John Ruskin uses blunt, simple but weighted questions to explore the meaning of taste, unity and architectural understanding. He comes to Yorkshire to give an address about an Exchange the citizens are interested in building, theoretically to give architectural advice, but his speech in actuality devolves into a philosophical musing on architecture's conception on individual and national levels. Through loosely exploring architecture in such a philosophical manner, Ruskin creates a striking commentary about humanity. His language is ridden with direct questions, a great number of breaks and punctuation that serve to speed his speech forward — keep it colloquial but sophisticated, meaningful and engaging. Ruskin specifically brings forward the question of taste — whether one individual can bring forth a communal taste, or if taste is something so individualized that it is fruitless for a sole man to propose a style for some communally shared structure.
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, and 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, and 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, and a game at pitch-farthing.' Good; we know them all now. What more need we ask?
Ruskin puts forward a very bold argument in stating taste to be “the ONLY morality.” The use of capitals on “ONLY” specifically brings out the intentional boldness of his statement. By suggesting that the ultimate way of understanding is to discover towards what individuals have an affinity. Ruskin suggests that we are defined by our preferences. He claims an almost omniscient power in the command, “tell me what you like and I'll tell you what you are.” The tone he takes here is one of all-knowingness, of perhaps a bit of pomposity and one that verges upon affecting a God-like tone. Ruskin's claim that people are defined by their preferences and tastes seems almost a bit sacrilege. Although later in his address he talks about the Church and the issues with the architecture of Church verses home, and how it is problematic to term only a church a house of God when all homes with God worshipers should be inclusive of God, in this moment he sets up in his overarching tone a feeling that humanity is defined by it's “likes” not by its religion. The phrases he chooses to include are also suitably ridiculous. While he could have selected human likes that were devoid of irony, he instead lists “a pipe,” “gin,” “swept hearth,” “tea table” and a “canary” as the examples of human proclivities. These suggestion not only provide the reader or listener with some amusement, but they also serve to perhaps make ironic the human condition. If we are defined “body and soul” by the random, fleeting things in life that amuse or please us, than humans seem to lose some of their seriousness. In more relation to taste, then, Ruskin seems to argue that taste is quite individual and random. Thus creating a national taste when it comes to architecture etc. could be a great dilemma, one that he highlights through his direct questioning and witty, bold language.
1. Is Ruskin's questioning meant as irony? Or is it meant to be a more serious comment upon the human condition, or is it perhaps meant to be both?
2. If morality is defined by human affinity, than how does a higher power influence morality amongst humans — if taste is so unique, then is taste created by God?
3. Are these human likes vices or are they devoid of sin? Is Ruskin aiming to present affinity as vice or virtue?
4. If like is the greatest morality, then what is dislike? Can dislike be used to know a person in this same way Ruskin proposes a like to be? Is bad taste possible and who is to define it if everyone is allowed to have their own, defined unique taste?
Last modified 7 February 2011