or more than forty years Ruskin emphasized man's essential need for the arts and considered such vindication a major part of his critical enterprise. With Wordsworth, probably the most important source of his critical theory, he felt intense dislike for men who, as the poet complained, "talk of Poetry as of a matter of amusement and idle pleasure; who will converse with us as gravely about a taste for Poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry." Although Ruskin, as we shall see, redefines the term "taste" to suit his purposes, he, too, on occasion felt uncomfortable with the employment of such a word in relation to the arts. Possibly echoing Wordsworth, he explained in the third volume of Modern Painters that "the name which is given to the feeling [of pleasure and preference in art], — Taste, Gout, Gusto, — in all languages indicates the baseness of it, for it implies that art gives only a kind of pleasure analogous to that derived from eating by the palate" (5.96). Such an implication Ruskin will not admit, for as he had earlier insisted, "Art, properly so called, is no recreation; it cannot be learned at spare moments, nor pursued when we have nothing better to do. It is no handiwork for drawing-room tables, no relief of the ennui of boudoirs; it must be understood and undertaken seriously, or not at all. To advance it men's lives must be given, and to receive it, their hearts" (4.26).
Nonetheless, one must admit that, despite his continuing emphasis on the importance of the visual arts, rarely has a passionate advocate of painting so candidly admitted his doubts about its moral effectiveness. Twice in Modern Painters, for example, he publicly expressed such doubt. In concluding the last volume of Modern Painters, he confided in the reader: "What the final use may be to men, of landscape painting, or of any painting, or of natural beauty, I do not yet know. . . . Full of far deeper reverence for > Turner's art than I felt when this task of his defence was undertaken. . . , I am more in doubt respecting the real use to mankind of . . . art; incomprehensible as it must always be to the mass of men" (7.423,441). During a time when he turned increasingly to the problems of society and the common man, he briefly questioned the value of something which most men could not understand or enjoy; but, as later works demonstrate, he never lost hope for long, continuing throughout his career to search for, discover, and explicate the uses of art to man. In the 1844 preface to the first volume of Modern Painters, written near the beginning of his career, he had commented that it is "a question which, in spite of the claims of Painting to be called the sister of Poetry, appears . . . to admit of considerable doubt, whether art has ever, except in its earliest and rudest stages, possessed anything like efficient moral influence on mankind" (3.20-21). In particular, landscape painting, the specific kind of art he had set out to explain and defend, had conspicuously failed to achieve anything of moral worth, and he remarks on "the utter inutility of all that has been hitherto accomplished by the painters of landscape. No moral end has been answered, no permanent good effected, by any of their works" (3.2l). According to him, "all hitherto done in landscape, by those commonly conceived its masters, has never prompted one holy thought in the minds of nations" (3.24), but the cause of such failure, he insists, was an accidental, not an essential, condition of art: Claude, Salvator Rosa, and the Dutch — the painters idolized by the periodical critics and other detractors of Turner — had turned away from God and nature, using their great talents merely for the sake of proud displays of virtuosity. Turner and all great artists paint differently, says Ruskin, and therefore he will dedicate Modern Painters "to exhibit the moral function and end of art; to prove the share which it ought to have in the thoughts, and the influence on the lives, of all of us; to attach to the artist the responsibility of a preacher, and to kindle in the general mind that regard which such an office must demand" (3.48).
In the first place, art possesses major value because it embodies the essence of past ages of greatness: "Whole Eras of mighty history are summed, and the passions of dead myriads are concentrated, in the existence of a noble art" (18.170). From such great painting, from such great poetry, we can learn more deeply than in any other manner the wisdom, beliefs, and feelings of men and societies now vanished into the darkness of time. Art, which has the power to release us from the limitations of our own time, can thus reveal truths which we have neglected or of which we are ignorant; and by so doing it furnishes us with a necessary perspective from which to view our own assumptions and complacencies. Painting, poetry, and architecture contributed importantly to Ruskin's own growth as a man, and he frequently uses the evidence of the arts to stimulate the intellectual and moral sympathies of his audience. Ruskin, whose experience of Catholic art had gradually dissolved his Evangelical Anglican bigotry, tried to bring a similar experience to the readers of The Stones of Venice. Addressing his work to a Protestant, and presumably anti-Catholic, audience, he insists that medieval legends, for example, deserve attention "on this ground, if on no other, that they have once been sincerely believed by good men, and have had no ineffective agency in the formation of the existent European mind" (10.42). The art of Venice, the painting of Giotto, and the myths of Greece provide modern man with examples of sincere belief and virtuous life which he may use to examine his own strengths and weaknesses.
