Today is the two hundredth anniversary of Ruskin’s birth. Thus far, it has been a banner year so far. From the first days of January, his art and written work have been praised in a series of widely circulated articles in the press. At this moment, a major collection of his art is on exhibit in London, with similar presentations planned for the months ahead. Just days ago, an article celebrating his art and thought for their enduring significance, written by Scott Reyburn, appeared in the International Edition of The New York Times. (For the article and its useful summary of the just-mentioned exhibitions and other important Ruskin links, see the end of this post.)
For my contribution in acknowledgement of this day’s significance, I have chosen a paragraph from Unto this Last, the small book which Ruskin always regarded as not just his best, but as the most important he ever wrote (Post 81). (For earlier posts celebrating his birthday, see #s 12 54 80 112).
I have said before that what drew me to Ruskin initially was his great heart: his love of humanity, his unswerving belief that all human beings counted in this world, that everyone had something significant to offer, and that it was the God-given task of each of us to help the others we encountered along our way to achieve their greatest strength so that, as they put their special talents into practice, they would help not only themselves but everyone.
I was trained–and happily so–as a sociologist. While an undergraduate at Colby College in Maine in the 1960s, I had the good fortune to find a remarkable professor, Kingsley Birge. Every year, King (we later became friends) taught the department’s Classical Sociology course, in two segments, one in the fall, one in the spring. During the fall semester, his approach was, from the point-of-view of sociological history, decidedly idiosyncratic. He had us read and discuss just three books: Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and, most importantly, Plato’s’ Republic. The last was by far the most significant and, as King worked us slowly through each of the great book’s ten chapters, I felt my mind opening as never before. Birge’s intent in his course, which he called, smartly, “Normative Social Theory,” was to get us to think about sociology as a fundamentally moral discipline, as a field of enquiry whose deepest reason for being was to discover those ways of being together which would generate happiness for all. Plato was the best exemplar of this, for, as we made our way through that great Greek’s many analyses and subanalyses, we came to see how his conclusions, once they had emerged from the exacting logical tests which gave them birth, were proven recommendations for how we should live, were pointers for reworking our collective lives if we were desirous of living gladly together.
Although I loved all the sociology I took at Colby, I discovered that, when I got to graduate school at Boston University, all such moral considerations were nowhere in evidence, found that the sociology taught there–and throughout all the universities and colleges in the US–was hell-bent on being “objective,” the idea being that it was a sociologist’s task to carefully gather the data needed to study a particular social phenomenon, then analyze this data to find out what it could tell us about our overt and covert social ways, ways about which, before, we had known little, and then stop. Whatever the data and analysis might suggest about the harm or the help our social arrangements caused, it was not the sociologist’s job to pass judgement. That was a private matter. In other words, to make recommendations was anathema, was seen as “unscientific.” To say something like, “Well, given what we have learned, it seems clear that this way of behaving and organizing society is clearly better for people than that, and that we would be well-advised,, in the future to move in this rather than that direction,” was verboten. It was a perspective with which I was most uncomfortable, having been earlier taught by eminents of the stature of Plato and King Birge that the raison d’etre of social analysis was to arrive at such useful suggestions, and that any social science which did not help us find more salubrious ways of being together was a strange social science indeed.
And so, when Mr. Ruskin appeared in my life nearly a quarter of a century later, I was nothing less than delighted. For in Ruskin I discovered an exacting student of society who, like Plato, when he found himself at the secure end of his enquiries, was in no way chary about telling us what we should do next. He said, for example, that we should commit ourselves to feeding, clothing, and housing everyone (hungry, naked, and homeless people doing themselves and no one else any good; indeed doing both of these entities considerable harm); he said, to take another example, that we should take care of our old, our lame, halt, and blind, that we should provide everyone with health care, should train each person in the skills for which she or he was most suited–and considerably more (for more on these and many other recommendations, see Post 61: “The List”) In short, we should help everyone become as strong as possible for, and in, Life–for only when we were in such a strong state would we benefit the most. Ruskin’s was, in other words, a moral sociology.
