Saturday, October 12, 2013

Every perfect and lovely spot which they can touch, they defile. - Ruskin asks, what is the use of beauty?

Modern Painters was seventeen years in the writing, and John Ruskin was only twenty-three years old when he began the book.  Of course he changed in the meantime.

Still, it is a surprise to read, almost at the end of the final volume, this reflection on the purpose of the book:

I have written it to show that Turner was the greatest landscape painter who ever lived; and this it has sufficiently accomplished.  What the final use may be to men, of landscape painting, or of any painting, or of natural beauty, I do not yet know.  (Vol. 5, Ch. 11, “The Hesperid Æglé”)

The sense, or possibility, of despair is perhaps more evident on the previous page:

Once I could speak joyfully about beautiful things, thinking to be understood;- now I cannot any more; for it seems to me that no one regards them.  Wherever I look or travel in England or abroad, I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty.  They seem to have no other desire or hope but to have large houses and to be able to move fast.  Every perfect and lovely spot which they can touch, they defile.

One reason to spend time with Ruskin – not at all my reason – is his relevance.  Among the concluding passages of Modern Painters are a number of social reforms.  Some of the rhetorically brilliant and argumentatively exasperating essays that would make up Unto This Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy (1862) were published in 1860, almost alongside Modern Painters V, and in the book of what is nominally art criticism the transition is evident.  From now on, Ruskin would be a social critic as much or more than an art critic.

I say, first, that due economy of labor will assign to each man the share which is right.  Let no technical labor be wasted on things useless or unpleasurable; and let all physical exertion, so far as possible, be utilized, and it will be found no man need ever work more than is good for him.  I believe an immense gain in the bodily health and happiness of the upper classes would follow on their steadily endeavoring, however clumsily, to make the physical exertion they now necessarily take in amusements, definitely serviceable.  It would be far better, for instance, that a gentleman should mow his own fields, than ride over other people’s.  (still in Vol. 5, Ch. 11)

This is just as an example, although I picked it first for its clarity, second for its distance from any argument about landscape painting, and third because it ends with Thomas Carlyle’s old hobbyhorse, scattered throughout The French Revolution and elsewhere, about the worthlessness of an upper class that devotes all its energy to hunting.  Any arguments with the vagueness of the terms is best taken up with the shorter, punchier Unto This Last.

Modern Painters is a defense not simply of Turner but of beauty.  By 1860, Ruskin had begun to fear that a defense of beauty through art was no defense at all.  In Volume 4, Ch. 8, Ruskin argues that rocks and more generally “the natural ordinances seem intended to teach us the great truths which are the basis of all political science,” but a few  years later he had concluded that the message of the rocks was not getting through.  Social and economic reform had to precede aesthetic reform.

I, by contrast, say aesthetic reform first.  One more post on Ruskin.  His defense of beauty is not so bad.


  1. Ruskin sounds like a curmudgeon here, which makes him alright in my book. Incredible how 150 years ago he was already criticising our modern materialistic society.

    I don't know if aesthetic reform can come first; especially because I think aesthetics follows social and economical changes. I offer as an example dada's nihilism and anarchism, which resulted from the pointless carnage of World War I and the betrayal of the promises made in the name of science and reason to lead us to a better world. Then again, Roger Fry opposes the view that art and society move in harmony and that one is the reflection of the other.

    More importantly, I wonder if artists would let aesthetics change; since the 20th century art has taken a turn to the ugly; ugliness is exalted, just look at the way the human figure is depicted nowadays, for instance in Bacon, when it's not completely absent in abstract painting. Craftsmanship has deliberately become crummy too: Pollock can get away with having a dead beetle glued beneath layers of ink in one of his canvas; some of the materials used in modern art are so ephemeral there's already a concern in conserving them lest they disappear in a lifetime. But if you say this needs to change and that we have to go back to craftsmanship and old techniques and old standards of beauty, I think the artists themselves will form the greater opposition. De Chirico revolutionized painting with his pittura metafisica, but when after WWI he defended a return to technique he was ridiculed and everything he painted from that point on ignored. It also doesn't help that one of the vocal supporters of a reform of beauty in arts was the last Pope, a man I hardly doubt any artist would want to take lessons from. Not to mention complaints about the degenerate modern art and the wholesome values of classic art do immediately bring to mind Nazism.

