy," writes Ruskin in one of the most famous passages of "Unto This Last," "which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life. . . There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, of admiration."
Art, architecture, design, for Ruskin, all were about life: the handmade chair, the pot with its memories of the touch of specific hands, the local buildings materials with all their abundant evidence of earthly life � unique, irreplaceable, original.
As Hickey writes, "In a century obsessed with �great ideas,� Ruskin celebrated the fugitive and the factual. In a century devoted to the rigor of intellectual abstractions, . . . Ruskin revered the intricate, irregular precision of tiny things, distant prospects and transient atmospheres, clearly seen."
Even Ruskin�s aesthetic judgments, his championing of Turner against the Academy, were, finally, about doing art in vital, living contact with nature � nature, not as order, but as energy � against the academic painters and their perfect, finished surfaces. Art was to radically reference nature and the real world, in Ruskin�s view, because nature, unlike art, was alive.
Ruskin, again: "That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others."
Ruskin knew that seeing is a daunting task in a world going blind, in a dehumanized, and dehumanizing world; in the midst of life with all its unpredictability, its beauties and uncertainties and terrors. For him, it required daily hikes to take notes on sunrises, and to teach drawing to bricklayers.
"This ardent preparation and unquenchable desire," writes Hickey, "I think, are his great gifts to us. Because Ruskin really cared, and he really looked."
What will it take to make you a soul that sees? What will it take to make me one? And what might our lives look like if we were?
From the epilogue to Modern Painters, Ruskin�s last completed text before his final collapse in 1889. It�s fitting that he ended his career putting a finishing touch to the book with which he had begun. He wrote this on Sept. 16, 1888, one month before the Ruskin Art Club was founded in Mary Boyce�s drawing room. It was a last moment of lucidity in the shadow of his beloved Alps, at Chamounix, before the long night of Ruskin�s silence.
"Now, in writing beneath the cloudless peace of the snows of Chamouni, what must be the really final words of the book which their beauty inspired and their strength guided, I am able, with yet happier and calmer heart than ever heretofore, to enforce the simplest assurance of Faith, that the knowledge of what is beautiful leads on, and is the first step, to the knowledge of the things which are lovely and of good report; and that the laws, the life and the joy of beauty in the material world of God, are as eternal and sacred parts of His creation as, in the world of spirits, virtue; and in the world of angels, praise."
Sept. 30, 2001
Los Angeles, California.
Gabriel Meyer, an award-winning journalist, poet and novelist, currently serves as president of the Ruskin Art Club.
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