An Addendum to Ruskin: Didactic Art and Climate Warming.

global warming

To put Ruskin into context regarding the purpose of art, it has to be recognised that art has had a didactic purpose for thousands of years since the very origins of art. Prehistoric cave paintings almost certainly had a ceremonial or spiritual purpose. Some are in such dark inaccessible tunnels that they must have had a ritual meaning. [They were not ‘on show’ as in a public space.]

Religious art has always been made to communicate and promote the doctrines of the religion. On a more sinister note, totalitarian states have used art as propaganda.

The earliest Christian art is to be seen in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the third century. These are underground tombs where families buried their dead. There are over one hundred images of the ‘good shepherd’ in these catacombs; probably influenced by earlier Roman and Greek images. In the Christian tradition it is a symbol of protection in the afterlife.

Later on Christian art was made for cathedrals, churches, palaces, public spaces and private homes. And we mustn’t forget the rich tradition of Illuminated manuscripts. Not so well know is the fact that Illuminated manuscripts were also made to illustrate secular subjects, such as fables or medicinal cures; and there is even one illustrating a game of chess.

In the Mediaeval Period books were hand-made to prepare people for death. They were actually called The Art of Dying manuals! In them, the dying person had to look at pictures representing temptations and, each day, determine to overcome them in order for their souls to ascend to Heaven.

It is often said that Christian imagery in churches are ‘books for the illiterate.’ The origin of the idea, when the majority of the population was illiterate, goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604). He wrote a letter to Bishop Serenus in which he says, ‘ What writing does for the literate, a picture does for the illiterate looking at it.’ and ‘Painted likenesses are made for the instruction of the ignorant so they may understand the stories and so learn what occurred.’

As Christianity developed elaborate altarpieces were constructed and painted for churches. They usually had side panels and predellas (a panel beneath the main picture-panel) so that the whole Christian narrative could be told by opening and closing certain panels on different occasions. Private homes would have smaller versions for private contemplation.

Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is rich in iconography. Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism has a large cast of Bodhisattvas, each representing a particular spiritual virtue such as compassion, wisdom or determination. Again, many Buddhists have altars in their homes with a Buddha statue as a central focus to aid meditation.

Let us return to the Ruskin quote. He does say that art is there to ‘please.’ so he isn’t saying all art should be didactic. However, he does say it should ‘exalt and refine.’ Now a quick look in my Oxford dictionary has this entry for ‘exalt.’ 1, praise or regard highly. 2. raise to a higher rank or position. 3. make noble in character; dignify. Now, one phrase which has characterised modernity is ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ [I forget who coined it] The idea is that with the ‘death of God’, and the moral vacuum left, the world has fragmented and art inevitably depicts the subsequent anxiety and alienation. All well and good; we can all respond to Munch’s Scream. However, the danger is that the status of the human being is diminished, we become cogs in an impersonal machine. To go back to that little word, ‘exalt’. One thing most of us will agree about is that we don’t dignify what it is to be human; we hardly ‘raise to a higher rank’ or ‘make noble’ our humanity. If we think of Tracy Emin’s Bed, for example, we can see that we ‘make ignoble’. Many artists glorify, or seem to celebrate our depravity; our various hatreds, greeds and delusions. Ruskin would despair if he returned to our times.

So, what am I suggesting? Is there a place in the twenty first century for a didactic art with a moral purpose? I definitely suggest that there might be. The challenge could hardly be greater. Annihilation of vast numbers of the global population through climate change. Can artists address this problem? Why not? There could even be a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ if such a movement went hand in hand with practical/political change.

Christianity managed to convey a unifying message with its millions of art works created throughout two millennia. Imagine if artists now united under a banner of ‘artists against climate catastrophe’ – how energising and positive such a project would be.

