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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David Hume

There is something heroic about David Hume single-mindedly batttling away to enquire into human knowledge and question the existence of God (in the eighteenth century). His theory of cause and effect is counter-intuitive and takes some reflection to really understand. As Jeremy Neil says, he doesn’t deny the ‘idea’ we all have that one thing causes another; he just points out that there is no sensory or empirical evidence to prove causation. This is typical philosophical thinking; it is thinking about thinking really and questioning appearances.

However, as my poem light-heartedly shows, I am a little sceptical about his scepticism! Blake named Bacon, John Locke and Newton as the Satanic Trinity and he didn’t think much of Hume either. He objected to their extreme scepticism and wrote a poem with these lines: If the sun and moon would doubt, they would immediately go out!

Apparently, Hume was even tempered and was also serene and uncomplaining on his death-bed.

*

David Hume’s Apple (not Newton’s)

 

It exists; he’ll not deny (one among five).

It’s even conjoined to two (at least) events:

One, seeing it; two, desiring it.

Hey presto; one minute it’s resting in a bowl,

the next it’s in my tum – (yum, that’s better!).

The principle of custom and habit can of course

explain the non-effect of my non-causal appetite,

the non-effect of my tongue moving up and back,

the non-effect of my epiglottis closing off my trachea,

the non-effect of salivation, juices flowing

(even the blending of non-causes and non-effects in the mind of God!)

and the non-effect of my non-swallowing oesophagus muscles

to deliver the ripe fruit into my stomach (secret powers?).

There’s a necessary connection (all in the mind?)

between my appetite, will, instinct, motion and gratification.

Can you stomach that? Bon appetite!

 

Achalanatha and the Spectre

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Achalanatha symbolises the determination required to stay still when we are subject to hatred, greed and delusion within ourselves. To acknowledge these three poisons, as they are called, is part of the battle; if we pretend they have nothing to do with us we could project onto others and so compound delusion and hatred. (This is what happens when people gang up against minorities or ‘aliens.’)

The flames are the three poisons and the sword is to cut through delusion. By meditating and trying to live preceptually (do no harm, watch what you say and do etc.) we gradually purify the poisons ( as fire purifies). This is a lifetime’s work!

In Blake’s ‘system’ the Spectre is that part of our psyche which is equivalent to the discriminative mind of Buddhism. It can be thought of as thef egocentric self; elsewhere Blake talks of Selfhood.  (The ‘ego’ in Eckhart Tolle’s books.) Foster Damon writes in his Blake Dictionary:

The Spectre is ruthless in getting its way, and cares nothing for the individual it obsesses; it will drive him into unhappiness, disaster and even suicide.

Eckhart Tolle calls it the ‘pain body’ when it suffers in extremis like this.

Many religious traditions talk of ‘renunciation’ and how neccesary it is to go beyond the egocentric self with its selfish desires. This is a huge topic and it is not possible to explore it here. (I’d recommend Ken Wilber’s work for an in depth exploration.) All I want to do here is make a connection between Buddhist thought and Blake – as this is the theme of my book. It is a necessary simplification as I am limiting my wordcount on this blog!

Here is Blake’s poem which shows the conceptual comparison.

Each man is in his Spectre’s power

Until the arrival of that hour

When his Humanity awake

And cast his Spectre into the Lake.

Note the important word, ‘awake’ – this is an injuction found in all spiritual works. How much Blake managed to awake from ‘spiritual slumber’ in his own life is not possible to ascertain.  It is said he ‘died singing’ – perhaps this suggests that he did put his own visionary ‘system’ into practice?

POSTSCRIPT

When I posted this I was unaware that an Achalanatha Festival was to be celebrated at Throssel Buddhist Abbey, my local monastery. A fortuitous email enabled me to go on Sunday 5 Feb. Here is part of a scripture we sang:

If any human being is prone to entertaining despair, beset by hopelessness/That peron should meditate on the ever vigilant One, – and thus learn to stay rooted in the present moment./The Eternal present is the realm of Achalanatha Bodhisattva;/He severs entaglement with the past and the future, – leading beings to realize the joy of sitting still withiin body and mind.

