22: Greatness in Art and Artists


The last post was intended to give you some idea of the breadth, depth, and beauty of Ruskin’s art. But in truth Ruskin never thought of himself as an artist. He thought that, at best, he was a competent recorder of images (perhaps he underestimated himself!). Most of the paintings or drawings he did were created so that, when they were finished, he would understand better the essence of the thing drawn, would get to its natural or constructed core, whether that core was a building’s, a waterfall’s, a peacock’s feather, or a sunrise. This is a little disconcerting when we recall his striking self-portrait of 1873 which I included in that prior post. Yet, the drawing was for him a perfectly accurate rendering. The troubled face gazing out at us, if you know Ruskin’s story well, as I do, is an emblem of the way he saw his soul at the time, as comprised, simultaneously of (fading) light and (quickly deepening) darkness.

As I think I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, he “began life” as an art critic, becoming, in the English-speaking world, as the years passed after the publication, in 1843, of the first of his five Modern Painters books, that genre’s most applauded and attended to. The interest–it is not wrong to think of it as a passion–took him to all the great galleries of Britain and Europe and afforded him, as he compared one painting to another, one sculpture to another, one theme to another, one style to another, one artist to another, the chance to develop a cogent, closely-argued theory of what made one piece of art or one artist great while another remained, judged by the standards he had invented, very good,  middling, or something even less laudable.

With that in mind, below, for your consideration, is his outline of the characteristics which must be present if a piece of art or artist is to be considered great. It is a definition which, after you’ve thought about it a little, also tells us why Shakespeare has securely retained, for nearly a half millennium, his place in the pantheon of literature’s giants while, say, our appreciation of even the best works of most of the writers who have (justly) received our Pulitzer and Man-Booker Prizes has lessened as their and our decades have passed.

As far as I am aware, Ruskin stood by this definition to the end. It appears in that first volume of Modern Painters mentioned above:

If I say that the greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas, I have a definition which will include as subjects of comparison every pleasure which art is capable of conveying. If I were to say… that the best picture was that which most closely imitated nature, I should assume that art could only please by imitating nature and I should cast out of the pale…works like the Arabesques of Rapfael…[which] are not imitative at all. I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim.

I do not say, therefore, that the art is greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach, and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas, and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.

If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.

Not bad for a 24 year old.

As should be immediately obvious, using this definition, Ruskin would not have been a fan of those who argue–and there are many today who do–that “art exists for art’s sake.” For him, art existed for the viewer’s sake, to help those seeing it understand something important about the subject or life which, without the painting or sculpture, they would not have as easily grasped.

Happy to get your reactions.

I trust you are well out there as this disappearing summer winds toward its globally warmer end!




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1 Response to 22: Greatness in Art and Artists

  1. A wonderful layering of rhetorical devices. I always admire his ambition in definition. I wonder, though, whether he would include the sensuality of our perception of art within the realm of ideas? Perhaps our sense receptors are embodied idea receptors?

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