 

 

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Ruskin & the Moral View of Art

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I like coming across books by chance. This is one such: a copy of John Ruskin’s A Joy Forever, bought for £1 in an Amnesty bookshop. It is an edited transcription of a series of talks he gave in Manchester about the economics of art and about art education. The talks were given in 1857 and there are five essays in total in the book.

The collection is a fascinating mixture of Utopianism, moral aestheticism, dogmatism and naivety. Ruskin is worth reading today in order to mine the nuggets of gold from the occasional dross. Apart from anything else he is a master-stylist of the essay form.

Ruskin is a typical Victorian and takes an elitist, moral view of art. He believes in an aesthetic ‘gold standard’ – that certain works of art stand head and shoulders above others. Contrast that with today’s relativistic, ‘anything goes’ view of art. Postmodernism has abandoned the gold standard: the high priests of post modernism maintain there is no qualitative difference between Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. High culture and low culture are anathema in the current art lexical.

As Glenn Ward states:

There is, for example, no self-evident reason why Bach should be seen as better than Bacharaach. This is not necessarily to say that they are the same, just that they are equal. Everything swims in the same social sea of signs, images and meanings. [ Teach Yourself Postmodernism, 1997.]

I don’t want to get bogged down in too much of a criticism of postmodernism, but I should confess that I find it difficult to jettison the gold standard completely. At the same time I can also see the value of originality and experimentation.

It is tempting to simplify Ruskin and write him off as a hyper-conservative critic, out of touch with modernity. He famously dismissed Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, accusing him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ At the same time he championed JMW Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites.

In this Introduction I want to argue that many of Ruskin’s ideas are worthy and still relevant today.

In his first essay, The Discovery and Application of Art, Ruskin considers how a society nurtures and encourages its young artists, how artists are employed and how works of art are distributed and displayed. I will bypass his main explorations and merely give a few examples of his general view of art and artists to see if they are still relevant today.

I will start with a quote which many may dismiss as encapsulating an archaic, obsolete view of art:

Now, no branch of art economy is more important than that of making the intellect at your disposal pure as well as powerful; so that it may always gather for you the sweetest and fairest things. The same quality of labour. . . will produce a lovely and useful work or a base and hurtful one. . . its chief and final value, to any nation, depends upon its being able to exalt and refine, as well as to please; and that the picture which most truly deserves the name of art-treasure is that which has been painted by a good man.

The notion that art is in any way morally uplifting has been cast into the dustbin of postmodernism. Yet the question of moral influence goes back to Plato and his somewhat draconian expulsion of poets from his Republic. Nearer to our own times, the Romantics championed moral purpose, Wordsworth even seeing moral instruction in nature.

Most of is will baulk at Ruskin’s reference to the morality of the artist – that art should be the product of a ‘good man.’ I will consider this point in a moment.

If we no longer expect artists to take the moral high ground, we are more comfortable with the notion of moral indignation in the service of social justice. The feminist and political stances of Kinda Kahlo and Kara Walker, respectively, are cases in point. Such artists go against the tide of postmodern rejection of moral commitment.

Now, is it possible to defend Ruskin’s view of the ‘morally good’ artist? It would seem, on the face of it, naive and idealistic. Artists such as Francis Bacon and Gauguin were not paragons of virtue but produced works of lasting quality. However, we could be generous to Ruskin, and interpret the idea of morality in broader terms of the artist being morally engaged, and, above all, being self-aware and committed to ‘self-overcoming’ – to use a phrase from Nietzsche.

William Blake comes immediately to mind in this respect. His whole oeuvre is the result of self-overcoming – in his words, ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ and seeing the sacred in everything. [‘Everything that lives is holy.] He demands in himself, as well as us, nothing less than a perceptual, spiritual and moral transformation. [If you wish to examine in detail his view of human potential I recommend studying his Illustrations of the Book of Job. When I say examine, I mean studying his engravings with a magnifying glass and reading a good commentary such as Joseph Wicksteed’s Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Probably you will only appreciate the depth of his vision if you are prepared to spend many hours, days and weeks on this work!]