Moreover, since Ruskin firmly believes "the art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues" (20.39), he searches the artistic creations of the past for lessons he can apply to the present. In particular, much troubled by "the apparent connection of great success in art with subsequent national degradation" (16.263), he examines the arts of India and Italy to see if it is possible to discover causes of national decline in their painting and architecture. The Stones of Venice his major endeavor to derive lessons of contemporary value from an earlier art, opens with the famous and beautiful lines that compare England to her predecessors:
Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice, and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction (9.17).
Desiring to record for his contemporaries "the warning . . . uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat like passing bells, against the STONES OF VENICE" (9.17), Ruskin undertakes to examine "the relation of the art of Venice to her moral temper" (9.14). Since he believes the Renaissance was the age when Venice declined from its previous greatness, he juxtaposes Gothic and Renaissance work to determine how the spirit of the city, once truly religious, changed. Comparing the tomb sculptures of the Doges Tomaso Mocenigo and Andrea Vendramin, the latter "unanimously declared the chef d'oeuvre of Renaissance sepulchral work" (9.50), he discovers that whereas the earlier artist dedicated his skill to create a "noble image of a king's mortality" (9.49), the Renaissance sculptor — a man, it turns out, later banished for forgery — saved time, money, and energy to lavish on putti by carving only the side of the dead man's effigy nearest the spectator. That such deception, coarseness, and "utter coldness of feeling" (9.52), which turned memorial into mockery, found favor in Venice indicates much about both artist and audience. Ruskin returns to these and other examples of tomb sculpture in the last volume of The Stones of Venice when he traces the evolution of Renaissance sepulchral work from its origins in primitive simplicity and sure belief. Summoning example after example, he demonstrates in detail how sculptors increasingly eager to display their skill created monuments to Venetian vanity and worldly success. From this evidence Ruskin concludes:
Exactly in proportion to the degree of the pride of life expressed in any monument, would be also the fear of death; and therefore, as these tombs increase in splendour, in size, and beauty of workmanship, we perceive a gradual desire to take away from the definite character of the sarcophagus. In the earliest times, as we have seen, it was a gloomy mass of stone; gradually it became charged with religious sculpture; but never with the slightest desire to disguise its form, until towards the middle of the fifteenth century. It then becomes enriched with flower-work and hidden by the Virtues: and, finally, losing its four-square form, it is modelled on graceful types of ancient vases, made as little like a coffin as possible, and refined away in various elegances, till it becomes, at last, a mere pedestal or stage for the portrait statue. This statue, in the meantime, has been gradually coming back to life, through a curious series of transitions. The Vendramin monument is one of the last which shows, or pretends to show, the recumbent figure laid in death. A few years later, this idea became disagreeable to polite minds; and lo! the figures, which before had been laid at rest upon the tomb pillow, raised themselves on their elbows, and began to look round them. The soul of the sixteenth century dared not contemplate its body in death. . . . The statue rose up, and presented itself in front of the tomb, like an actor upon a stage, surrounded now not merely, or not at all, by the Virtues, but by allegorical figures of Fame and Victory, by genii and muses, by personifications of humbled kingdoms and adoring nations, and by every circumstance of pomp, and symbol of adulation, that flattery could suggest, or insolence could claim. (11.109-110,111)
John Ruskin. The Ducal Palace, Venice. 1835. Medium: pencil or pencil and ink on paper.
Click on thumbnail for larger picture.
However much these gaudy monuments fail to memorialize those hidden inside, they blazon forth, because they embody, an age afraid of death, an age which has lost true faith in either God or man. In this third volume Ruskin confirms other evidence of Venetian decline he had presented in his opening chapter. After comparing the tombs of Mocenigo and Vendramin, he had compared a Gothic capital bearing a figure of Hope from the Ducal Palace with its Renaissance imitation from the same building. He observed the later work to be not only more crudely chiseled but missing its essential iconographical attribute, the hand of God coming forth from the sun — "a curious and striking type of the spirit which had then become dominant in the world" (9.55). Ruskin, we must notice, does not hold that this art or that of the tomb sculptures is a cause of Venetian decline, but merely a very "readable," and hence most valuable, sign of it.
