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Ruskin On The Nature Art

( Originally Published 1920 )


REAL AND FALSE ART. To be quite formal and systematic we ought to ask, before proceeding to further inquiries, this question: "Is Art a real thing, worth serious consideration? or only a chimaera, a delusion? Does it exist?" For it is no use examining the nature, end, or use of anything, unless we are sure that our terms are not mere empty and idle words; and especially in the case of Art this is worth while, because to many people painting and sculpture are vanities, about which it matters very little what is thought or what is done. Even to some who sincerely delight in them, they are very subordinate to what they call the serious business of life; they do not for a moment rank with grave subjects of thought, such as science or politics, morality, or religion. But if Art really exists as a vital fact of the universe and an important element in human life, if it grows and flourishes and decays like any other great human institution, it has an actual influence on mankind, or serves as an index and exponent of progress and civilization ; then the study of Art must be really valuable, if not indispensable.

Mr. Ruskin everywhere assumes that this is the case. But he distinguishes, throughout his writings, between this Real Art and some-thing that pretends to rank with it, but is merely an imitation. For instance, he mentions the forms of what is not Art, but inartistic production, that exist among us: and speaking of the painters of the day he says that modern life is so broken up and imitative that some-times you not only cannot tell what a man is, but whether he is;--a spirit, or an echo. That is to say, much that passes for Art is a mockery, a superficial imitation of the real thing, presenting no true reality to study, no universal laws of life to expound; it is derivative, and content with cold reproductions of common types; it aims at no sincere and honest original effort. And the persons who produce these derivative works, however ingenious and clever, are not real artists, but manufacturers of pictures or carvings. Strictly speaking, he says, what people call inferior painters are in general no painters.

Whenever he uses the word Art, therefore, he understands Real Art as distinguished from the mockeries of it that distort its reality as in a mirage; Real Art possessing and exhibiting a certain vital power, which, like any other form of life, is subject to law and is material for scientific inquiry. Its possession of vitality is shown by its history, by the rise and decay of schools, and by their correspondence with contemporary phases of national life; and shown further by its influence on men, its real help or hindrance to them as giving right pleasure and true instruction, or the reverse. He does not mean that Art is real only when it is moral and didactic, nor does he refuse to consider any in which he detects an evil tendency, an influence producing or indicating low civilization and base morals. Such may be only too real; though he is never, weary, as every reader knows, of demonstrating the catastrophe wrought or indicated by it. With Mr. Ruskin both Science and Art are looked upon as valuable in proportion to the nobility of their subject-matter; so that there is Real Art which is bad, just as Real Science may be used for bad ends-as the compounding of poisons. But Science is false or sham when it proceeds upon unfounded assumptions and treats of non-existent materials; when its conclusions are false, not true; and Art is sham when it is false and futile, representing forms which the artist has neither seen nor ever dreamed, or professing to translate emotions which the artist has never felt. Parallel with the pseudo-sciences there is Sham Art-a parasite of the vital growth, a shadow of the substance; and it is the too frequent presence of this Sham that makes some people doubt the existence of the Real, and others doubt the validity of an inquiry into its nature and laws.

APHORISTIC DEFIFIITIONS.-It is not entirely a gain that Mr. Ruskin is so skilled in epigram and aphorism. Readers sometimes carry away a phrase from his writings which, when the context is forgotten, misleads them; for though right in one connection, it may be wrong in another. And from the mere fact that his aphoristic definitions of Art are so various, being given with the purpose of fixing a certain limited idea, it seems sometimes that they are insufficient and inharmonious. But his chief concern is generally to mark off Real Art from Sham; for instance, when he says: Art is a language expressing ideas, and the greatest Art is that which expresses the greatest number of the greatest ideas, which was his first position with regard to his subject. In another context, Art has for its business to praise God; and again, Great Art is the expression of the mind of a God-made great man; and, differently intended, Art is the expression of delight in God's work. From that he glides to-All great Art is praise; and, Art is the exponent of ethical life, which leads the way to the notion of it as merely human labor regulated by human design, or, any modification of things substantial by substantial power, so long as it states a true thing or adorns a serviceable one. Fine Art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.

