57: Taste


In the not too distant past, I often read the Ruskin passage below to my students; after which, I passed out copies of it. I told them they could easily test out what he had in mind. They could go back to their dorm rooms and take a careful look at the posters, art, or pictures they had put on their walls and make a list of them. That done, they could make a second list: Of the music–titles of albums, songs, names of artists–they listened to regularly. Then they could make a third list: Of all the things they had posted on Facebook and Twitter during the past week. After that–always trying to get them to do a little sociology!–I suggested they might go and do the same sort of gazing at their friends’ dorm room walls, asking those familiars to create similar lists of their own music favorites and social media “interactions,” an request which, surely, these friends, being such, would be more than happy to oblige. (As it turned out, some of these folks weren’t so eager to be friendly regarding such requests.) The last step was obvious: After thinking carefully about what was on their own walls and in their lists and comparing these with whatever friends’ versions they had collected, they’d have a fairly accurate sense of what their, and these others’, tastes were. I can honestly say that not a few of my young reporters reported being fairly appalled at what their taste appeared to be, appalled by what they found, or did not find, on the lists! (It might be useful to generate such lists ourselves.)

I’ve been thinking about sharing this passage since our last post, the one where we read Mr. Ruskin’s lovely lines about the principal types of imagination, his argument being that, by the choices we make, we literally create the quality of our own imaginations, create our taste.

To frame his sentences properly, it’s useful to know that they were spoken almost at the beginning of a lecture he gave in 1864, a talk he called “Traffic.” (This is the other of the two lectures I would have given almost anything to be at! The other, of course, is “Of Kings’ Treasuries”–profiled in Post 53.) By leagues most famous architecture critic in the land, Ruskin had been invited by the rich and powerful of Bradford, a bustling manufacturing city in West Yorkshire, to come and advise them about what style of architecture would be the best for them to use when they built their new economic exchange, an edifice intended to take pride of place in their thriving city’s center. Perhaps to the surprise of some in the audience, Ruskin started by saying he would have nothing to do with such advising. He said he did not care about their exchange because, truth be told, they did not care about it. They hadn’t thought their architectural needs through for themselves. They  had invited him merely in the hope that he would make their decision easier. Later, whatever they decided, they could report that they had “asked Ruskin.” It was then that he started to talk about taste. He talked about much more of significance during his remarkable hour on the stage, and we may very well return to these other remarks in coming posts, but, for the moment, understanding what indicates and communicates our taste will suffice:

Now–pardon me for telling you frankly–you cannot have good architecture merely by asking people’s advice on occasion. All good architecture is the expression of national life and character, and it is produced by a prevalent and eager national taste, or desire for Beauty.

I want you to think a little of the deep significance of this word “taste,” for no statement of mine has been more earnestly or oftener controverted than my  contention that good taste is essentially a moral quality. “No,” say many of my antagonists, “taste is one thing, morality is another. Tell us what is pretty. We shall be glad to know that. But we need no sermons—even were you able to preach them, which may be doubted.”

Permit me, therefore, to fortify this old dogma of mine somewhat. Taste is not only a part and an index of morality: it is the only morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, “What do you like?” Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are. Go out into the street and ask the first man or woman you meet what their “taste” is. If  they answer candidly, you know them, body and soul. “You, my friend in the rags, with the unsteady gait, what do you like?”  “A pipe, and a quartern of gin.” I know you. “You, good woman, with the quick step and tidy bonnet, what do you like?” “A swept hearth, and a clean tea table, my husband opposite me, and a baby at my breast.” Good, I know you also. “You, little girl with the golden hair and the soft eyes, what do you like?” “My canary, and a run among the wood hyacinths.” “You, little boy with the dirty hands, and the low forehead, what do you like?” “A shy at the sparrows!…” Good. We know them all now. What more need we ask?

“Nay,” perhaps you answer, “We need rather to ask what these people and children do, rather than what they like.  If they do right, it is no matter that they like what is wrong. And if they do wrong, it is no matter that they like what is right. Doing is the great thing, and it does not matter that the man likes drinking, only that he does not drink; nor that the little girl likes to be kind to her canary, if she will not learn her lessons; nor that the little boy likes throwing stones at sparrows, if he goes to the Sunday school.” Indeed, for a short time, and in a provisional sense, this is true. For if, resolutely, people do what is right, in time to come they like doing it. But they only are in a right moral state when they have come to like doing it. And, as long as they don’t like it, they are still in a vicious state. The man is not in health of body who is always thinking of the bottle in the cupboard, though he bravely bears his thirst. But the man who heartily enjoys water in the morning, and wine in the evening, each in its proper quantity and time, is in fine health.

And the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things. Not merely industrious, but to love industry. Not merely learned, but to love knowledge. Not merely pure, but to love purity. Not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.

Here’s wishing you a tasty week ahead!.



P.S. I’ve posted a number of photos of Ruskin in the 1860s. As far as I am aware, none survive which show him actually lecturing. So, rather than reproduce one we’ve seen, I thought the image below, of another lecturer intensely interested in the great Victorian, an image tastefully drawn, without my knowledge, by my son Jamie some years ago, might be of interest. A possible title might be:

But we need no sermons–even were you able to preach them; which may be doubted”!

Ruskin Plate by JAMIE

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