Such investigations of Renaissance art disclose the general, and not the specific, causes of what Ruskin believes to be the cause of Venetian disaster. One specific cause, upon which Ruskin places great emphasis, appears in his justly famous chapter "The Nature of Gothic." Contrasting Gothic and Renaissance architecture, he finds that the later style, which demands that everything follow a rigid, predetermined plan, necessitates turning the worker into a slave, a "machine," a mere "animated tool" (10.192). Such an art, says Ruskin, bespeaks the ideals and spiritual condition of the society which chooses it. When he discusses the failures of Renaissance tombs and Renaissance capitals, he chiefly dwells on the spirit of the past; but when he turns to Renaissance architecture, still popular with many of his contemporaries, he indicts his own time as well — and not merely because many in Victorian England prefer Renaissance to Gothic buildings. No, he sees this architecture as a fitting emblem of modern manufacture, modern tyranny, and incipient modern disaster. Ruskin warns that for men "to feel their souls withering within them, unthanked, to find their whole being sunk into an unrecognized abyss, to be counted off into a heap of mechanism numbered with its wheels, and weighed with its hammer strokes — this, nature bade not, — this, God blesses not, — this, humanity for no long time is able to endure" (10.195). If England forgets the example of Venice, it may be led, he warns, through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction.
Ruskin not only thus draws upon the arts of the past but, as one might expect, applies the same methods to contemporary works of art. In "Traffic," for example, he examines the implications, not of medieval, but of Victorian Gothic building and points out that mid-nineteenth-century use of Gothic for churches and Italianate modes for "mills and mansions" indicates a serious divorce of religion from daily life. He therefore instructs his audience that although they may consider "Gothic a pre-eminently sacred and beautiful mode of building, which you think, like fine frankincense, should be mixed for the tabernacle only, and reserved for your religious services," such a conviction, so foreign to the period of genuine Gothic, only means "you have separated your religion from your life" (18.440). Modern faith in Mammon — the true faith of the nineteenth century and the belief by which the age lives — embodies itself, he says, in warehouses and railroads, in factories and stock exchanges, and it is to them one must go to perceive the conditions of life and worship.
Art, thus considered as the creation and embodiment of a culture, provides invaluable evidence about the political, social, and spiritual state of its creators. Great art, the product of a healthy, vital era, furnishes later times with an ideal to emulate, while less successful art teaches them what to avoid. And when one considers the art of the present, discovering symptoms of an unhealthy society, one has received a warning, especially compelling because unintended if inevitable.
Nonetheless, however important Ruskin may find painting, poetry, and architecture as an exponent of a nation's ethical life, such an indirect and archaeological use of the arts provides no essential argument for their continued creation. His chief defense of the arts comes rather from what he conceives to be their distinguishing capacity to communicate and record matters particularly important to men, matters with which neither science nor philosophy can adequately deal. Ruskin, we have already seen, believes painting a form of language, and the greatest painting a form of poetry. At its simplest level, then, the pictorial arts function as a medium for conveying and making permanent truths which would otherwise be lost. In Sesame and Lilies (1865) he pointed out that "a book is written, not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it" (18.61), and we may take this assertion as applying to the sister art as well. Thus, in its most basic form, the art of painting and drawing serves chiefly as a means of fixing images — of making permanent record of visible fact. Ruskin discusses this idea of visual art as notation in his lecture "Education in Art" (1858), which he appended to "A Joy Forever": "Drawing, so far as it is possible to the multitude, is mainly to be considered as a means of obtaining and communicating knowledge. He who can accurately represent the form of an object, and match its colour, has unquestionably a power of notation and description greater in most instances than that of words''(16.143). A decade earlier The Seven Lamps of Architecture had similarly explained that "the whole art of painting" functions to state
certain facts, in the clearest possible way. For instance: I desire to give an account of a mountain or of a rock; I begin by telling its shape. But words will not do this distinctly, and I draw its shape and say "This was its shape." Next: I would fain represent its colour: but words will not do this either, and I dye the paper, and say, "This was its colour." (8.58-59)
Ruskin, we see, takes quite literally the idea that painting and drawing serve as a means of stating visible fact. As I have explained elsewhere, Ruskin's conception of painting as language permits him to replace an older theory of imitation, traditionally central to views of art, with the theory that painting utilizes systems of visual relationships which figure forth the essentially inimitable tones, tints, and forms of nature.
