In his essay "Traffic," Ruskin states that no matter how "clever" the techniques employed by a painter, no matter how well-executed a painting may be, the image within the work, the content, must be "moral" in order for the painting to be "good." In the following passage, Ruskin establishes this dichotomy between the "form" and "content" of a painting, placing higher importance on "content."

I don't mean by "good" clever — or learned — or difficult in the doing. Take a picture by Teniers, of sots quarrelling over their dice; it is an entirely clever picture; so clever that nothing in its kind has ever been done equal to it; but it is also an entirely base and evil picture. It is an expression of delight in the prolonged contemplation of a vile thing, and delight in that is an "unmannered," or "immoral" quality. It is "bad taste" in the profoundest sense — it is the taste of the devils. On the other hand, a picture of Titian's, or a Greek statue, or a Greek coin, or a Turner landscape, expresses delight in the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing. That is an entirely moral quality — it is the taste of the angels. And all delight in fine art, and all love of it, resolve themselves into simple love of that which deserves love. [235]

At the same time, Ruskin seems to suggest that the distinction between "form" and "content" becomes hazier in architecture. He states that society's moral "state" manifests itself in the form, or style, by which a building is constructed. "Gothic architecture of Venice" embodies the "state of pure national faith and of domestic virtue" from which it had arisen, while "Renaissance architecture" illustrates the "state of concealed national infidelity andĚdomestic corruption" of its time (239). According to Ruskin, architectural forms and styles, be they Gothic or Renaissance, are themselves the images or "content" in a portrait of society. Images such as railroads and chimneys, emblems of industrialization and modernization, enforce Ruskin's "painting" of England as polluted and ugly, his notion that buildings and structures symbolize and reflect England's degeneration into an increasingly materialist state concerned with "Getting-on" in the market.

We dispute a great deal about the nominal religion: but we are all unanimous about this practical one; of which I think the "Goddess of Getting-on," or "Britannia of the Market." The Athenians had an "Athena Agoraia," or Athena of the Market; but she was a subordinate type of their goddess, while our Britannia Agoraia is the principal type of ours. And all your great architectural works are, of course, built to her. It is long since you built a great cathedral; and how you would laugh at me if I proposed building a cathedral on the top of one of these hills of yours, to make it an Acropolis! But your railroad mounds, vaster than the walls of Babylon; your railroad stations, vaster than the temple of Ephesus, and innumerable; your chimneys, how much more mighty and costly than cathedral spires! Your harbour-piers; your warehouses; your exchanges! —all these are built to your great Goddess of "Getting-on"; and she has formed, and will continue to form,! your architecture, as long as you worship her. [243]

Questions

1. Compare Ruskin's initial distinction between form and content to his differentiation between "nominal" and "practical" religion. How do these two dichotomies enforce or detract from one another?

2. Why might Ruskin focus on architecture, and its interdependence of form and content, in an argument against acts which he considers to be superficial, hypocritical, and/or immoral?


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 3 April 2003