51: Television

Good Friends,

Still in the wake of Suzanne Varady’s sudden and all-too-early passing, this morning, for solace, I was doing my usual bit of reading in Mr. Ruskin’s works and came across this passage (below) in his (mostly forgotten), Political Economy of Art (1857). It is about one of the ubiquities of our modern lives, television, or perhaps now, streaming video. In either respect, Ruskin’s remarks are remarkable for their prescience. But, then, such presciences are what makes Ruskin Ruskin. I don’t know if Suzanne ever read this passage, but I do know that, had she, she would have loved it. (There was no television in the Mornex home she shared with Mr. Ruskin’s spirit.)

One thing to note as you begin reading. The passage appears to be, for much of the time, about woodcuts. But that’s an illusion for, as we’ve learned as these posts have gone on their not-always-merry-way, Ruskin, like other great artists, often worked in allegory, letting his readers have the pleasure of sussing out that deeper level where not only the more profound meaning lives, but where the greater fun is. Here it is:

                  [As we consider the kind of world in which we would like to live and work, it should be noted that, when it comes to the creation of art,] the first great secret is to produce work that will last. Now, the conditions of work lasting are twofold. It must not only be in materials that will last but it must be itself of a quality that will last. It must be good enough to bear the test of time. If it is not good, we shall tire of it quickly and throw it aside; we shall have no pleasure in the accumulation of it.

So that the first question [to ask of someone concerned about] any work is: “Will it lose its flavor by keeping? It may be very amusing now and look much like a work of genius, but what will be its value a hundred years hence?” You cannot always ascertain this…[but] of one thing you may be sure: that art which is produced hastily will also perish hastily; and that what is cheapest to you now is likely to be dearest in the end. 

I am sorry to say the great tendency of this age is to expend its genius in perishable art of this kind, as if it were a triumph to burn its thoughts away in bonfires. There is a vast quantity of intellect and of labor consumed annually in our cheap illustrated publications. You triumph in them, and…think it so grand a thing to get so many woodcuts for a penny. Why woodcuts, penny and all, are as much lost to you as if you had invested your money in gossamer. More lost, for the gossamer could tickle your face and glitter in your eyes; it could not catch your feet and trip you up. But bad art can–and does: for you can’t like good woodcuts as long as you look at the bad ones!

If we were, at this moment, to come across a Titian woodcut, or a Dürer woodcut, we should not like it, those of us at least who are accustomed to the cheap work of the present day. We don’t like, and can’t like, that for long! But when we are tired of one bad cheap thing, we throw it aside and buy another bad cheap thing, and so keep looking at bad things all our lives!

Now, the very men who do all that quick, bad work for us are capable of doing perfect work. Only: perfect work can’t be hurried, and therefore it can’t be cheap beyond a certain point. But suppose you pay twelve times as much as you do now, and you have one woodcut for a shilling instead of twelve pence—and the one woodcut for a shilling is as good as art can be, so that you will never tire of looking at it. And is struck on good paper with good ink, so that you will never wear it out by handling it, while you are sick of your penny papers by the end of the week, and have torn them mostly in half too. Isn’t your shilling’s worth the best bargain?

Not infrequently during the days when I taught regularly, I would ask my students to read this passage, and ask them after if they had noticed that it was really about television. Most would look back at me, perplexed. But a few would get it right away. These fews, as you encounter them over the years, are the great joy of teaching. We’d then proceed to have a general discussion, a chat where we tried to assess the real value of the video world in which they increasingly live. Before the class ended, I would ask them if they’d be willing to apply, the next time they were tempted to indulge, what I consider to be the great test of anything that’s on television (or streaming): to ask themselves the question, after their indulgence, whether, as a result of that indulging, they were better human beings because of the experience, where I defined better as smarter, kinder, warmer of heart, more appreciative of the world in which they live, or wiser. Most looked at me, perplexed. But not, happily, those few!

Until next time.

Be well out there!

Jim

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One Response to 51: Television

  1. “when we are tired of one bad cheap thing, we throw it aside and buy another bad cheap thing, and so keep looking at bad things all our lives!” — this could also refer to the company we keep and the fashion we buy – the art we put on our bodies.

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