With this in mind, here’s the passage I have selected to honor Mr. Ruskin on his 200th birthday. It appears at the end of the second of the four essays of Unto this Last, “The Veins of Wealth.” All that has led to it we can discuss later. It is simultaneously an instance of moral sociology at its best and one of the most beautiful and moving passages he ever wrote:
Since the essence of wealth consists in power over men, will it not follow that the nobler and the more in number the persons are over whom it has power, the greater the wealth? Perhaps it may even appear, after some consideration, that the persons themselves are the wealth, that these pieces of gold with which we are in the habit of guiding them, are, in fact, nothing more than a kind of Byzantine harness or trapping, very glittering and beautiful in barbaric sight, wherewith we brindle the creatures, but that if these same living creatures could be guided without the fretting and jingling of Byzant [coins] in their mouths and ears, they might themselves be more valuable than their bridles.
In fact, it may be discovered that the true veins of wealth are purple [like the precious robes worn by kings and queens], and not in Rock, but in Flesh–perhaps even that the final outcome and consummation of all wealth is in the producing as many full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures as possible.
Our modern wealth, I think, has rather a tendency the other way, most political economists appearing to consider multitudes of human creatures not conductive to wealth, or, at best, conducive to it only by remaining in a dim-eyed and narrow-chested state of being.
And here finally, in acknowledgement of this special birth day is a reproduction of a wonderful painting which makes palpable the good heart of the man who has been the subject of all these posts; Sir John Everett Millais’ rendering of Ruskin standing by a brook in Glenfinlas, Scotland. It was painted in 1853-54 and has quite a bit of additional story attached to it. But that story is not of import now; Ruskin’s essential nobility, which Millais has seen and beautifully shown us, is.
Until next time.
Be well out there!
PS: Below is the text of Scott Reyburn’s excellent New York Times article, wherein he argues that Ruskin is as relevant today and to our contemporary problems as in the 19th century in which he lived. For reasons of space, I have omitted the marvelous pictures in the original article. You can see them if you click here: Read More… All the internal links work and, as you open them, they will give you a very good sense of the major events taking place in both the UK and US which are intended to celebrate Mr. Ruskin’s enduring contributions to our lives.
The New York Times: 5 February 2019.
Why John Ruskin, Born 200 Years Ago, is the Man of the Moment
LONDON — Time hasn’t been kind to the reputation of John Ruskin. Two hundred years after his birth, hardly anyone today remembers Victorian England’s pre-eminent art critic and social philosopher for his books. Instead, his main claim to fame is his ill-starred wedding night, during which unspecified “circumstances” in the “person” of his beautiful young wife, Effie Gray, repelled the religious-minded Ruskin. The marriage was never consummated.
The subject of a 2014 movie and a fair amount of inconclusive scholarly research, his miserable six-year marriage with a woman almost a decade his junior was annulled in 1854 on the grounds of Ruskin’s “incurable impotency.” (Soon after, Gray married the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, by whom she had eight children.)
Ruskin would seem to be an eminent Victorian way out of step with our times.
But are his ideas due for a comeback? The 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth is being celebrated in Britain and beyond with a yearlong program of exhibitions, conferences and other events that will highlight the progressive influence he once exerted — and might continue to exert — on culture and society.
[Here the article includes Millais’ famous portrait of Ruskin standing by a brook in Glenfinlas, Scotland. It is preserved at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. I have included a reproduction of it above.]
Ruskin was appalled by the way industrialization dehumanized workers, stifled creativity and polluted the environment. Using lectures and open letters, he encouraged workers to improve their lives through self-education. He founded a drawing school in Oxford (now known as Ruskin College), and he created one of Britain’s first regional museums, in Sheffield, in northern England. His watercolors, inimitably capturing the delicacy of a single flower or a gothic facade, celebrated the beauty of both divine and human creation.
But for Ruskin, the pen was always mightier than the brush. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer. The official Library Edition of his works runs to a forbidding 39 volumes. Of this prodigious output, only Unto this Last, his ferocious critique of laissez-faire capitalism, and his autobiography, Praeterita, remain readily available in print.
