Monday, March 17, 2014

John Ruskin in Italy

There is no wealth but life.

--John Ruskin

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was an English art critic and social theorist who wrote many long books that molder unread on library shelves, and numerous poems that are even less read then his books. He lingers as a name we can put to a movement that swept across Britain in the middle decades of he nineteenth century; as an attitude we recognize in many artists and aesthetes of his time and ours; as a cry, amidst machinery, mass politics, and mass culture, for something authentic, individual, and pure. And for me he lingers in these marvelous drawings and watercolors, especially the ones he made in his many trips to Italy.

Ruskin was one of those people for whom the world is seamless tapestry, all things running into each other. For him, if the air was foul and industrial workers labored in bleak conditions, then our art must be ugly and our politics corrupt, and it all must go back to our failed relationship with God. He worked to reform everything at once. He wanted, as historian George Landow put it, "to grant the individual workman the position, independence, and pleasures of the Romantic artist." Only then would the degradation seeping from factories and mills cease to corrupt society; only then could we have good government; only then could our art reclaim the glory that Ruskin found in Gothic churches and palaces. These ideas had a huge influence across Europe but especially in Britain; one journalist who polled Labor members of Parliament in the 1920s found that many more cited Ruskin as an influence than Marx.

Ruskin thought that a great artist would abolish his pride and subsume himself in his work, not celebrate his own ego. He found this false fork in the Renaissance; to him, medieval artists had celebrated God in their work, while Michelangelo and Raphael had celebrated themselves. Thus some of his artist friends christened themselves the Pre-Raphaelites, aiming to get back to the art made before worship of the human ego interfered with our worship of God and his creation.

Ruskin neared despair when he pondered how the engines of progress were destroying the beauty of the past. He wrote:
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.
Ruskin first traveled to Europe as a child with his parents. He loved best the Alps and the city of Venice. He eventually wrote three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1853) exploring the beauty of the city and its relationship to the rise and fall of the Republic. Ruskin believed that Venice prospered while its people had a proper, Gothic relationship with God and declined after they embraced Renaissance egoism.

I am fascinated by the sort of connections Ruskin saw everywhere, but I confess that sometimes I don't really believe in them. Did tie-dyed shirts and macrame plant hangers express something important about the 60s, or were they just fads? What was it about Victorian Britain made people love the Neogothic architecture Ruskin championed? I can't make the connection.

But like Ruskin I love beautiful old things and mourn when they are destroyed to make way for "progress." Like him him I celebrate the work of skilled hands and wonder if we could be happy in a machine-made world. Like him, I feel the glory of creation most fully in art that celebrates creation and the creator, and am left cold by celebrations of the self.

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