This selection of his sayings on the Nature of Art does not include anything like a philosophical definition; they are descriptive; and they describe different phases of Art as it appeared to the writer at different periods of his thought. Ruskin's teaching, like Art, has a vital power; and one of the evidences of its vitality is its growth. To those who find saplings useful for walking-sticks, a full-grown tree is otiose; and many who assented to "Modern Painters" regret the broad-spreading ramifications of his later work. But at the same time this candid self-criticism and continual reconstruction of belief is a warrant of sincerity. It is a cheap thing to adopt a system and stick to it; when it is cut and dried it is apt to command less confidence; but you trust the living bough.

But from these aphorisms it is plain that Mr. Ruskin proposes to his readers two distinctions: the first between Real Art and Sham; and the second between Great Art and something else that is Real but not Great. Both these distinctions are difficult to make at the moment; and even when the subject under consideration is in the comfortable distance of past history, judgments may differ on a particular work. But the distinction is a real one. Sham Art is derivative, insincere, inadequate : Real Art is a living organism, inviting study like any other organism, with its natural laws of growth and its vital influence on mankind. And some of it is Great.

GREAT ART AND HIGH ART.-In the last century it was commonly thought that all portrait-painting, and genre, and still life, and what we popularly call decorative work, as well as landscape for the most part, were inferior kinds; in contradistinction to which stood some-thing that was called High Art. The most accessible exposition of the doctrine is that of Sir Joshua Reynolds in his discourses. He summed up the Academic teaching, and formulated rules for the production of High Art; not claiming that he followed that manner himself, for he was only a portraitist, and in his heart admired the Venetians, who were not thought to rank so high as the Roman School of Michelangelo and Raphael. He puts the whole art of painting under four categories, and deduced, from accepted examples, the principles of their production: how to create High Art-the Grand Style.

Grand Invention, he says, is the generalization of the mental visions which all have of any incident, not the particular private view of any one person. "Some circumstances of minuteness and particularity" may give an air of truth, and be admitted with caution. But truth is not admitted for its own sake. For instance, St. Paul is not to be painted as weak in bodily presence; Alexander the Great, not, as he was, of short stature; Agesilaus, not as deformed. But what the public in general would imagine them to be, so they must be represented.

Grand Expression also allows no particularization; when Bernini sculptured his David as biting the lip in the act of slinging, he sinned against grandeur. The "blitheness and repose" of a Greek god is the model on which every countenance and attitude should be formed.

In Coloring, because the remains of ancient statuary are colorless, for aught he knew, and because Michelangelo, for their sake, denied himself the glory and the gold which his predecessors and patrons loved, the Grand Style allows no "artful play of little lights or variety of tints." It should be harmonious to monotony, or distinct, like martial music.

And in Drapery, for that is the final category of Academic picture making, there must be no discrimination of stuffs, but merely folds of classical curtains and robes.

We know how this advice was taken, and what came of it. The Grand Historical School, working on Reynolds's rules, became the laughing-stock of Europe; it became the mere reflex of used-up ideas and worn-out forms, without vitality, without influence or interest; mere Sham Art. And so Mr. Ruskin was led to inquire into the subject from another point of view, not now seeking external signs, but analyzing the more intimate motives of production. And from his inquiry he was led on to the conviction that Art has its root and origin in something deeper than formulae; that it is really conditioned by the whole nature of the artist, by his morality, his position in the community, his relation to the world and to God; that Art is great in proportion as the producer is great-not only as an artist, but as a man.

In reading Ruskin we have therefore to remember that besides his development of personal attitude to the question, he has two main objects in view-the discrimination of Real Art from everything else, and the valuation of it as greater or less in the sum of its achievement.

ART AND MANUFACTURE.--There are many degrees of greatness among the various kinds of Art, although they are all true and real: and from the highest efforts of painting and sculpture they pass in unbroken series to the minor handicrafts, which may be artistic, if they are carried on by artists; or they may be mere manufacture, and not Art at all. A manufacture is the product of the hands, with a minimum of brain power. In mechanical employments the skill is a sort of reflex-action : when the head is allowed to busy itself it destroys the manual skill by hesitation as to method and adaptation; and the workman is told not to think, but to do what he knows. But when the head must needs direct the hands, consciously, and as a dominant and continual guide, the work is a form of Art : a low form, but a true one. Every employment can be turned, in some of its branches, into an Art; carpetry, or agriculture, or the making of fabrics for clothes, can be treated as a manufacture, .or as an art; and it is usually the case that when these things become artistic, and attest thought, they are considered more valuable. But they do not reach the rank of Fine Art until the whole man is employed; and the whole man has more than hands and a head; he has feelings and emotions, what is popularly called heart. And when the emotions be-come dominant power they bring in the likes and dislikes of the worker, they display his tastes, they reveal an attempt to impart Beauty to the work which the head endowed only with utility.

