235: Moving the Needle


From the moment he was born, John Ruskin was taught that, simply but crucially, because he had been born a human being, he was charged with making a difference for Good in the World. The lesson was reinforced time and again. His considerable powers had been granted him, he was told, by the great Spirit whose deepest desire was that the creatures He had created would live happy and joyous lives in the World He had also created. Never, throughout his long life, did Ruskin doubt the validity of this teaching and its attendant injunction.

He began adult life, as we know, as a critic of art, establishing himself in the process, as his books and essays published, as one of the great literary figures of the age. As I have mentioned often in these Posts, he rose each morning with a singular thought in mind: “How can I do something during this day which has been granted me which will ease the passage of my fellow human beings, or, at the least, bring them some greater measure of pleasure, joy, or understanding? How. in short, can I move the needle, however small that shifting might be, toward the Good?”

The quote illustrated above is one of his most often remembered. It was a a message Ruskin repeated time and again in his writings in one guise or another. Here, from the moving Epilogue to the last, fifth, volume of Modern Painters, (edition of 1890) is one complete version of that teaching:

Fix, then, in our mind that the guiding principle of all right practical labor is that the objective of all life is to be helpful. 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, all healthy art that is possible to you must be the expression of your true delight in a real thing, better than the art.

This is the main lesson I have been teaching,, so far as I have been able, through my whole life. Only that picture is Noble which is painted in love of the reality, It is a Law which embraces the highest scope of art; it is one also which guides in security the first steps of it. If you desire to draw and love the thing which you wish to represent, you will advance swiftly and readily. If you desire to draw so that you may make a beautiful drawing, you will never make one.

And this simplicity of purpose is further useful in closing all discussions of the respective grace or admirableness of method. The Best Painting is that which most completely represents what it undertakes to represent, as the best language is that which was clearly says what it undertakes to say.

And here, in illustration of his great principle of life and its charge are a few examples of some things our subject loved and thought worthy of his painted praise (all are watercolors, currently housed and protected in institutions in the UK and North America, that being the medium at which he most excelled and in which he most delighted): a seashell, a stone (a gneiss boulder in the Swiss Alps), a peacock’s feather, an apple, a branch of leaves in Fall. and, for wider perspective, a study of mountains and clouds (also in the Alps) …

… not bad for a man who never considered himself a true artist.

And so, Good Friends, until our next Post, please do continue well out there, while, in your several ways, you consider how to move the needle.



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2 Responses to 235: Moving the Needle

  1. doug seiler says:

    Thanks for a beautiful post. Ruskin’s words, your posting of them and your comments, do move the needle and are a great reminder for all of us, especially at this time of year. Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  2. Mame Cotter says:

    I love this. Exactly what I needed to hear. I love his work.

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