    Like Ruskin says, no one understands what we mean when we say beauty. But I don't think artists even care anymore; beauty may once have been the purpose of a painter like Michaelangelo (well, he said his true profession was sculpturing) when he frescoed the Sistine Chapel's vault; or of a Rubens, a Vermeer, a Turner certainly. But since the 20th century writers are less interested in beauty than in intellectual concepts - there's nothing beautiful about Duchamp's pissoir, it's just an intellectual gag played on critics; but this did pave the ground for modern art, where concepts and ideas take precedence over beauty and even talent. It's all about self-expression, subjectivity these days, and what that shows is that our modern painters don't have a very beautiful mental life; but it's not a beautiful world either. So I think first we change the world, then art changes itself.

  2. I have to point out that Pollock and Bacon are not artists "nowadays"; they died years ago. Craftsmanship, draftsmanship, and formal rigor are more popular now in the art world, as the pendulum swings anew. And I have to say that although de Chirico made much of his return to tradition, the paintings themselves were often muddy and clumsy. Have you seen his paintings of horses? Ouch!

    Ugliness is always subjective, of course; I find a lot of 19th century academic art uglier than the 20th century art done in reaction to it.

    1. What contemporary painters should I be looking at that then?

    2. I don't know that visual art works that way. You go look at whoever is in the galleries wherever you happen to be.

      I used to go to the Chicago Art Expo every year. I think a setting like that, with repeat visits, is a good way to get a good sense of at least a chunk of What Is Happening.

      Or keep up with a magazine like ARTnews? I don't know. But at some point you have to stand in front of the object itself.

    3. Well, here's some Paul Lincoln. You may not like his work, but you can't say it's slapdash or deliberately ugly. It's typical of the kind of obsessively crafted work many are doing nowadays.

    4. Almost cheating, that is. Christine Burgin is involved in publishing Robert Walser.

      The pranksters and pomo-ists like craft, too. Craft is central to the art of Jeff Koons, even though he does not actually make anything. Banksy is meticulous.

    5. Miguel, I have to make this short because I'm going to be on my way to work soon, but there's an art blog aggregator called Contemporary Art Blogs that might help if you're looking for a very quick online overview of some (I stress some) recent art. I have a suspicion that you're not going to like their taste, which leans toward installations and objects, but there it is:

      But it's true that you have to see the art in person. There's no way to know a Pollock (picking one of your examples) without standing in front of it.

      I'll see if I can come back later and say something else.

    6. No, that makes Christine a good example. She does many wonderful things.

    7. I hadn't forgotten that I said I'd say something but now that I've found a moment to say it I realise I have nothing to say. Maybe it's worth pointing out that beauty in Michelangelo or Turner comes through details that you could call hysterical and overwrought instead, if you were in a different mood: those "soapsuds and whitewash," then the flayed skin in The Last Judgment and David's oversized hands, or Christ's chunky mattress body and the strange little head that the artist has twisted to the side so that you can enjoy the cartilage at the end of his nose. There's always been ugliness in art. Classical craft (the stable triangle, the layering of oils, the slowness and deep gloss, the little glittering fleck that means lace) hasn't vanished into a vacuum, other ideas have pushed in, and those ideas are ideas, not nothings, not just carelessness; saying that they admit insects under the pigments doesn't discount them, and this loosening or expansion has allowed other things in that weren't called art before but now are -- which means a different kind of attention paid to them -- which I believe they deserve -- and even if critical yumble-mumble can be a coagulation and curse, at least a bark painting isn't put away in the back room and referred to as "primitive" any more.

    8. Please, stop by and say nothing whenever you like. Some nothing!

  3. Miguel, it was caldo verde night in my house in honor of your thoughtful, intemperate comment.

    Really, it was a coincidence, but why not also say it was in your honor? Who does it hurt?

