Ruskin & the Moral View of Art



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.




Aristotle, Art & Anguish


Aristotle’s Four Causes.

Aristotle’s four causes are a way of accounting for the existence of anything in the world. We can ask of anything, how did it come to exist? His scheme can best be understood by describing a concrete example.

This is a painting I did a few months ago. It depicts a traumatic experience from my teenage years. It is almost platitudinous to regard creativity as cathartic nowadays. The profession of art therapy is based on such a premise. Let us see if this applies to this object and also if Aristotle’s four causes can account for its existence.

1. Material Cause

This addresses the question, ‘What is the object made of?’

Hardboard, white primer and acrylic paint mixed with water and applied with brushes and cardboard. I also used a penknife to scrape paint off the hardboard once it had dried.

2. Formal Cause

This answers the question, ‘What gives the material its form?’

An artist gives a work a certain form. The painting was based on sketches which experimented with various compositions. The techniques used were the result of many years’ practice and choices were made about colour, shape and so on. I scratched out the dried paint in sections of the picture. Most paintings can conventionally be described as colour, shape and line on some sort of ‘ground’ – hardboard in my case which was cut to a specific size.

3. Efficient Cause

The reason for the object existing.

I started with an idea and memory of a teenage experience. I also had Edvard Munch’s Scream to study. I did not want to appropriate it, or imitate it, but the underlying feelings of anxiety and terror were something I empathised with. The formal composition was my own although I was influenced by Munch’s other pictures where he has a head and shoulders in the foreground.

4. Final Cause

This deals with the ultimate purpose for the object’s existence.

The final cause brings up many associated ideas, some to do with the purpose of art. Does art such as this have to have an audience or could it serve a purpose limited to the artist? Does the picture represent anything in the ‘real world’? Does the ‘real world’ include mental states only experienced by the artist? Are viewers of art able to empathise with emotions which may not be immediately congenial?

My initial motivation was to explore the past, especially the painful aspects of adolescence. I did not know how the painting would turn out before I was well on with it. The interesting thing about creativity is that it is partially conscious and partially subconscious. If you over-plan a painting you will curtail the imaginative aspects of it. Not only did the formal aspects change during the process of painting but the purpose to which I put the painting also changed. Only as I started another similar-themed painting did I realise that I could do a series of four and the last one could be an epiphany. The set of four could even be seen to illustrate the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Once I’d finished all four I realised there was a website I could submit them to. This final decision shows I wanted an audience for the work. I hoped that viewers could identify with the feelings portrayed. Did I cause it to exist because I wanted to make money? No, but someone else may paint for this reason! Was the process of painting cathartic? Yes, insofar as that to objectify painful feelings is cathartic in itself, as testified by psychotherapy.

Aristotle’s four causes are sound and can be used to explain the existence of most things. The final cause explores abstract notions such as human aspiration, poetry, ethics and ontology. The material cause is more factual and is of interest to art historians, for example, when they want to analyse a painting’s medium or date it accurately.

Aristotle’s View of Art as Imitation

Aristotle’s view of art – admittedly mainly poetry and drama – that it imitates life is set out in his Poetics. Here, for example from chapter V (1)

To imitate is instinctive in man from his infancy. . . All men naturally receive pleasure from imitation. , . .Hence the pleasure they receive from a picture: in viewing it they learn, they infer, they discover what every object is; that this, for example, is an individual man etc.

Of course, Aristotle did not live to see the likes of Edvard Munch (and, anyway, I may be doing him an injustice in selecting this one quote) but it is clear that art-as-imitation is an extreme simplification of what art is about. In my picture there is no physical object in the physical world (apart from in my painting) which looks like the figure, nor is there a two dimensional oblong, unless someone were to trace over my ‘building’ and cut it out, saying, ‘look it does exist in the real world.’ (But then, aren’t they just copying my ‘representation’?) Perhaps the ‘house-object’ and the figure are re-presentations of real three-dimensional objects in the real world? However we regard the painting, the stubborn fact of its existence is that it is a two-dimensional object – causes 1 &2 in Aristotle’s scheme. Is the painting, then, more about communicating feelings? If so, how can patches of pigment adhering to hardboard convey feelings?

We can examine the nuances of this conundrum by quoting from a seminal book about the purpose of art titled, Art and Its Objects by Richard Wollheim:

In the Pitti there is a canvas (of Donna Velata) 85cm x 64cm; in the Museao Nazionale, Florence there is a piece of marble 209cm high. It is with these physical objects that those who claim that the Donna Velata and the St George are physical objects would naturally identify them. . . It can be argued that the work of art has properties incompatible with certain properties that the physical object has; alternatively it can be argued that the work of art has properties which no physical object could have: in neither case could the work of art be the physical object.

We say of the St George that it moves with life. Yet the block of marble is inanimate. Therefore the St George cannot be the block of marble.

Similarly with my painting; someone might say it makes them feel anxious yet the physical object is only pigment and hardboard. The crux of the argument comes down to the painting ‘representing’ something within a convention of aesthetics. The convention of painting is thousands of years old and we accept that the object of art can convey complex truths about the human condition. Today we are over-exposed to imagery and perhaps underestimate its power to move us. (Probably the first cave-paintings were regarded as pure magic!) My own interpretation of the painting will include concrete, subjective details no viewer could possibly have; they are to do with the narrative of my teenage years.

A viewer, however will bring their own experience to bear when looking at the painting. Is the work of art then really a symbiotic collaboration between the physical object and the consciousness of the viewer? In this notion, the viewer brings an active mind to the interpretation of the painting. Hopefully, the colour, contorted lines and subject matter of the painting can convey layered meanings – art is not like mathematics; there is never a cut and dried single meaning. And, also, the experience of looking is more akin to living a life; it is a moment-to- moment experience, and should be an active, imaginative process. People sometimes burst into tears when watching a film or reading a moving poem; this is one response any artist would appreciate from his/her audience. (Of course, we can also be moved to joy, or even laughter, when engaging with art.)

