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.

 

 

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Extinction [No Longer]

no longer

[Part 1 – Items from a zoological survey discovered in a derelict Unesco library]

Darwin’s Frogs no longer leap in the shrinking wetlands of Chile

the Formosan Clouded Leopard no longer hunts in the mountains of Taiwan

the Sri Lankan Spiny Eel no longer swims in the rivers of Sri Lanka

the Eskimo Curlew no longer calls over the snowy grasslands of Greenland

the Santa Cruz Pupfish is extinct to be confirmed

the Western Black Rhinoceros no longer trundles across African plains

the Angel Shark no longer swims in the Black Sea latest data 2023

the Crescent Nail-Tailed Wallaby no longer lopes across the Australian Outback

the Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox no longer gorges on figs in the forest of Panay

Pallas’s Cormorant no longer fishes in the polluted rivers or toxic lakes of Russia

the Labrador Duck is extinct dead as a Dodo

the Javan Lapwing no longer flaps its wings in Indonesian skies

the Tahiti Sandpiper no longer plaintively pipes on the river banks of Tahiti

even our house sparrows are in the shit

[Part 2 – Gleanings from Professor Avaritia’s papers found in her desiccated garden shed]

there’s a sapient product of natural selection who

no longer harnesses wind-power or utilises solar energy

no longer holidays in the Bahamas or Thailand

no longer cultivates his own garden

no longer considers the categorical imperative

no longer gets the bullet train to work

no longer measures the rise in average temperature

no longer checks-in at the inter-city-airport Terminal

no longer rushes home to watch the World Cup

no longer develops a military capability second to none

no longer speculates as to whether she is a brain-in-a-vat

no longer does the school run before nine o’clock

no longer views the Holocaust exhibit of discarded shoes

no longer speculates whether the table still exists if there is no one to see it

no longer does the night shift on the maternity ward

no longer prepares ingenious explosive devices

no longer validates cogito ergo sum

no longer orders ‘seed potatoes’ early from a first-rate suppliers in London

no longer tackles the problem of social isolation among the elderly

no longer checks in at the local gym or does press ups before breakfast

no longer sets a moral compass in line with the Golden Rule

no longer scans next year’s seed catalogue for new variety perennials

no longer formulates any messages of reconciliation or peace

no longer takes the dog for a walk in the park

no longer asks if the ‘free-will defence’ is adequate to account for the problem of evil

no longer speculates what it is like to be a bat

no longer puts flowers on the family headstone

[Part 3 – Requiem]

no longer reproduces

no longer eats

no longer drinks

no longer sleeps

no longer laughs

no longer cries

no longer questions

no longer loves

no longer hates

no longer creates

no longer dreams

no longer breathes

Note: It is frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day [1]. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.

1. Centre For Biological Diversity

Bronowski’s Blake

bronowski book image

Some people & not a few Artists have asserted that the Painter of this Picture would not have done so well if he had been properly Encourag’d. Let those who think so, reflect on the State of Nations under Poverty & their incapability of Art; tho’ Art is Above Either, the Argument is better for Affluence than Poverty; & tho’ he would not have been a greater Artist, yet he would have produc’d Greater works of Art in proportion to his means.

In this quote from Blake he is talking of himself in the third person! However, it also brings to the fore the relationship of all artists to society and vice versa. How important are the Arts in society? How much value does the public attach to writers, artists and musicians in the UK for instance? Some commentators think of the English as philistines! The Irish in contrast are lovers of literature. How much can the state support and encourage the Arts is a perennial question. Be that as it may I leave the question open as I am simply ‘thinking aloud’ in this post and have not any particular thesis to advance!

What prompted me to post is that I have been reading Jacob Bronowski’s William Blake. When it was first published in 1944 it got the reputation of being a Marxist analysis. He puts Blake fairly and squarely in the industrial and economic conditions of his time. This is why I find it a revealing read. In my book I am focusing on Blake’s spiritual message and it is useful to have a historical counterpart. Bronowski wasn’t the first to highlight the social and economic conditions of Blake’s world, but perhaps he painted Blake as a man of his time much more than as a visionary poet/artist.

In the first chapter he states his aim:

The Life of Blake and his thought. . . are there in the history of the time; in the names of Pitt, of Paine, and of Napoleon; in the hopes of rationalists, and in the despair of craftsmen. Unless we know these, we shall not understand Blake’s poems, we shall not understand his thought, because we shall not speak his language.

And here, just one example, showing how property had become more important than human beings:

When Locke wrote in 1690 there were fewer than 50 hanging crimes. By the time Blake was a boy (1767) there were 150. Most of the new hanging crimes were crimes against wealth. Men were hanged for stealing a few shillings from a shop.

He does however, see Blake as a revolutionary thinker. The question of how much we can change society for the better and how much any change in society can change us as individuals is analysed in these nicely nuanced paragraphs:

There must be an end to wilful famine. Man must be set free, to make his good. But he must make his good, himself. It is not a grace given to him, even by revolutions. They can give him the means to be good. . . Revolutions can free him from self-interest. . . but they have not then remade man; they have freed him to remake himself.

