In light of our last entry, I’ve been thinking, somewhat shamefacedly, that, over the long course of these posts, I have given very much too little space to Ruskin’s thoughts on art, one of the staples of his work and so important to all our lives.
As surely I’ve mentioned, Ruskin began his career as an art critic. Then, wearing that mantle, he made himself into the greatest of that description of his age. Many who read him said that, for all intents and purposes, he had effectively invented the field as a field. His analyses of paintings made them come alive for those who went to see them in a way that simply was not possible before they read what he had had to say concerning them. Marvelous revelations awaited those who took the the time to follow his sentences around any given canvas, watercolor, or drawing (for one instance, read his analysis of Turner’s masterpiece, “The Slave Ship” (Post 37).
Today, Ruskin’s views on art no longer reign. In fact, they have little cache at all. Today, when it comes to art, it is clear that we have taken (perhaps a mite too uncritically) Cole Porter’s observation as the criterion legitimating all forms of “aesthetic expression”; today, “Anything Goes”!
If you’d like to get some idea of the current dominance of the “Anything Goes!” attitude in art, just type “The Turner Prize” (an annual, highly prestigious, award in that giant’s name given every year in Britain) into your browser and have a look at the winners, nominees, and their works over the course of the past two decades. Regarding the vast majority of these efforts, Ruskin would have nothing but disdain, would have thought them not merely the very antithesis of Art, but literally harmful to all who create and view them. But before you dismiss the subject of these posts as a doctrinaire staid-old Victorian unworthy of our more advanced modern views, consider why he might have thought this.
A hundred and thirty years ago, give or take a year, on a gentle, clear evening in September, Ruskin, then a year shy of seventy and making what he knew would be his final tour through his cherished Alps, was well-aware that his good working days were fast dwindling. (A few weeks later, he would collapse in Italy. Other than a chapter in Praeterita, his autobiography, and a few other lesser efforts, he would never write anything of significance again, spending the dozen years of life remaining to him as a enormously reduced version of himself at his home, Brantwood, in England’s Lake District.)
But on this Alpine night, sitting in his hotel room at the Union Inn in Chamouni, gazing up at his beloved Mont Blanc while its pure white crescent faded to pink as the sun set behind the mountain on the valley’s north side, something prompted him to ponder the central teaching embedded in all his art writing of the previous half century. He was working on an “Epilogue” for a new edition of his great five volume work, Modern Painters. He was nearly finished. As he looking out his window at Mont Blanc (he always asked that his room have a view of Mont Blanc), the following lines came to him. They became the last paragraph of the “Epilogue.” They remain, as they were for thier first readers, some of the greatest and most beautiful lines of tens of thousands he wrote:
All that is involved in these passionate utterances of my youth [i.e., the first volumes of Modern Painters] was first expanded and then concentrated into the aphorism given twenty years afterwards in my inaugural Oxford lectures: that “All great art is praise.” And on that aphorism was founded [this] yet bolder saying… “So far from Art’s being immoral, in the ultimate power of it, nothing but Art is moral. Life without Industry is sin, and Industry without Art, brutality” (I forget the words, but that is their purport). And 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 its 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.
The earlier passage he was trying to remember was what follows next, his statement of the true function of art:
Fix, then, this in your mind as the guiding principle of all right practical labor, and source of all healthful life energy—that your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may be only the praise of a shell, or a stone; it may be the praise of a hero; it may be the praise of God; your rank as a living creature is determined by the height and breadth of your love. But, be you small or great, what healthy art is possible to you must be the expression of your true delight in a real thing, better than the art.
In another place, he gives us his definition of the one who creates the art:
An artist is a person who has submitted in his work to a law which it was painful to obey that he may bestow by his work a delight which it is gracious to bestow.”
Adding, in yet another place, this lovely bit, that
art is the expression of our human soul talking to another human soul
All of which emphases and reemphasizes the central thought he expressed that night in those lovely last words he composed for the “Epilogue” of Modern Painters: that the eternal role of the artist, today, tomorrow, as it has been for all times past, is to show us, in the works that she or he executes, the things which are beautiful and true of and in the world in which we live in order that we too might see them, delight in them, and, in such seeing and delighting, be uplifted to new levels of awareness and a appreciation of the world in which we draw breath.
Here are a few examples of art in this sense; all praises, each in their own way:
A Turner watercolor of the entrance to the Piazza San Marco in Venice from the lagoon.
Ruskin’s drawing of a portion of the Mer du Glace Glacier in the Chamoiuni Valley:
A field in summer drawn by Kateri Ewing (see previous post) :
All these, or so it seems to me, examples of artistic souls trying to communicate with our souls.
Time to get out those pencils and drawing pads so we that we too can start singing our special praises?