153: Ruskin on Trusting Ruskin


(1) Always desirous that his work be helpful, Ruskin made it a point to never publish anything until he knew what he wrote to be a true rendering of how the world worked in some manner. If, in any given writing, he was not sure about something, he would so say, insert a qualifier, something like, “it may be that….” “if this proves to be true in the future, then…”

(2) One of the verities he never doubted was that the greatest art and literature was always a product of the world’s greatest hearts, minds, and souls, for only such had the perspicacity and sensitivity to penetrate, and then accurately represent, the deepest mysteries of this world. Plato, the Bible, Dante, and Shakespeare have lasted as long as they have because they told us the truth about how the world works in one, or many, ways. The same was true of the greatest artists: Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Turner infused their deepest insights into their works because their unique vision had allowed them to see things which others could not, and their superlative talents provided them with the ability to put what they had learned on their canvases.

(3) But none of these great truth-tellers was perfect. Careful study of their works, he said, always revealed faults or skewed perceptions. Sometimes the skews were a consequence of the artists’ life circumstances (an exceedlingly harsh childhood perhaps). Sometimes the fault was an outgrowth of the cultrual biases of teh time in which the artist lived (Dante’s inability to recognize the wonderment and office of the mountains: Post 64). The trick was to recognize these imperfections when you came across them, make allowances for them, and extract the essential truth in a work as a guide for living better–and, just as importantly, resist any impulse which might lead us to think that, because a fault had been found, there was nothing in the work or its creator of use (as, for instance, particularly in these last few decades of high-intensity fault-exposure, in the decision, taken by not a few, that all the works of once highly acclaimed dead white men (Rusin being one such, of course), were (and continue) worthless.

(4) So that his readers might be sensitive to this issue of separating the wheat from the chaff in art,  Ruskin went directly to the point as it touched on the great Italian artists mentioned above in (his unfortunately almost never read masterpiece) The Queen of the Air (1869) in a chapter he titled, “Athena in the Heart”–Athena being, you’ll recall, the goddess whose task (Post 136) was to preside over the musical, historical, and meditative arts whose [purpose] is the discovery of light and truth, and the creation of beauty.” When you look with any care at Titian’s extremely famous “Assumption” painting which hangs in the Church of the Frari in Venice, he said, it is obvious that the face of the ascending Mary is true, the artist has perfectly depicted her amazement and sense of honor at what is happening to her gloriously and truthfully. But most of the rest of the painting is Titian posturing. Knowing his skill to be superlative, the artist, deeply in thrall to “the goddess of awe,” wants to impress you by showing you how good he is at painting vibrant colors and flashy gestures, wants to awe you, not teach you the the wonder of the story being depicted. (The greatl thing these days is that, when you come across a reference to a particular painting, you can call the image up from the internet in seconds. Try: “Titian + Assumption + Frari”) 

(5) As it was regarding the strengths and weaknesses which were there to be found in the works of the great painters and writers, so too, Ruskin said, it was with his own work. By 1869, intensely self-reflective, his mirror never the glass but his honest soul, he was well-aware of what elements in his work were worthy of our attention over the long term and which were not. And so it happens that the reader of The Queen of the Air finds that, right in the middle of his evaluation of the great painters noted (his discussion of Turner still to come!), he suddenly breaks off to tell us what in his own work is trustworthy and when and why he has fallen short of that laudable (indeed the only worthwhile) goal:

As I myself look at it, there is no fault or folly of my life–and both have been many and great–that does not rise up against me, and take away my joy, and shorten my power of possession, of sight, of understanding. [But equally,] every past effort of my life, every gleam of rightness or good in it, is with me now to help me use my grasp of this heart and its vision. So far as I can rejoice in, or interpret either, my power is owning to what of right is yet in me.

I dare to say that because, all through my life I have desired good and not evil, because I have been kind to many, have wished to be kind to all, have wilfully injured none, and because I have loved much and not selfishly. Therefore, the morning light is yet visible to me on these hills, and you who read may trust my thought and word in such work as I have yet to do for you, and you will be glad afterwards that you have trusted them. 

(If you’d like more specificity about what Ruskin thought was particularly trustworthy in his work, see Post 114).

All of which seems enough food for thought on this lovely summer day.

Do be well out there.

Until next time.



This entry was posted in Art, Life, Ruskin's Life, Truths and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 153: Ruskin on Trusting Ruskin

  1. Arjun Jain says:

    May I just say, Jim, how very impressive I found this post of yours, considering especially that I am reading the last chapter of Ruskin’s autobiography Praeterita these days. The truth in Ruskin’s third point–that none of the greatest of the great are always right–I myself have discovered many times to be so; whole religions, entire national philosophies, have no doubt fallen prey to not having realised this in time, and it is still so today. I was reminded of Tolstoy’s Confession, and his Gospel in Brief, in particular, regarding the issue of condemning all for the error of some, and also of my own work on the subject of visa restrictions some years ago. Have you read perhaps, the prefaces to Gāndhī’s translation of the Gīta, and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus? They may have an altogether different sort of eloquence to them, when compared to Ruskin’s, but you might indeed find them terribly interesting.

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