People are sometimes surprised by the amount of ceremonial there is in Soto Zen. The point of all this ceremonial is to allow us to get in touch with the reality that the Buddha realised and taught to his followers. The singing engenders a kind of joy (not always) and points to the true self in each of us. When I first went to Throssel this part of Zen appealed to me as much as the meditation. The words of course blend with the movement in the ceremonial and the music (which is mostly based on Western plainchant) To sum up: the ceremonies are carried out in the mind of meditation, they also have a devotional element to them.

 

Shushogi & Blake

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I am, as previously mentioned, writing a book about Blake and Buddhism, attempting to find correspondences between the two. The writings and teaching of Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) are studied by Soto Zen schools of Buddhism. His teaching is very forthright and sometimes challenging and puzzling because he writes in a metaphorical, non-literalist style and it comes from his deepest spiritual realisation.

Like Blake his writings are always fresh as if written yesterday; in other words the truths he writes about are timeless. I have, and continue to find, them helpful in my spiritual practice. Zazen (meditation) is the central practice of Soto Zen and is said to contain everything else. (Preceptual daily living, ceremony, study of teachings etc. etc.) The other feature in this tradition is the emphasis on training and enlightenment not being separate.

The following is a translation of part of Shushogi by Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett.

* * * *

The comparison I see with Blake is from his Proverbs of Hell. One line only!

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

Okay – as I’m in a generous mood, here is a quatrain:

But vain the sword & vain the bow,

They never can work war’s overthrow.

The Hermit’s prayer & the widow’s tear

Alone can free the world from fear.

* * * *

Shushogi – From What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment

Great Master Dogen.

The Four Wisdoms, charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, are the means we have of helping others and represent the Bodhisattva’s aspirations. Charity is the opposite of covetousness; we make offerings although we ourselves get nothing whatsoever. There is no need to be concerned about how small the gift may be so long as it brings True results for, even if it is only a single phrase or verse of teaching, it may be a seed to bring forth good fruit both now and hereafter.

Similarly, the offering of only one coin or a blade of grass can cause the arising of good, for the teaching itself is the True Treasure and the True Treasure is the very teaching: we must never desire any reward and we must always share everything we have with others. It is an act of charity to build a ferry or a bridge and all forms of industry are charity if they benefit others.

To behold all beings with the eye of compassion, and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness. If one would understand tenderness, one must speak to others whilst thinking that one loves all living things as if they were one’s own children. By praising those who exhibit virtue, and feeling sorry for those who do not, our enemies become our friends and they who are our friends have their friendship strengthened: this is all through the power of tenderness. Whenever one speaks kindly to another his face brightens and his heart is warmed; if a kind word be spoken in his absence the impression will be a deep one: tenderness can have a revolutionary impact upon the mind of man.

If one creates wise ways of helping beings, whether they be in high places or lowly stations, one exhibits benevolence: no reward was sought by those who rescued the helpless tortoise and the sick sparrow, these acts being utterly benevolent. The stupid believe that they will lose something if they give help to others, but this is completely untrue for benevolence helps everyone, including oneself, being a law of the universe.

If one can identify oneself with that which is not oneself, one can understand the true meaning of sympathy: take, for example, the fact that the Buddha appeared in the human world in the form of a human being; sympathy does not distinguish between oneself and others. There are times when the self is infinite and times when this is true of others: sympathy is as the sea in that it never refuses water from whatsoever source it may come; all waters may gather and form only one sea.

Oh you seekers of enlightenment, meditate deeply upon these teachings and do not make light of them: give respect and reverence to their merit which brings blessing to all living things; help all beings to cross over to the other shore.

Job’s Dark Night

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The story of Job is at first read puzzling for Christians and open-minded atheists alike. Why would God punish a man who lived an unblemished life? As is usual with Blake, things are never as simple as on first sight!

Lets dismiss all ideas of an anthropormorphic God to start with. In any case such depictions of God in Blake are always used as symbols (and personifications) of the state of mind of the interior person, in other words they are psychological and spiritual. Blake did not believe in a transcendent God, (which he called, Nobodaddy)!

Before looking at number 5 plate ( there are 21 altogether in Blake’s Job) how about thinking about contingency in present day life. How about the person – you may be that person – who suddenly gets a diagnosis of cancer? What if your husband leaves you for a younger woman? What if your son gets addicted to heroin? What if you spend a lonely Christmas day because of mental illness? I am not being over-dramatic I hope; all these scenarios happen to millions of us! This is what the Buddha calls, Dukkha. It’s life!