Note: Expressionism is defined as – “a deliberate abandonment of the naturalism implicit in Impressionism in favour of a simplification which should carry far greater emotional impact.” An expressionistic style is able to convey feelings, memories and dreams better than a naturalistic approach or style. It is, therefore, supremely able to suggest inner-worlds and states of consciousness such as joy, shame, sorrow, anxiety and modern alienation.

Virginia Woolf Versus Sigmund Freud


Another essay for my MOOC course on Modernism. The title is: Freud wrote that art was a ‘palliative measure’ that helped people cope with suffering. Discuss his view and how it compares with the views of art and aesthetics of Virginia Woolf.

Sigmund Freud’s and Virginia Woolf’s views about art are diametrically opposed. Freud views art as ‘escapism’ or ‘sublimation’ whereas Woolf sees art as a means of shedding light on the human condition. If we go to see a production of Hamlet, we don’t feel we have been merely entertained; we feel that the play has delved beneath the surface of experience and revealed complex truths about life. Yet, Freud would not elevate the experience in this way. He relegates art to being a soporific prophylactic; a mere diversion from suffering. His psychoanalytical ‘science’ alone is the means by which truth is revealed.

Freud had read Darwin and he, therefore, positioned human beings alongside the rest of the animal kingdom in primarily seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In Civilisation and its Discontents he explicitly writes that art is a sublimation of the libido:

Another method of guarding against pain is by using the libido-displacements. . . This kind of satisfaction, such as the artist’s joy in creation in embodying his fantasies. . . has a special quality which one day we shall be able to define.

He sees the artist as expressing feelings in the form of fantasies and the recipient (viewer, reader, listener) merely tunes into those same fantasies! As consumers of art he says this:

Those who are sensitive to the influence of art do not know how to rate it high enough as a source of happiness and consolation in life. Yet art affects us but as a mild narcotic and can provide no more than a temporary refuge for us from the hardships of life; its influence is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.

We may concur with the very last phrase but the overall tone is reductionist. This devaluation of art has a long history (Plato banned poets from his Republic!) and can be noted today in various examples of ‘escapism’ – listening to background music, reading detective novels, watching ‘reality television’ and soap operas. Even ‘serious art’ is often regarded as ‘the icing on the cake’ – not to be compared to the pioneering advances in science and technology.

It is not that Freud dismisses art; he just takes a biographical, psychotherapeutic approach to artistic creations. Hence, he analyses Shakespeare and Leonardo in terms of neuroses and defence mechanisms. He admires Dostoevsky but has nothing to say about landscape or abstract art. He is seemingly indifferent to the value or quality of the art-as-object itself. He does, however, see the compensatory value of art as positive as it acts as a safety valve for unconscious desires which otherwise would be expressed in violence or other anti-social acts. (Is this view tenable today?)

Where one can agree with Freud is in his view of the palliative effect of appreciating art – an engagement with art provides considerable pleasure – Schopenhauer even went so far as to say art was the only thing which mitigated against the misery of life! Unfortunately, Freud allowed his psychoanalytical work to obscure the many other attributes of art; there is a whole philosophy of aesthetics which would have left Freud floundering had he been exposed to a fraction of these ideas. (see, for example, Aesthetics by Colin Lyas.)

In To the Lighthouse, Lily would seem to portray Woolf’s position regarding art. Throughout the novel, she is intent on finishing her painting and at the very end of the novel she ‘draws a line there.’ in a moment of intensity and says, ‘It was done; it was finished. . . I have had my vision.’

It is a small epiphany and parallels Woolf’s completion of her novel. Earlier, Lily shows she is aware of the difficulties of authentic expression in art, talking of the imagination:

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on. . . let it come, she thought, if it will come.

Yet, she also seems to have done what William Blake did; see the world anew, if not in each moment, occasionally:

One wanted to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.

Visual artists are practised in seeing the world in this way; they notice subtle tones of colour and textures. They use their eyes with great intention and deliberation. Lily at one point is ‘screwing up her eyes and standing back as if to look at her picture, which she was not touching.’ Woolf’s writing is quite visual; there are the descriptions of close up details and of far distant views. This switching of viewpoint is a method of portraying the complexity of life. Lily muses: ‘So much depends on distance; whether people are near us or far from us.’ And James says about the lighthouse when it looks different from a previous view, ‘For nothing was simply one thing. The other was the Lighthouse too.’

Woolf, along with many artists, sees the creative process as mysterious:

[…] here I am sitting, crammed with ideas, and visions, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now, this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it [. .]

R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) argued that making art comes before having concrete ideas or feelings. In this view, making art is an exploration and the artist does not know in advance what the outcome will be. The motivation is not the discharge of a neurosis; it is an attempt to make a representation of experience; to say something about the human condition and society. The means of saying this is as important as the content.

Woolf uses the ‘stream of consciousness’ to suggest the transitory, the numinous and a spiritual dimension to life. Freud dismisses religious experience as infantile and has a reductionist agenda regarding all spiritual experience. In contrast, Virginia Woolf sees her task as ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ (in William Blake’s words) so that everything might appear infinite. Hers is an expansive vision; Freud’s is claustrophobic.

Additional References:

R. G. Collingwood, Quoted in Art Theory; A Very Short Introduction, Cynthia Freeland, Oxford University Press, 2001

Colin Lyas, Aesthetics, Routledge, 1997.