Even this most basic function of art bears great gifts to man, if he will only accept them; for by recording the truths of sky, mountain, and sea, painting can bring an awareness of nature into the dark confines of an industrial age. Ruskin, who believes that much human strength and health of spirit comes from nature, tells his Victorian readers: "You have cut yourselves off voluntarily, presumptuously, insolently, from the whole teaching of your Maker in His universe" (16.289). But art can remind man what he has lost and, to a degree, restore it.
Although this elemental form of art can thus perform an important service for man, it remains, says Ruskin, the kind of painting and drawing to which beginners and those without imagination must devote themselves. The great artist, however, does not merely record the facts of appearance. Rather, he treats his subject differently, "giving not the actual facts of it, but the impression it made on his mind.... The aim of the great inventive landscape painter must be to give the far higher and deeper truth of mental vision, rather than that of the physical facts, and to reach a representation which . . . shall yet be capable of producing on the far-away beholder's mind precisely the impression which the reality would have produced, and putting his heart into the same state in which it would have been" (6.32,35-36) had he been at the scene. According to Ruskin, then, the greatest painting, like the greatest verse — both of which deserve the title "poetry" — reproduce the artist's impression of fact rather than the fact itself. In other words, art concerns itself with man and his human, phenomenological relations to his world:
Science deals exclusively with things as they are in themselves; and art exclusively with things as they affect the human sense and human soul. Her work is to portray the appearances of things, and to deepen the natural impressions which they produce upon living creatures. The work of science is to substitute facts for appearances, and demonstrations for impressions. Both, observe, are equally concerned with truth; the one with truth of aspect, the other with truth of essence. Art does not represent things falsely, but truly as they appear to mankind. Science studies the relations of things to each other: but art studies only their relations to man: and it requires of everything . . . only this, — what that thing is to the human eyes and human heart, what it has to say to men, and what it can become to them. (11.47-48)
This passage from the concluding volume of The Stones of Venice echoes Wordsworth's statement that "The appropriate business of poetry, (which, nevertheless, if genuine, is as permanent as pure science,) her appropriate employment, her privilege and her duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions." Here we have but one example of the way Ruskin transfers to the visual arts romantic descriptions of the nature and function of poetry.
He similarly adopts much of the Wordsworthian description of the poet. Ruskin's artist, like Wordsworth's poet, "thinks and feels in the spirit of human passions," and "is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement, and a greater power in expressing such thoughts and feelings as are produced in him in that manner." The painter's greater sympathies, sensibility, and imagination, according to Ruskin, make art particularly valuable to us; for the great artist, the man who sees farther and more deeply, makes the spectator "a sharer in his own strong feelings and quick thoughts . . . and leaves him more than delighted, — ennobled and instructed, under the sense . . . of having held communion with a new mind, and having been endowed for a time with the keen perception and the impetuous emotions of a nobler and more penetrating intelligence" (3.134). Art, which deals in the truths of experience, adds to the wealth of human knowledge by permitting us to see and feel with the faculties of another greater than ourselves. For this reason, truly imaginative paintings have an "infinite advantage" (5.186) over our actual presence at the scene they depict since they provide a "penetrative sight" and "kindly guidance" (5.187) that, like an imaginative lens, increases our powers of beholding nature and man. In other words, the great artist allows us to stand on the shoulders of a giant.
Imaginative art, as Ruskin explains in the second volume of Modern Painters, serves the cause of religion and morality in an even more direct way. According to him, the imagination's "first and noblest use is, to enable us to bring sensibly to our sight the things which are recorded as belonging to our future state, or as invisibly surrounding us in this" (5.72). Therefore, the imagination and the art which embodies it enable the worshipper to envisage the truths of religion and morality, thereby stimulating him to follow the precepts of the Bible. At the time Ruskin wrote the second volume of Modern Painters he would have been most concerned with the imagination's ability not only to vivify scriptural history but also to figure forth the joys of salvation and the torments of damnation.