So, looked at in these terms Job isn’t getting punished; he is being brought up sharp against the facts of life afer living what he thought was a ‘good’ religious life. In fact, complacency and self-righteousness is his main ‘sin.’

The flying figure in the middle of the picture is Satan or Job’s corporeal self – the self who thinks being a good husband and father is all there is to life. Forget about your childhood exposure to horned devils – in Blake’s system Satan is (among other things) any thought or feeling which sparates you from  ‘Heaven’ – or in more worldly terms – peace of mind. Remember those moments in childhood when all was well with the world – don’t dismiss those moments as childish, they were a taste of reality. As Joseph Wicksteed writes in his commentary on Job, ‘. . in Blake’s system falsity of thought can turn any act however noble to his (satan’s) ends. If we think wrong we are wrong, for Mental things are alone real, and the devil can make a virtue as damning as a vice.’ How like the Buddhist system of the Eightfold path where right thought precedes appropriate action or the Dammapada where in the beginning it says; ‘ What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday. . . our life is the creation of our mind.’

In the picture Job is giving a loaf of bread to a beggar. Very altruistic you may think. But Blake is showing us that outward acts carried out self-righteously are missing the mark. None of Blake’s system is straightforward; especially in the Book of Job he is going way beyond our humanistic, materialistic understanding. All I can do here by isolating this one picture (which in itself is a disservice to Blake!) is to point to his profundity and suggest that his system is relevant to today.

The belief that in performing works of mercy in any shape whatever we are doing something meritorious poisons every act of humanity, making it a subtly selfish  attempt to save our souls in the name of love and religion; it is, after all, the worship of Satan in the belief that it is a tribute to God. Job’s thought makes him divide his meal indeed but not something of greater worth. ” (Joseph Wicksteed.)

Harsh words indeed and probably not what most people want to hear at Christmas time! And what of the gift ‘of greater worth’? Well you will have to study the Book of Job yourself (the peak experience is plate 18) if you want to find out!

Plate 5 is early on in Job’s story. To summarise what happens, he is inflicted with boils, loses his sons and daughters, his house and his reputation. Apart from the boils, does this remind you of anyone? It is a case of pride before the fall; Job loses all his material wealth and therefore has to ask, why? and ‘what is real?’ Rather like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich he looks back on his life and reviews it. He has to face his ‘dark night’ and salvage something of a different order to his previous material existence.

In plate 11 Job is completely alone; this is surely the bleakest point of his Dark Night of the Soul. It is a magnificent image and as Kathleen Raine says in Golgonooza – City of Imagination, ‘he is alone; as we are each alone in the darkest hour.’ Remember Satan is the self-centred ego and if we allow it dominance over our lives we will eventually end up ‘burned up’ and alone. Apparently Blake used to address his satan (remember; not the biblical devil!) as, ‘my Satan, thou art but a dunce!’ How like the advice we are given nowadays not to believe our inner self-talk.

All of Blake’s work can be applied to our self-inquiry and self-knowledge in this manner.

As I have already said, to see how Job is transformed you will have to investigate (I use the word deliberately) the Book of Job yourself. I have not said much about the incredible quality of the drawings in themselves; they are masterpieces of composition. Who can forget, once seen, the image of Behemoth and Leviathan – illustration 15?

The best way into Blake’s supremely relevant and visionary Book of Job is with the detailed dissection by Joseph Wicksteed in his Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Also Kathleen Raine’s book has a chapter which is brilliant.

St Chad’s Church, Bensham, Gateshead

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Canon dSLR 300D – windows taken without flash 1.60sec/f4.5/400ISO

Here are some architectural details from a church near where I live. St Chad (d 672) was a native of Northumberland and a pupil of St Aiden on Lindisfarne. In 664 he became Abbot of Lastingham in Yorkshire.

The church was built between 1900-1903 by a Newcastle architect William Searl Hicks. It is influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement in design. The windows in the Chapel of All Saints were designed by Caroline Townshend (d 1944) – I think it is unusual for William Blake to be so immortalised. Isaac Walton is to the left of the poet. If you click on the images you can see some of the detail, including Blake writing on a notepad!

The carvings are from the front porch entrance and are in good condition. The winged lion is symbolic of Mark, and the eagle of John among the evangelists. The church is presently having part of its roof re-slated and improved. Although it could never be said to be a beautiful building it is nevertheless a landmark in the area, as it is visible above the many Tyneside flats and other parts of Bensham.