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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Walt Disney, Big Brother & Fake News

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“Minnie Mouse” in Tokyo-Disneyland, Japan

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno see progress as a kind of trap in which we ensnare ourselves. Discuss these thinkers with others who also see progress as a trap.

If an alien landed on Earth today it would observe that the most dominant life form on the planet has appendages growing out of its ears and that one hand has morphed into a non-organic shiny oblong.

The majority of people who spend much of their waking hours using smart-phones do not consider that they may have been enmeshed in a technological trap all in the name of progress. On the contrary, they believe they are exercising considerable freedom and that they are engaging in quality communication, even if that communication is with a computer algorithm.

This paradoxical nature of modernity – that global, technological progress also results in a form of oppression; a kind of cultural own goal – can be witnessed in many areas of life. Recently, to take one example, Facebook has been indicted for allowing personal information to be available to third parties. Another example is the phenomenon of ‘fake news.’ We live in an information overload era when it is extremely difficult to sort the truth from half-truths and lies. Donald Trump is, of course, the expert manipulator of facts to fit his own agenda. In his world facts are no longer what can be verified by intellectual investigation; they are whatever he wants them to be- he’s just like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland. We may smile at his crassness but lots of people seem to believe what he says. The globalisation of mass media not only allows this but promotes such aberrations.

None of this is really new, however; George Orwell had his Newspeak, Ivan Illich had his Deschooling Society and Paulo Freire had his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They, along with Horkheimer and Adorno, critiqued modernity in terms of how we all participate in our own oppression.

In 1947 Adorno and Horkheimer published Dialectic of Enlightenment which opens with an indictment of the West:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of triumphant disaster.”

They wonder how Kant’s ‘dare to find out’ – with its call to defeat ignorance – can also produce a world where we become cogs in a ‘megamachine’ and where genocide and exploitation are rampant.

It is foolhardy to select a single cause for cultural tendencies but it is undeniable that since the Enlightenment science and rationalism have been the engines for progress and imagination, ethics, intuition and subjectivity have been sidelined. The destructive forces of technology were devastatingly demonstrated in two world wars. Would it be possible to develop nuclear bombs, for instance, if empathy for fellow human beings and ethical considerations were paramount? The scientific project has resulted in more and more specialisation; a by-product of this tendency has been a kind of existential emptiness; a fragmentation of the psyche. Some commentators have referred to this as the ‘disenchantment of the world.’

When Adorno went to live in the USA he was appalled by the materialism and consumerism he witnessed. He called Walt Disney ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ This comment reveals more than mere cultural snobbery. He was rebelling against the postmodernist agenda of moral relativism and the commodification of everything including human beings. The proliferation of multinationals in the entertainment industry as well as in manufacturing and retail are part of that mega-structure of domination.

Adorno wrote:

Everything has a value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself.”

This would seem to echo Marx’s critique but Adorno wasn’t interested in class struggle as such. He foresaw how, for example, the media world would become such a force of domination; he criticised the art world in terms of the art object becoming a fetish and market forces destroying the genuine aesthetic experience of the art object.

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was another key figure who described media-culture as consumed, “by an effect of self referentiality.”

He goes as far as to say much of the media world no longer refers to any reality outside itself. ‘Simulations’ have replaced ‘normal’ reality, rather like in the film, The Matrix. In The Evil Demon of Images he writes:

It is the reference principle of images which must be doubted, this strategy by means of which they always appear to refer to a real world, to real objects, and to reproduce something which is logically, and chronologically, anterior to themselves. None of this is true. . . images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction.”

Frederic Jameson (Born 1934) goes further in that he does not hide his disgust with the superficiality of mass media/culture. As an example, he contrast the painting of Peasant Shoes by Vincent Van Gogh with Diamond Dust Shoes by Andy Warhol. While Van Gogh’s painting is embedded in a real, social context, Warhol’s, in contrast, is of shoes not derived from an actual context; they are merely decorative like a glossy advertising image. The method of screen printing is impersonal and in Jameson’s view reflects the anonymity of cosmopolitan life. What Warhol sees as a celebratory reflection of pop culture Jameson sees as a debasement of art. His critique should not be seen only in terms of art criticism; his point is much broader; that we are in danger of being swamped by flashy images and hyperreality. He thinks it important to have a historical perspective, and that our image-obsessed culture ignores historical context and is overtly ephemeral.

Like Adorno, he sees the Americanisation of the world as problematic:

For when we talk about the spreading power and influence of globalization, aren’t we really referring to the spreading economic and military might of the US? […] Looming behind the anxieties expressed here is a new version of what used to be called imperialism.”[From Globalisation and Political Strategy, New Left Review (2000)]

What we see, with these thinkers, is a common denominator: impersonal forces are at work which result in our oppression in some form or other.

It is difficult to see how we can resist all of these forces of insidious control. Perhaps the recent examples of ‘people-power’ (for example in Catalonia or the protests in the UK against Trump) show that not all people are content to remain passive. On the other hand, climate change, populist movements of exclusion worldwide, genocide, human trafficking, population displacement and fake news suggest that perhaps we have reached a critical point in a downward spiral. Perhaps things need to reach a nadir before they can rise up in a new form which pays responsible heed to a fragile Earth and our fragile lives.

References: Postmodernism, Glen Ward, Teach Yourself Books, 1997.