For Blake, who knew that the French Revolution had made a better society, knew also that it had not made a good society. He did not believe that societies can be good. They can be means to good: as means they can be better or worse: they can be good for an end, and for a time; but, because they are means, they cannot be good in themselves. Blake did not shirk the contraries, from his society to a better society. He did not lack the fire raging against content, and raging to remake society. . .But Blake did not shirk the heavier knowledge, that a society remade will remain a society to be remade. The society remade will take on the same rigour of death, unless in turn it submits to progress through its new contrary. The contraries of thesis and antithesis do not end.

I have always been suspicious of political activists for this reason; they too often seek to change society before changing themselves. If we remain at the mercy of inner hatred, envy and greed how can we expect society to be free of these destructive elements? Krishnamurti almost made this point his battle-cry! And it is, clearly, the position of all spiritual traditions. My thesis, in my book, is also founded on this position. It is not a question of ignoring society or withdrawing from it. Blake was pretty much engaged in society most of his life although he had his moments of isolation and despair. The Buddhist position is that once a person no longer acts from selfish desires (hatred, greed and delusion) they will be in a better position to contribute to the common good.

Anyone interested in Blake will enjoy Bronowski’s book – those interested in social history especially so. He goes into much detail about working conditions, commerce and vested interests.

We no longer send children up chimneys, we no longer employ children in factories in the UK but I wonder, have we made all that much progress? How much ‘work’ is enhancing? Isn’t the majority of ‘work’ wage-slavery? I’m lucky because I am retired and can pursue interests which are life-enhancing. I try and do my bit to care for the environment such as re-cycling and being in Friends of the Earth. We now know that there has been a huge environmental price to pay for our consumer life-styles. Something has to change if we want a world fit for our children to live fulfilling lives in.

Voyager

voyager-1-ultimate-destination

I don’t pretend this amounts to much as poetry – more of a rant? But I needed to get it off my chest. I think it was Carl Sagan who referred to planet Earth as being a dust mote caught in a sunbeam. Voyager took this photo as it hurtled away from the solar system. The image was recently chosen by Sky at Night as one out of ten iconic/significant images taken by telescopes/cameras.

What came to mind was the insignificance of the Earth on the cosmic scale and comparing its relative physical size with our triumphs of the spirit and our depravities – which of course were not recorded on the gold disc in the Voyager space craft! So although it is unlikely that any intelligent aliens will ever come into contact with it they would get a rather sanitised picture of what we are like. Perhaps I tend to be pessimistic about humanity but on the other hand I think it is important to acknowledge the dark with the light. That’s just being realistic!

How can a dust mote caught in the solar wind

contain a nightingale’s song

or the awful trumpeting of the last elephant?

How can a dust mote caught in the solar wind

contain Michelangelo’s ceiling

or Bach’s Mass in B Minor?

How can a dust mote caught in the solar wind

contain so much incinerator smoke

or the bits and pieces of suicide bombers?

How can a dust mote caught in the solar wind

contain the nightmares of a million children

sleeping in the streets?

How can a dust mote caught in the solar wind

contain the lobster’s quadrille

or the Cheshire Cat’s Grin?

How can a dust mote caught in the solar wind

contain the watery dreams

of the last few cavorting dolphins?

How can a dust mote caught in the solar wind

contain Ivan Ilyich’s redemption

or weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in?

(Soon to disappear into deep space

carrying our triumphs but

leaving our depravities unrecorded.)

why is the world so beautiful

earthrise

a blue marble spinning in space
enveloped in a dirty thin skin
fish swim in 59th street
whales gasp on the shores
we’ve spoken an inanimate grammar too long
the plankton the trees the fish & the whales
feel lonely      so lonely

they long for our love

 

 

I wrote this after listening to a podcast given by Dr Robin Wall Kimmerer, an ecologist/evironmentalist working in the USA.

You can listen to the talk here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/robin-wall-kimmerer-the-intelligence-in-all-kinds-of-life/8446#.VtHGy05WVNI.twitter

PARIS SUMMIT – Is it too late?

london flooded

I thought I’d combine the seasonal trappings with the Paris Summit.

To be sung to the usual tune!

 

Fa la la la

We all know the sea is rising –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Polar ice is surely melting –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Keep on burning fossil fuels –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Turn our backs on clean renewals –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

No more polar bears on telly –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
It is raining so bring your brolly –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Bangladesh is sinking slowly –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
We forgot that life was holy –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

We are heading for extinction –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
All because of air pollution –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

The sky above is growing darker –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
The next to go will be Gibraltar –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Tis the season to be jolly –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
But let’s reflect upon our folly –
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

 

Fern owl fragments

When I visit friends in France one of the highlights is watching nightjars gliding mysteriously over the fields at dusk and in darkness. They are a bird of myth and one belief was that they sucked on the teats of goats!

Fern owl fragments

Fern owl moth gulper
dusk caperer
goat chaser
cryptically
hidden in heathland leaves

bird of dream
and myth
white wing tipped
silent ghost glancing

wobbly over canopy
like a balsa wood glider
at the end of your journey
from the heart of darkness

no mate this year
to answer your velvety churring
moths dying
heathland vanishing

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