And so we get the lower Arts, in which the emotions have little play, and Beauty no conceded position; and the Fine Arts, no matter to what material adapted. Decoration of any kind is just as truly a Fine Art as painting pictures, though there is not the same scope for the whole greatness of a profound intellect and wide sympathies to display itself. This more extended view of Art is the chief difference between Ruskin's earlier and his later writings; in Modern Painters he looked at Art as a Language; in his more recent writings he looks at it as an Activity, as the production of concrete objects in obedience to certain instincts-of which more hereafter.

IDEAS OF POWER.-Yet he did not neglect the handicraft-element, even in his earliest theory. His statement, at the outset of "Modern Painters," that Art is a language expressing Ideas of Power, Imitation, Truth, Beauty, and Relation implies that he did not mean to regard painting as a mere vehicle for what is rightly discriminated by artists as the "literary subject," to the exclusion of the "artistic subject." He notes that many thoughts are dependent on the language in which they are clothed; and that certain ideas belong to language itself. The first set of ideas, those of Power, involve the purely artistic process of the creation of a work of art, and mean, partly, what we call Execution and Technical ability. The pleasure they produce is that felt by the worker in his triumph over difficulties, and by the spectator in witnessing the triumph. And although the purpose of "Modern Painters" was to call the attention of critics to the thought and truth in Turner's later work, the author, with a candor uncommon in special pleaders, began by showing that part of the interest of Art is in the Power shown by the dexterity and craftsmanship of the artist.

When this interest is the admiration and wonder of an inexplicable talent,-as much an instinct as the power of nest-building in a bird or hive-building in a bee,-it partakes of that high pleasure with which, as we shall see, mankind contemplates the nobler forms of Beauty; it is the contemplation of the artist as himself a work, so to speak, of Divine Art. But when it is merely the applause of the mob at a cheap tour de force,-the attention of the conjurer's apprentice trying to learn the trick of it, to the entire oblivion of anything higher in the world than executive dexterity, then it panders to the most prevalent and pernicious form of Sham Art. Nobody has more highly appreciated Execution than Ruskin; from the finesse of Turner's hand, inconceivably microcosmic, to the colossal brush-strokes of Tintoret, painting tree-trunks in two touches apiece. Durer's severe and subtle pen-stroke; Meissonier's realism in miniature; the free handling of Reynolds, and the flawless modelling of Holbein have alike won his praise. It is only where the "finish" is thoughtless niggling, as in Hobbema's trees, or the "freedom" is licentious slapdash-si exemplum quaeris, circumspice-that Ruskin steps in with his veto. Execution as a source of pleasure in Art, nay, as an integral part of the aim and purpose of it, he is far from despising.

But the aim of Art is something more than Execution; and the idea of Power suggests not only the sense of energy perceived in the artist, but also the sense of great force in action represented in his subject,--what is called Sublimity. This has been usually separated from Beauty, as if the two were quite distinct and co-ordinate aims, as if Art had two aims of equal value and indifferent application. Ruskin dismisses Sublimity from that position, pointing out that it is not foreign to Beauty, but the effect on the mind of greatness, of infinity, which, as we shall see, is one of the elements of the Beautiful. Etymologically the Sublime is what "lifts one off his feet"; and the feeling that there is a something infinite and terrible, of forces and laws past comprehension, even in the fashioning of the least flower or pebble, grows upon the instructed mind into the same sense of Sublimity as that which is forced upon the ignorant and unreflective by a thunderstorm or a cataract. S. T. Coleridge was fond of telling how, at the Falls of the Clyde, he pronounced the scene "essentially sublime"; and heard with contempt a lady rejoin, "Yes, it is beautiful." The beauty of the lines of rushing foam, of crystalline transparency and iridescent mystery were nothing to him-as doctrinaire in Kantian Art-Philosophy-in comparison with the overwhelming certainty that if he fell in he was sure to be drowned. But Coleridge, as poet, could describe the sublimity, the fearsomeness of the sight of a frail and lonely figure in the moonlight "beautiful exceedingly." I do not mean that the Sublime and the Beautiful are one and the same, but they are two developments of one principle.