    My impression, not as fact-based as it would have been when I lived in Chicago, is that Doug is right in saying that - well, this is me, not Doug - the fever has broken in the art world, even if the patient is not entirely healthy. The balance has shifted back towards - this will sound more negative than I mean it - painters who paint and sculptors who scuplt. Not "back to," mind, but "back towards."

    I do not know, exactly, but I do not think this is because of more good artists doing one thing or another, but rather a shift in interest and money. It is the money that keeps the art world on the sick list. But things seem more sane to me than during the crazy days of the art boom.

    I do not believe Pollock belongs on your list. He was in search of beauty or some close correlate. The Abstract Expressionists always had trouble saying what they were doing. Many abstract painters were reacting to figurative painting in the way Doug suggests. They wanted to remove all of those distracting, even ugly, subjects and people and things to get at the essential beauty of forms and colors and paint. I like to think Ruskin would have understand the logic of their path. Turner, after all, was not afraid of painting a scene in ways that came awfully close to abstraction.

    Ruskin argues that beauty is not the purpose of Michelangelo or Veronese or etc. but rather religious expression, which is itself beautiful when handled as they do and false or ugly in lesser hands.

    Ultimately, to address your last point, I believe the world and art are both continually changing in a complex process determined by the actions of billions, but here one may detect the bias (or, as I like to call it, training) of a social scientist.

    Thanks to Miguel and Doug for these thought-provoking comments.

    1. Ruskin argues that beauty is not the purpose of Michelangelo or Veronese or etc. but rather religious expression, which is itself beautiful when handled as they do and false or ugly in lesser hands.

      I find this notion quite extraordinary; is there a specific passage in the book where he addresses this 'religious expression?'

    2. Before I do too much on this, is the question about Michelangelo specifically? Because Ruskin actually rarely mentions him. Veronese, and a number of others, yes, specific passages.

      A more general Ruskinian argument is that you should assume the creators of great religious art meant what they were expressing. Maybe put that way the idea does not seem so strange.

      In Mont St-Michel and Chartes Henry Adams, a descendant of Ruskin, comes very close to saying that to understand medieval art you have to be Catholic. Sometimes I took him to mean imaginatively Catholic. Sometimes I was not so sure.

    3. Not specific to Michaelangelo, no, but what you say, that the purpose of art is to convey a religious experience.

    4. Ah, good, I can clarify that. The argument is that the purpose of religious art is to convey religious expression. Or that, turning it around, true religious feeling and belief is required to create great religious art.

      Actually, I will allow Ruskin to contradict me (and himself), from Vol 5, Ch 3:

      "The Assumption is a noble picture, because Titian believed in the Madonna. But he did not paint it to make any one else believe in her. He painted it because he enjoyed rich masses of red and blue, and faces flushed with sunlight."

      Ruskin calls this "recklessness," and attributes to it the fall of Venice. He really knew how to push an idea off a cliff.

      I wonder what Ruskin would have made of Hieronymus Bosch. Those are religious paintings, almost exclusively, altarpieces employed in real churches in real religious services. Genuine religious expression.

  4. I can't speak to the art history or the current state of art, but that second quote about destroying beauty continues to be quite true. I don't trust, given the opportunity, that today we would set aside such places like Yellowstone or Yosemite. If given the chance Old Faithful would be surrounded by expensive condos and there would be a restaurant on top of of Half Dome. I can see from what you've said how Ruskin could be deeply hurt by such destruction and why it would move him toward social reform. I don't think aesthetics and social reform are mutually exclusive undertakings. I think they are both needed in a continual interchange to be effective; beauty to inspire reform and reform to inspire beauty.

  5. You remind me that I know nothing about the conservation movement in England or Europe. Who was the English John Muir? Ruskin in fact was quite successful as part of the intellectual foundation of the building preservation movement, but I have no idea what influence he had on conservationists. Seems like it should be substantial, but I don't know.

    A restaurant atop Half Dome - so the Swiss and Austrian model. The restaurant would serve hot chocolate and strudel.