The Critic as Philosopher: Ruskin's Polemic for the Common Man

Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares by Yevgeny Vuchetich, donated to the United Nations by the Soviet Union in 1959. Photo taken by Pharos from UN grounds showing sculpture in front of the East River, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.

On Art and LifeOn Art and Life by John Ruskin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book consists of two sections, "The Nature of Gothic" from Vol. 2 of The Stones of Venice (1853), and "The Work of Iron", originally given as a lecture at Tunbridge Wells, and later published in The Two Paths (1859). I learnt of the importance of Ruskin's influence only recently when watching the movie Mr Turner (2014), starring one of my favourite actors, Timothy Spall, in the lead role. Ruskin was a supporter of the work of J.M.W. Turner and apparently played a role in elevating landscape painting as a major genre. I enjoy Turner's work immensely, and this encouraged me to read some of Ruskin's work. I have not been disappointed and I have discovered other works that I intend to read, which coincide with a particular publisher's series. I find the Dover Thrift Editions of great works easy to read in terms of size of print and page, and Dover also has a series on architecture (I have read the work of Le Corbusier from this series). Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture is presented in the Dover series, so this will be a welcome addition to my library. I find architecture fascinating, and while I recently designed and built my own chook pen, I stand in awe of the great architectural and engineering miracles we use every day, often without giving a thought for the magnificence of the outcome of thought and practice. There is something about architecture that stirs the soul. I am reminded of Lord Kenneth Clark's 1960s book and BBC TV series, Civilisation, where Clark tells the audience that his personal view of the history of civilisation focuses on art and architecture, and he does not care whether others should think him a fuddy-duddy or not. I went off in search of the precise words, and was struck that Clark's first words are Ruskin's! "Ruskin said":
Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.
The introductory episode is available on YouTube at the moment:

However, in this book, Ruskin first focuses on the nature of Gothic architecture, and presents an interesting view of workmanship and the worker: if one wants a consistent product, much like a machine would produce, then the man becomes a tool - if one wants a creative man, then the outcome will be inconsistent, but of a finer nature. As the subtitle reads:
You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.
Ruskin uses the example of Venetian glass and its artisanal qualities compared with the precisely uniform production glass of his time. I am pleased to learn that my own thoughts on the standardisation of education echo Ruskin's. Ruskin's idea of truth is:
...that great art, whether expressing itself in words, colours, or stones, does not say the same thing over and over again... Yet... this is... only hidden from us... by false teaching. Nothing is a great work of art, for the production of which rules or models can be given.
I have the same argument against marking rubrics for essays - if it were possible to produce a perfect marking rubric, there would be no need to teach essay writing; yet marking rubrics are somehow seen as "fairer"! More likely, as Lord Kenneth Clark said, the ancient civilisations ended because they were "exhausted". And the next time I hear someone mention coining a phrase like "change fatigue", my scepticism will know no bounds! Ruskin (p. 36) basically outlines all we need to know about change, and more eloquently than any recent airport-read management guru book. The trouble with reading classic texts is one realises how much written today is a rip-off of the past, but presents itself as something new, without a hint of an acknowledgement. And this is not because it is plagiarised, but that the contemporary author has simply not done her or his homework, and has independently thought up something that had already been thought before. Imagine how much further we might advance if we did not have to reinvent the wheel every time we began to apply our thought-forces to a problem? Hence the literature review. But what if one could be original. Being original is more difficult than one might think. In the second section of the book, Ruskin discusses the importance of iron in its many forms. Here I learn more about geography, and the chalybeate spring (a natural mineral spring containing iron salts) at Tunbridge Wells, and the importance of this site to so many great artists. Ruskin was addressing a general audience and arriving at turning "swords into ploughshares" (Isaiah 2:4) from a mineral spring is a fascinating journey that is captivating, if a little bewildering, as if caught up in some 1960s psychological experiment. There are several messages in this book. But most prominent is the belief that forcing labourers to work as machines, in order to reduce the price of goods, is STEALING (capitalised in the original) from the workers. (Ruskin believed that "the architect [should] work in the mason's yard with his men", p. 25) Moreover, love of order (or the standardisation aesthetic, as I would call it) is useful in "practical matters":
...but love of order has no more to do with our right enjoyment of architecture or painting, than love of punctuality with the appreciation of an opera.
I daresay that Ruskin, if he were writing today, would be regarded as "discursive". But I like his style. There is so much that underpins his work, a depth of reading that is obvious, yet creates the scaffolding for his originality; political, yet not radical; radical, yet not revolutionary; revolutionary, yet not wanting to overthrow the status quo; accepting of change, or more importantly for my own thinking, of the punctuated equilibrium of living and civilisation, but all moving toward an end where men (sic) no longer wage war, having learnt to live peacefully (much like the literal truth-speaking "long-livers" in George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah). I must admit that the portrayal of John Ruskin in Mr Turner corrupted my imagination, and I pictured a lisping flatterer who was socially-tolerated, yet privately thought a fop. But now having read Ruskin "in the flesh", I am inspired, and, in addition to finding another guide to so many things I enjoy (landscape painting, Clark's Civilisation, Turner's art, etc), I have developed a new appreciation for the role of the critic.