Sublimity is therefore not to be classed as a separate, collateral factor of Art, but as closely connected with Beauty on the one hand and Imagination on the other; and Great Art is, in the first place, conditioned by these ideas of Power, by consummate execution, and the highest reach of nobility in the forms portrayed. Of the other ideas named at the beginning of "Modern Painters," those of Relation seem to be specially connected with the Imagination and its work; those of Imitation and Truth involve the discussion of the Mimetic instinct and the Representation of Nature. They must be noticed in a slight preliminary way, in order to define the limits of Art.

MACHINERY AND ART.-We have seen that manufacture is not Art; but we are accustomed to meet with all manner of goods professing to be artistic, yet produced by machinery,-the extreme form of manufacture, made not only without head-work, but without hand-work, as far as- possible. No doubt head-work and hand-work went to the making of the machines in the first instance; but that hardly affects the statement that the patterned products of a steam-loom are quite distinct from the products of a hand-loom, as these last are from pure artistic embroidery. If hand-manufacture be not Art, still less is steam-manufacture, though its results are often so interesting, and display so much ingenuity, that the public is content with the sham, and many critics hardly venture to incur the ridicule of the thoughtless and the enmity of the trade by upholding a logical discrimination.

Mr. Ruskin was led to his position by considering the effect of machinery upon the life of the workman. He found that where the minor arts and crafts are treated in a purely artistic spirit, they react in a wholesome manner on the producers, who became of necessity more intelligent, more interested in their work, and consequently happier. Where machinery is introduced, the human capacities of the workman are minimized : the qualities of head and heart are not wanted, and even skill of hand is reduced to its lowest terms.

Not only that, but the work itself loses its interest and higher qualities of beauty; what it gains in superficial neatness it loses in refinement; it is vulgarized, because there is no imagination put into it. Consequently all the products of machinery tend to become Sham Art, in proportion to the part which machinery plays in their production. Real Art does not depend upon materials and tools; a great artist could make great works with the very simplest,-such as a bottle of ink and a deal board, painting with his finger; for "the imagination amends them." Even the reproduction by mechanical processes of paintings and drawings loses many of their qualities,-and this is the case even with the most marvellous of recent inventions, as any one can see who has the opportunity of comparing original drawings with what are published as facsimiles. Still more is it true of the great mass of decorative work, cheaply produced by machinery.

It is not to be thought for a moment that Mr. Ruskin would refuse the advantages to utility which are gained by machine power. His position is quite simple. As long as useful articles can be made plentiful, without involving the slavery and degradation of the workman, he encourages manufacture; but when it is supposed that Art can thus be cheapened, he points out that there is an impassable gulf between utilitarian manufacture and Real Art; and the cheapening of a hybrid between the two serves only to blind the public to the real uses and true standards of Art.

PHOTOGRAPHY AND ART.-The Ideas of Imitation and Truth, which it is the business of Art to give, might be thought to be attained by photography; and in some sense photography claims its place on the borderland of Art. But there are two reasons why photography fails to take a place alongside of painting and sculpture. First, that it gives no really accurate representation of Nature: the lowering of tone makes it impossible to get the effect of a landscape; and the falsification of values, even with the most ingenious appliances to evade it, leads to falsification of landscape detail. Artists who work from photographs know how much allowance has to be made for these disturbances; they know that the perspective of an interior or a figure, the modelling of certain masses of drapery or rock-form, and many other parts of the picture, are not to be strictly copied from photo-graphs. So that mere truth, which is the boast of photography, is not fully attained, though perhaps, with improvements in management and appliances, truth may eventually be secured in other subjects, as it is already in the wonderful instantaneous photography of facial expression.

But even if that were done, Art is, by its very nature, the expression of human feeling, the representation of external things as seen through a human eye and imaged in a human mind. The interest in Art is quite different from the interest in Nature. In Art we look for the record of man's thought and power, but photography gives that only in a quite secondary degree; every touch of a great picture is instinct with feeling, but however carefully the objects of his picture be chosen and grouped by the photographer, there his interference ends. It is not a mere matter of color or no color, but of Invention and Design, of Feeling and Imagination, the very qualities which make Art interesting and great. Photography is a matter of ingenuity; Art is genius. And if it be said that Nature is more beautiful than Art, which is true, Mr. Ruskin replies that a photograph is not Nature; and that nobody who really sees and loves natural beauty pretends that it is adequately replaced by a photograph.