In addition, the imagination — that faculty which is "an eminent beholder of things when and where they are NOT" (5.181) — also aids man when it creates art that records secular history and legend. Turner's Apollo and Python, his Bay of Baiae, and his series of paintings on Carthage permit us to see and feel the past just as his steamship in a snowstorm gives us the experience of a raging sea. In contrast to that imaginative art and poetry which convey a heightened experience of the world, there is another form, the symbolical, which embodies abstract truths in type, allegory, and symbol. Both forms of imaginative art, according to Ruskin, are equally great, and the "abstract and symbolical suggestion will always appeal to one order of minds, the dramatic completeness to another" (24.101). Whereas the imaginative painting of experience enables the spectator to see the exterior world in new ways, the imaginative art which employs allegory and symbolism communicates abstract truth more effectively than any other manner.
The wonderful capacity of the visual arts to communicate fact, feeling, and belief enables them to have a profound influence on the lives of men. Ruskin, who continually insists that art must appeal to the whole man, believes that taste, in its largest sense, is a moral quality; as he tells us in "Traffic," "What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character" (18.436). Ruskin, in other words, says of art what Plato says of philosophy: that it leads us toward the Good. "And all delight in fine art, and all love of it, resolve themselves into simple love of that which deserves love. That deserving is the quality which we call 'loveliness' . . . and it is not an indifferent nor optional thing whether we love this or that; but it is just the vital function of all our being" (18.436). The fact that art and morality act and react upon one another is the reason Ruskin feels it a matter of urgency whether one delights in a Teniers tavern brawl or a Turner landscape.
Despite his fervent belief that art can aid morality, Ruskin rejects usual notions of didactic painting and poetry. Thus, when writing in The Queen of the Air about the "ethical conception of the Homeric poems," he pauses, correcting himself, and mentions instead "their ethical nature; for they are not conceived didactically, but are didactic in their essence, as all good art is" (19.307). Hence although he attached "to the artist the responsibility of a preacher" (3.48), he forbids him to preach. Denying that the artist achieves moral ends by direct instruction, he writes of the Iliad that "all pieces of such art are didactic in the purest way, indirectly and occultly, so that, first, you shall only be bettered by them if you are already hard at work in bettering yourself; and when you are bettered by them it shall be partly with a general acceptance of their influence, so constant and subtle that you shall be no more conscious of it than of the healthy digestion of food; and partly by a gift of unexpected truth, which you shall only find by slow mining for it" (19.308). According to this view of "didacticism," art must work indirectly, gradually adding to the knowledge of its audience. In addition, art can improve man "indirectly and occultly" by developing his moral sense: Ruskin's moral theories rely on the notion of an imaginative sympathy which projects us into the emotional position of another human being, thus enabling us to experience how it feels to be acted upon; this experience then produces moral action. Anything which contributes to such experience, or to the sympathetic imagination that produces it, also contributes to the betterment of our moral nature. Since painting, like poetry, exercises this essential faculty, sharpening and perfecting our moral perceptions, it is of great potential moral value. In The Queen of the Air Ruskin explains another way that art functions didactically: "As all lovely art is rooted in virtue, so it bears fruit of virtue, and is didactic in its own nature. It is often didactic also in actually expressed thought, as Giotto's, Michael Angelo's, Dürer's, and hundreds more; but that is not its special function — it is didactic chiefly with form" (19.394; emphasis mine). Art can be didactic by being beautiful in two ways. First, perception of certain modes of beauty exercises moral sympathy; and, second, since according to Ruskin, the beautiful is a symbol of God, its perception becomes an essentially religious act which "indirectly and occultly" informs the beholder of the nature of God. Ruskin's deep faith in the value of art appears nowhere more strikingly than in his affirmation that painting and poetry are most useful and teach most by conveying images of beauty. In the second volume of Modern Painters, which sets forth his aesthetic theories, he argues that "men in the present century understand the word Useful in a strange way . . . as if houses and lands, and food and raiment were alone useful, and as if Sight, Thought, and Admiration were all profitless, so that men insolently call themselves Utilitarians, who would turn, if they had their way, themselves and their race into vegetables" (4.28,29). Ruskin, in contrast, finds that useful which makes man more alive, and for this reason he believes that art is truly useful and truly necessary.
Last modified 6 May 2019