Thursday, October 13, 2011

Their feelings pleasantly stirred and their fancy gayly occupied - Ruskin's suspicion of enjoyment - Is it so?

There is the certain test of goodness and badness, which I am always striving to get people to use.  As long as they are satisfied if they find their feelings pleasantly stirred and their fancy gayly occupied, so long there is for them no good, no bad.

I am still in Chapter X, “The Use of Pictures,” of the third volume of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1856), an idea-packed masterpiece of rhetorical prose.  Many of the ideas are wrong, or, provocative.  For example, it is clear enough that for many consumers of art a pleasantly stirred fancy is the exact definition of good, the more pleasure the better.

Anything may please, or anything displease, them; and their entire manner of thought and talking about art is mockery, and all their judgments are laborious injustices.

I am just continuing the quotation here.  The end, Ruskin’s “certain test,” will not be satisfying, I promise.  “Injustice” seems awfully strong, no?  I enormously enjoy seeing Ruskin work himself up to this high pitch.  Pleasure-based judgment of art has its narrow use, the equivalent of matching my tastes against a blogger’s star ratings.  I discover with experience that I enjoy any 4 or 5 star book rated by my favorite book blogger, BookGullet, while I consistently enjoy only the 5 star books chosen by BookGrump, and I never get along with even the 5 star books of BookGoon.  I am comparing my arbitrary matrix of tastes against everyone else’s and using the results of the algorithm to read bloggers and their recommended books.

So, not an injustice, or even a mockery, but for the reader who arbitrarily values knowledge as much or more than experience (myself, John Ruskin), frustrating.  I learn a lot about the taste of readers when I wander around book blogs, but not so much about the literature they read.

But let them, in the teeth of their pleasure or displeasure, simply put the calm question, -- Is it so?  Is that the way a stone is shaped, the way a cloud is wreathed, the way a leaf is veined? and they are safe.  They will do no more injustice to themselves nor to other men; they will learn to whose guidance they may trust their imagination, and from whom they must forever withhold its reins.

“Simply” – oh please!  In Chapter VIII of the same book, Ruskin compares two carved griffins, and preposterously, convincingly demonstrates how one is so, and one is not so – “the Lombard workman did really see a griffin in his imagination, and carved it from the life.”  So the “so,” the Truth of a work of art, even of a drawing of a leaf, is an imaginative truth.

The Woman in White is a mystery and a thriller, and Collins’ skill with pacing and tension must still be a model for suspense writers.  It is an easy book to enjoy, even if it is often a silly book.  Is it so?  Obviously not, except that, at its best, it is.  Collins really did see it, and wrote it from life.

There's a thread to follow tomorrow.


  1. Ruskin's "is it so?" isn't really so simplistic in context, is it? After all, Picasso's conception of a woman's face or head would be much different from a Renaissance artist's without being more or less "so" to the connoisseur and yet it would be greatly differently "so" to the non-connoisseur. As for your comment "I learn a lot about the taste of readers when I wander around book blogs, but not so much about the literature they read," I don't find that a big problem myself. I might have less exacting standards than you in this regard, but oftentimes a blogger's writing or personal reaction to a book is just as entertaining or enriching to me in some way even if they're not dissecting the work like a Ruskin. The larger problem for me is that there are too many BookGoons and not enough BookGullets, but that's a whole other story.

  2. Ruskin's question is complex enough that it just takes us in a circle, although it should move a reader or critic closer to fundamental principles, whatever those might be. The Picasso example is good - Ruskin uses Turner to make a similar argument. The great artist makes us see things "so" even if we could not see it before.

    That personal reaction is clearly exactly what many readers find missing from professional criticism, what amateur book blogging supplies.

    I am not discounting or even mocking, really, the "recommendation" side of book blogging. But the fact is that I do not care if BookGoon's recommendations are useful to me. I am interested in the books he is reading, even - maybe especially - if they are spy novels or romances or other books I would not read myself. I would like to know more about his thinking, about how to read those books, though, not about his tastes.

  3. This post was tickling at the back of my mind tonight as I watched a modern dance performance (Vertigo's Mana: Vessel of Light). I believe the tickle had to do with Ruskin's implication that an artist working in paint or sculpture is reflecting (or imaginatively creating?) some version of reality, where the reality of the thing created is the "so" ness we're supposed to evaluate. I wonder if there's a difference between that and performance or other types of art which aren't necessarily representational in the same way? Is a dance performance, especially a non-narrative, modern dance performance, de facto "so" by virtue of the fact that a bunch of people are undeniably performing a set of movements in front of you? Or is there still a so-ness that lives in the full realization of the choreographer's artistic vision? Or, third possibility, does the so-ness live in the abstracted but still present human dynamics among the different choreographed roles?

    In painting, maybe abstract expressionism would raise a similar question. A Jackson Pollock or a Mark Rothko is only "so" by virtue of its existence; even more than a Turner or a Picasso, it's non-representational.

  4. The Abstract Expressionists are good examples. They insisted that their paintings had meaning, even if it could only be articulated in paint, that they were not just formalist gestures, color studies or what have you.

    I think all of your questions or possibilities are true, basically. Ruskin is aware of the issue, with music being the usual example:

    "We are to remember, in the first place, that the arrangement of colours and lines is an art analogous to the composition of music, and entirely independent of the representation of facts." from Stones of Venice II

    Architecture has many abstract elements, and Ruskin is sensitive to their meaning.