hen the eminent Victorian scholar John L. Bradley reviewed my Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin three and a half decades ago, he puzzled me by asserting that my book contributed to the history of Aestheticism, which I associated with the notion of art for art's sake. The more I thought about Bradley's claim, the more I realized that the earnest Victorian sage had many ties to the Aesthetic Movement, the most of obvious of which appears in his initial inspiration of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and his continued support of its members and associates, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Ruskin, it is true, was all things to all Victorians, and he made moral and political pronouncements about the visual arts, particularly architecture — more political than moral — and many of the reactions against his so-called moralizing turn out in fact to be rejections of his calls for political responsibility. One of the many ironies associated with Ruskin's relation to Aestheticism involves his so-called moralizing: today when politically based cultural studies have had such a major influence on English Departments, few seem to have noticed that what Aestheticism rejected were Ruskin's demands that the arts have political and social relevance — something William Morris well understood. The Aesthetes, many of whom were Ruskin's disciples, probably rejected Ruskin's characteristically earnest tone as much as any of his specific pronouncements — something especially obvious in works like Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" (text), which repackages many of Ruskin's central points in witty, paradoxical, and often flippant ways. Many of Wilde's most apparently outrageous statements about art and nature turn out to be Ruskinian to the core: his rejection of simple mimesis, criticism of Eliot and other realist novelists, and his explanations of architecture and the way Turner (and all art) teaches us to see come straight from Ruskin.
Of course, when we discuss Ruskin's relation to the Aesthetes, we focus on Ruskin of the 1880s. The early Ruskin, the Ruskin of the second volume of Modern Painters (1846), advanced aesthetic theories that provided a forceful justification of the attitudes of the Aesthetic Movement. Before Ruskin lost his early Evangelical Anglican religious beliefs in the mid-1850s, he believed that the most moral, spiritual thing art could achieve was simply to convey beauty. His theocentric theory of the beautiful stated that God so infused his creation with His divine attributes that those qualities of nature and painting that produced beauty symbolized the deity — and that simple enjoyment of the beauties produced by proportion, balance, and moderation proved more spiritual than moralizing art.
Landow, George P. The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. [Full text]
Last modified 122 March 2007