Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John Ruskin the Appreciationist - who would wish the lark not to sing?

"We shall probably find something in the working of all minds which has an end and a power peculiar to itself, and which is deserving of free and full admiration, without any reference whatsoever to what has, in other fields, been accomplished by other modes of thought, and directions of aim. We shall, indeed, find a wider range and grasp in one man than another; but yet it will be our own fault if we do not discover something in the most limited range of mind which is different from, and in its way better than, anything presented to us by the more grasping intellect. We all know that the nightingale sings more nobly than the lark; but who, therefore, would wish the lark not to sing, or would deny that it had a character of its own, which bore a part among the melodies of creation no less essential than that of the more richly gifted bird?"

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. I, II.VI.III, pp. 438-9 of the 1851 edition.

Do we all actually agree that the nightingale sings more nobly than the lark? Never mind, not the point.

Ruskin gives us here a little Appreciationist manifesto. He is not the most obvious example of the type, since he is also a vicious slasher - "The mannerism of Canaletto is the most degraded that I know in the whole range of Art" - but that's part of the idea.

The good Appreciationist critic is not uncritical, but rather searching. What's good here, he asks, or true, or beautiful, or new. It won't be everything in a picture, or a book. Note the underlying humanism - there's something to learn from the encounter with almost anyone, or with almost any work of art, and if I don't find it, it's my own fault. This lets the artist off a little easy, doesn't it? But Ruskin is addressing the viewer here, not the artist.

There's still the question of how we spend our limited time. A diet of the World's Greatest Masterpieces would seem to give the highest return on our intellectual investment. Ruskin is suspicious of this idea, though. He is always looking carefully, at mediocrities as much as masterpieces (and at nature as well as art), and will praise a painting for a single well-painted rock or tree or wave.

I like to think that I read the same way. One great sentence, one new image, one real insight - maybe not much to show for the hours spent with a novel, but not nothing.

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