Early in his lecture entitled "Traffic," John Ruskin relates taste to morality. In doing so, he makes two important commentaries, one including a judgment on the goodness of aesthetics, and the other on the unintentional dispersion of socialist beliefs by means of the diffusion of taste.

First Ruskin defines the components of "good" art versus "bad." Examples of good art include a Titian painting, a Greek statue, or a landscape painted by Turner. Ruskin claims that this art exhibits good taste because these pieces depict "good and perfect things." On the other hand, a painting of drunken gamblers by Teniers provides a detailed illustration of "unmannered" and "immoral" vice.

Although Ruskin had abandoned his religious convictions by the time he gave this lecture, the ideas in this section indicate that, in spite of his atheism, Ruskin still believed in categorical morals, a right and wrong that ought to govern people's behavior and proclivities that differs from the laissez-faire attitude of his audience who he accuses of worshipping the Goddess of Getting On and leaving each person to his or her own devices or vices.

Ruskin's moralistic understanding of aesthetics can be linked to his aversion for the sharply delineated class system that governed British society. By claiming that all art should be considered according to one set of moral standards, Ruskin makes a move towards a utopian notion of society where all people are on equal footing because "What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character." We were all to adhere to Ruskin's notions of aesthetics, the population of Britain would live in relative harmony without the "complex social and political arrangements" Ruskin abhors so vehemently (Vanity Fair, 1872).

Ruskin also points out to his audience, mostly members of the upper echelons of British society, that their desire to disseminate culture to the masses (evidenced by a book he saw in a shop window titled On the necessity of the diffusion of taste among all classes) may backfire on the entrenched hierarchical system they enjoy so much. Ruskin cautions that by disseminating taste, one risks making a gentleman out of a costermonger, and once that costermonger truly embraces the identity of a gentleman, "he won't like to go back to his costermongering" and will therefore upset the social order of the country.

Questions

Ruskin consciously alienates his audience at the outset of this lecture, accusing them of pettiness and moral hypocrisy. How often did he employ this tactic and what effect did it have on his audiences?

In "Traffic," Ruskin makes the argument that aesthetics inextricably link to a society's moral character. Is this argument still applicable today?

Carlyle was sage writer who "self-consciously positioned himself away from society." In "Traffic," Ruskin's style employs the techniques of sage writing, but he doesn't completely separate himself from his audience. What does Ruskin take from Carlyle and where in Ruskin's writing are his upbringing and earlier beliefs reflected?

In what style did they ultimately decide to build the exchange?


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 14 April 2009