Photography is, however, extremely valuable as a record of certain facts, and as a help to the reproduction of designs; but we must not confuse its service with that of Art. As in the case of manufacture, it is a separate thing. Fine Art is not science, it is not manufacture, it is not photography. It is-I do not attempt a philosophical definition, but to mark it off from these it may be called the thoughtful and purposeful expression of human emotion.

PROGRAMME OF THE SUBJECT.-At the outset of an inquiry into the nature of Art it is hardly possible to prove every statement and follow it out in detail. Much of what has been here noted down will be treated again more fully; though the limits of any handbook, and the intention of this one in particular, preclude a full development of special arguments. But we have not got Mr. Ruskin's view of what he means by Art, and what he separates from his conception of it. We have next to examine the End of Art, its purpose or aim : and then to find its Uses, for we have seen that though its business is not primarily utilitarian, it has an influence on human life. Then we shall be at liberty to proceed to the different sorts and conditions of Art, remembering that Mr. Ruskin has not especially treated Music and Literature and Acting and several other of the Fine Arts, though many remarks upon them can be gleaned from his writings: but he has devoted himself to plastic and graphic Art-what he calls Formative Art. I think no apology needed for confining ourselves to those questions which he has answered at length; and I feel that it would be forcing his doctrines if in a work of this sort we attempted to apply them to departments of the subject for which they were not intended. Finally, we shall notice his advice as to the more practical side of the question; though it involves theory and general considerations, just as the theoretic examination of the End and Use of Art involves practical application.

And so, without misleading sub-titles of division, the reader may be asked to note that the earlier parts of the book are mainly theoretical, and the later part mainly practical. Beginning with the Purpose of Art, we shall discuss Ruskin's teaching on its relation to Truth, Beauty, and Imagination in the first part. The second part will treat of the Uses of Art in its relation to Religion and Morality, Sociology and Political Economy. The third part, dealing with the concrete products of Art, will divide them into their departments, and examine the virtues of each, concluding with Mr. Ruskin's doctrines on matters of technical practice and study and criticism.

The review of history, the detailed criticism of schools, the description of special works of Art, and the characterization of artists, hardly seem to form part of Mr. Ruskin's Art-Teaching; they are rather subjects of Art-Criticism. And indeed to do justice to his exposition of the example and precept of Greek Art; the virtues and vices of Gothic; the secret and interest of the primitive masters, one by one; the glories of Venice; the mysteries of Dürer and Holbein; the magic of Reynolds and his cycle; the aims and achievements of Turner; and to relate in sufficient fulness all his hopes and fears for modern painting, from the Pre-Raphaelites to Miss Kate Greenaway; all his plans and proposals for modern architecture, from the Oxford Museum to that of St. George's Guild; to do all this is so utterly beyond the scope of a book on his Art-Teaching that the least said about it will be soonest amended.

So I have to set down his doctrines, not his criticisms; his teaching, not his examples; and I mention the omission simply that the reader may know it for intentional. I do not think it enough to quote his words, either in affairs of criticism or of teaching. Much false impression may be given by exact quotations; and the appearance of authenticity only strengthens the falsehood. If you want his words, read his books: for that is the end to which I desire to lead. It is useless to compile an Art-Philosophy for the sake of summing up its results; that is like taking a walk for the sake of getting home. Unless you get the exercise of every step, the benefit of every breath of fresh air, unless you bring back the recollection of things seen by the wayside, and glimpses perhaps of worlds less realized in the far distance, you might as well have sat in the doorway all the afternoon. No doubt it is from some feeling of this sort that Mr. Ruskin prefers to dole out his teaching in letters and lectures; and never seems to come to any general conclusions, or to advance any formulated system. But as we have seen, and shall see, he has travelled over the whole of the ground; and I have tried to survey it and map it for the benefit of those who follow him in his walks abroad. It is a poor substitute for a tour in Switzerland to pore over the maps in the guide-book; and yet, before setting out, it is well to know the lie of the land; and after the excitements of the trip are over even the guide-book may be pleasant, and sometimes instructive, reading.

Note.-The reader will understand that the references to future chapters in the foregoing do not pertain to this volume but to the work from which this article is taken-a work which no Art Student can afford to ignore, for it shows how the writings of Ruskin on art though "a mighty maze" are "not without a plan " [C. W.].

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