On Art and Life

One of the stops on my travels in the north of England was Brantwood, John Ruskin’s house in the Lake District, part of a day out with Catherine of Juxtabook and her husband. Since we planned this excursion in advance, I decided it might be worthwhile to learn a little bit about Ruskin before going, so I picked up this tiny little book from the Penguin Books Great Ideas series. The choice was indeed a great idea.

I’m a big believer in reading primary texts. I get a little sick at the idea of studying a philosopher without reading the works of that philosopher, but I’m realistic enough to know that for the general reader, primary texts aren’t always a good option. They’re often too long or too involved for someone just looking for a passing familiarity, and so we end up relying on secondary sources. If this little book is typical, this series is a great way of filling the need for primary texts for the general reader. Plus, with its lovely embossed cover, this book is a thing of beauty.

The 98-page book contains just two essays by Ruskin: “The Nature of Gothic” from The Stone of Venice and “The Work of Iron in Nature, Art, and Policy,” a lecture Ruskin delivered in 1858. My only complaint is that there’s no actual context or introduction provided. Just a few pages of basic biographical and historical information would have made this a perfect little introduction to Ruskin. As it is, I needed to supplement this book with the Wikipedia entry to get the level of knowledge I was going for.

So what did I learn about Ruskin from these writings? I saw in Ruskin’s words his devotion to good craftsmanship and belief in the dignity of the worker. Ruskin was writing in the days of the Industrial Revolution, when materials could be made cheaply and quickly in massive quantities, and he was troubled by how what he was seeing was affecting the nature of the products produced and the lives of the people producing them. And much of what he has to say remains relevant. There are occasional whiffs of Victorian ideas about social class that wouldn’t pass muster today, but these comments are mostly overcome by his general belief in need for all workers to have a living wage and scope for creativity and personal satisfaction in their work.

Since the book itself relies on Ruskin’s own words, I’ll leave you with a few quotes that I found interesting.

Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame.

Now it is a good and noble desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with that crystal sand their points were polished,—sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is—we should think there might be some loss in it also.

No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art. … No great man ever stops working until  he has reached his point of failure; that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution.

[Following a few sentences of advice often given to the poor to live simply and maintain a high moral standard] All of this is exceedingly true; but before giving the advice so confidently, it would be well if we sometimes tried it practically ourselves, and spent a year or so at some hard manual labour, not of an entertaining kind—ploughing or digging, for instance, with a very moderate allowance of beer; nothing but bread and cheese for dinner; no papers or muffins in the morning; no sofas nor magazines at night; one small room for parlour and kitchen; and a large family of children always in the middle of the floor. If we think we could, under these circumstances, enact Socrates, or Epaminondas, entirely to our own satisfaction, we shall be somewhat justified in requiring the same behavior from our poorer neighbours; but if not, we should surely consider a little whether among the various forms of oppression of the poor, we may not rank as one of the first and likeliest—the oppression of expecting too much from them.

The nets which we use against the poor are just those worldly embarrassments which either their ignorance or the improvidence are almost certain at some time or other to bring them into; then, just at the time when we ought to hasten to help them, and disentangle them, and teach them how to manage better in the future, we rush forward to pillage them, and force all we can out of them in their adversity. For, to take one instance only, remember this is literally and simply what we do, whenever we buy, or try to buy, cheap goods—goods offered at a price which we know cannot be remunerative for the labour involved in them. Whenever we buy such good, remember that we are stealing somebody’s labour. Don’t let us mince the matter. I say, in plain Saxon STEALING—taking from him the proper reward of his work, and putting it in our own pocket.

Generally modern speculation [in the markets] involves much risk to others, with chance of profit only to ourselves; even in its best conditions it is merely one of the forms of gambling or treasure hunting … And this is destructive enough, at least to our peace and virtue. But it is usually destructive of far more than our peace, or our virtue. Have you ever deliberately set yourself to imagine and measure the suffering, the guilt, and the mortality cause necessarily by the failure of any large-dealing merchant, or largely-branched bank?

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11 Responses to On Art and Life

  1. DKS says:

    Thank you for this. He’s a marvellously persuasive writer, simultaneously aesthetic and thundering, and even when the things he’s saying are wrong (I’m thinking of a moment in The Seven Lamps of Architecture when he argues that all beautiful things must be those that are seen frequently, that “knowing a thing to be frequent we may assume it to be beautiful,” which means that “the anatomy of animal frames” and “things that are hidden in the caverns of the earth” cannot be beautiful — once he starts going into these specifics I think he pokes holes in his own argument) this wrongness is not — in his words — “ignoble.”

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, DKS. I certainly found this little taste of his ideas interesting–and I could definitely see that thundering quality you describe in these selection. I did get the impression from a few other short articles I read and the exhibits at Brantwood that he did adopt some odd ideas, like the ones you mention, along the way, but who doesn’t have some odd ideas?

      • DKS says:

        True, and it seems to have been his willingness to push his ideas to extreme lengths that led him to those bits of oddness — and that willingness to push, to super-refine, is one of his virtues in other places.

  2. Iris says:

    I have to admit that reading primary texts by philosophers is not something I do a lot. I had to a few times for class. For fun I’ve never thought of picking something up for exactly the reasons you provided: these texts are often long and daunting. These “Great ideas” series sound like a good way to get introduced to a philosopher though. Like you, I would like a little more context however.

    • Teresa says:

      Iris, Yes I know what you mean. I don’t read these kinds of writers for fun either, but I get do curious about them and love the idea of having a way of getting a taste of their actual words. This series seems great for that.

  3. Deb says:

    There’s quite a bit of literary gossip (so much better than gossip about Brangelina or the Kardashians) about Ruskin: He was married to his wife, Effie, for many years. The marriage was eventually annulled because, according to her, he could not consummate it–a fact he disputed, although the couple certainly had no children. (A story, possibly apocryphal, claims that he found her “unnatural” because she had pubic hair–which he had never seen on the classical statuary he loved). After the annulment, Effie married Ruskin’s former best friend, the painter John Millais, with whom she had many children.

    • Teresa says:

      Deb, I did encounter that story (possibly on Wikipedia)! And it is indeed tabloid-worthy story–much more interesting than anything I’ve heard about Brangelina!

  4. rebeccareid says:

    I like the IDEA of a concise one-volume look at a philosopher. I may have to look in to this. But, as you say, without the context, it doesn’t help that much.

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I found that combined with Wikipedia, this book gave me just what I wanted, which I imagine would be true of the others as well.

  5. Lorin says:

    I’m so impressed. I studied Ruskin in college but I think I avoided reading anything at the time – and I certainly haven’t gone back to fill in the gap. I like the art and architecture his work inspired, though.

  6. Pingback: Penguin’s Great Covers | The Longue Durée …

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