Idealism in art and politics is seen as naive and is often contrasted with empiricism and practicality. However, if we are to avoid a climate-induced apocalypse we all need the imagination and moral commitment to leave behind our infantile greed, violence and rape of the planet. We need to put into practice the principles of non-violence [ Ahisma, meaning ‘not to injure.’] and cooperation, and become true stewards of the planet, nurturing eco-systems instead of denuding them. This will most likely see the abandonment of capitalism in its present form and the abandonment of the insane doctrine of run-away economic growth. What has this to do with art? Art has always been both a product of the times and questioned its own times. Need I say more?

Here, to end, is Ruskin’s eloquent denunciation of our destruction of cultural artefacts as a result of war and indifference:

Fancy what Europe would be now, if the delicate statues and temples of the Greeks – if the broad roads and the massy walls of the Romans. . . had not been ground to dust by mere human rage. You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm – we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish – ourselves who consume; we are the mildew, and the flame; and the soul of man is to its own work as the moth when it frets when it cannot fly, and as the hidden flame that blasts where it cannot illuminate. All these lost treasures of human intellect have been wholly destroyed by human industry of destruction; the marble would have stood its two thousand years; but we have ground it to powder, and mixed it with our own ashes.

In my next blog I will look in more detail at what Ruskin has to say about art education.

 

 

Boarding School Survival: Part 2

This third painting shows the ‘dark winds’ of karmic consequences in later life; the fire symbolises the anger and perhaps the redemptive power of self-awareness. Mortality is also an obvious theme, with the skull-like mask.

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The school I attended was burnt down many years after I left; perhaps a fitting end to the building. The seven years I spent at the school were not unmitigated hell though: I found some enjoyment in activities such as sport, art and walking in the Lake District. (Hence the mountains in the first two paintings.) However, I believe the seeds of my adult difficulties were planted and cultivated during these years. Along with other psychological wounds, I became institutionalised: of course, without knowing it at the time.

Ironically the school motto was, We Seek the Truth; this would become an unconscious mantra for the rest of my life. As an adult, I became quietly obsessed with finding a spiritual refuge, first joining a Gurdjieff Group in Bradford in the 1970s, attending Krishnamurti’s talks in the 1980s and many years later embracing Buddhism.

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The last picture shows the beginnings of release from suffering – among many interpretations here, even depression could be seen as a mask. ‘Buddha-nature’ is the intrinsic ‘goodness/perfection’ at the heart of all of us and that which Buddhism says cannot be harmed by circumstances. The burning school could be seen as ‘burning up the painful memories’ – once I acknowledge these painful feelings, in a spirit of deep acceptance – very difficult, as anyone who has experienced abuse will know – I can, hopefully, live without anger or resentment. It’s an ongoing process. (Meditation and living an ethical life are the two main supports of Buddhist practice. (Ethics here includes how we treat ourselves and others. Buddhist practice involves the transformation of hatred, greed and delusion into compassion, generosity and wisdom.)

Perhaps you could say that I wouldn’t have been so determined to find a spiritual path if I hadn’t been subject to the school heartache and trauma. I have had to ‘dig deep’ to find any sense in life and I believe I’ve put Carl Jung’s assertion into practice. His life’s work and psychology is based on recognising the shadow self; integrating and transforming it within the whole psyche. He wrote:

No tree grows towards heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.

Buddhism has a similar image; the lotus blossom whose roots reach down to the mud (symbolic of hatred, greed and delusion). After sufficient time, the flower opens in immaculacy above the water.

We are cautioned in Buddhist practice not to get stuck with ‘our story.’ We have to move on from the hurt and not see ourselves as victims. This is not always easy and I have found paradoxically that going over and over my past circumstances has enabled me to get it into perspective. Today, I can live in the present moment more often without the past intruding, and, as you may read in my other blogs, appreciate the simple things in life such as bird-song or walking in the countryside with friends.