“He’s a dazzling intellectual and an enormously great writer, but other things in his life have gotten in the way,” said the scholar Clive Wilmer, referring to the current fixation with Ruskin’s sexuality. Mr. Wilmer is Master of the Guild of St. George, a charity Ruskin founded in Sheffield in the 1870s to give practical application to his utopian ideas.
The appropriately Victorian venue of Two Temple Place in London is currently showing almost 200 artworks and objects from the Guild’s eclectic study collection. Including original Ruskin drawings, medieval manuscripts, minerals, daguerreotypes, metalwork and plaster casts, they form the centerpiece of the comprehensive bicentennial exhibition “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing.”
“It’s a cluttered treasure box,” said Louise Pullen, curator of the Ruskin collection at Museums Sheffield. “It was a people’s collection, something that would make the lives of workmen and everyday people better.” Ruskin wanted them to “stop, look and appreciate” beauty in art and nature, she said. “He thought that was the key to well-being.”
The exhibition, as well as “Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud: Watercolors and Drawings,” focusing on Ruskin’s visionary environmentalism and opening next month at the York Art Gallery in northern England, aims to highlight the thinker’s enduring relevance.
Robert Hewison, author or editor of more than a dozen books on Ruskin, said in an interview that Ruskin was the first major literary figure to write about pollution and climate change.
In an 1884 lecture to the London Institution, “The Storm-Cloud of the 19th Century,” Ruskin spoke of a “Thunderstorm; pitch dark, with no blackness — but deep, high, filthiness of lurid, yet not sublimely lurid, smoke-cloud; dense manufacturing mist.” He was describing a new meteorological phenomenon he called the “plague wind,” tainted with soot from a nearby steel factory, observed at his home in the Lake District in northwest England.
“This, and his observations on glaciers are something that make him a justified prophet,” Mr. Hewison said. “Pollution was emblematic of the corruption in contemporary capitalism, the destruction of nature by man and his greed.” Quoting Ruskin’s Unto this Last, Mr. Hewison added, “He famously wrote ‘there is no wealth but life,’ and his attack on liberal economics could just as easily be a critique of neoliberalism now.”
But the evangelical density of Ruskin’s prose can intimidate. “It’s a barrier,” Mr. Hewison said. “You can look at his drawings to get a sense of the man he was and what he was interested in. He drew as powerfully as he wrote.”
Ruskin’s watercolor studies of the natural world and architecture, often used to illustrate his books or lectures, are remarkable for their intensity of feeling and observation. More than 40 of these drawings will be included in the York Art Gallery show, alongside a dozen works by Ruskin’s hero, the painter J. M. W. Turner. Others are currently on display in the exhibition “Victorian Visionary: John Ruskin and the Realization of the Ideal,” at the Houghton Library at Harvard, as well as at Two Temple Place.
But can watercolors really compare to what Ruskin achieved with words? Take The Stones of Venice, his 1851-1853 account of the rise and fall of the Italian city as a political and artistic power. In the stand-alone chapter “The Nature of Gothic,” he eloquently extolled the collaborative dignity of medieval architecture, establishing the ideological foundation of the Arts and Crafts movement, and of thousands of neo-Gothic buildings across the world.
Ruskin’s 1864 lecture “Traffic,” in which he tells a planning committee in the industrial English city of Bradford of the contempt he feels for their proposed wool exchange building because it would be a symbol of the exploitation of human labor, still has the power to jolt.
“He holds our feet to the moral fire. He makes us disconcerted,” said James Spates, the co-coordinator of a Ruskin conference and exhibition this December at The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. “My belief is Ruskin is a spot-on critique of modern America, and is relevant now as he was then.”
What would Ruskin have made of “post-truth” politics, of the richest one percent owning almost half of the world’s wealth, of a plastic-strewn planet where climate change may be beyond repair?
Maybe we should go back to him: He saw it coming.