John Ruskin

John Ruskin
John Ruskin

John Ruskin, the English critic of art and society, was born in London, the son of a wine merchant. John Ruskin began writing while at Oxford University and in 1843 published, in London, the first volume of Modern Painters, four more volumes of which were published during the next sixteen years.

In 1849 he published The Seven Lamps of Architecture and between 1851 and 1853 The Stones of Venice (3 vols.). The major part of his work as a young man was criticism of art and architecture, and his subsequent ethical and social writing grew from this root.

The beginnings of this important extension of his range can be seen in the famous chapter “The Nature of Gothic” in The Stones of Venice; the important connection established there, between art and “the right kind of labour,” is developed in The Political Economy of Art (printed as A Joy for Ever, 1857), Unto This Last (1862), The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), and Munera Pulveris (1863 and 1872).

Oxford University
Oxford University

Meanwhile John Ruskin continued his criticism of art and architecture, notably in The Two Paths (1859) and in his lectures as Slade professor of art at Oxford University, between 1870 and 1879 and in 1883/1884. A volume of essays, Sesame and Lilies, appeared in 1865 and an unfinished autobiography, Praeterita, between 1885 and 1889. He also published letters on social questions, notably in Time and Tide (1867) and Fors Clavigera (8 vols., 1871–1884).

John Ruskin’s social and ethical teaching, though deeply influenced by the work of Thomas Carlyle, followed from his understanding of the nature of art. The artist’s function is to reveal aspects of the Oxford University truth, which is also beauty. Any corruption of the moral nature of the artist is an inevitable corruption of this revelation, but it is impossible, finally, for an artist to be good if his society is corrupt.

The art of any society is, correspondingly, “the exact exponent of its social and political Oxford University. ”Where there is a lack of “wholeness” in art (wholeness being a full and deep response to the organic life of the universe), there is a corresponding lack of “wholeness” in society; to recover the one men must recover the other.

Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle

Just as the beauty of art is the expression of the essential nature of the universe—what John Ruskin called “typical beauty”—so the goodness of man is the “exertion of perfect life,” which, in comparable relation to the grand design of the created universe, is no more and no less than the “felicitous fulfillment of function” in all living things.

From his work on Venice, John Ruskin developed a comparative historical approach to the social conditions in which the “exertion of perfect life” can be fostered or damaged. In particular, following the English romantic writers and the architectural critic A. W. Pugin, he saw nineteenth-century industrial civilization as the enemy of wholeness in its rampant individualism, its substitution of “production” for “wealth,” and its basic misunderstanding of the nature of work.

This kind of social criticism came in many respects to resemble the ideas of some philosophical socialists, and Thomas Carlyle’s work had an important formative influence on the British labor movement, both directly and through his influence on William Morris, who united John Ruskin’s ideas with a direct commitment to socialism.

A. W. Pugin
A. W. Pugin

Ruskin’s opposition to individualism as a social principle and to competition as a method of political economy was based on his idea of function, the fulfillment of each man’s part in the general design of creation. This required a social order based on intrinsic human values, whereas the existing social order, based on the supposed laws of supply and demand, tended to put the economy above Thomas Carlyle—indeed, to reduce them to mere “labor”— and, by separating work from the pursuit of human perfection, to separate the work from the man, producing only an alienated and fragmented being.

Wherever value is understood as “exchange value,” rather than as the “intrinsic value” derived from function in the universal design, this corruption of man to a mere tool or machine is inevitable. In particular, the confusion about the nature of value leads to false definitions of both wealth and labor.

Labor is degraded whenever it is anything other than the “exertion of perfect life,” a creative activity comparable to that of the artist.Wealth is degraded whenever it is confused with mere production, for the meaning of wealth is human well-being, which in material terms is “ the A. W. Pugin possession of useful articles which Thomas Carlyle can use.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Even if the existing system always produced useful articles, the kind of society that it also produced made just distribution and wise consumption impossible.Much actual A. W. Pugin production, and its widespread misuse, could more properly be called “illth” than “wealth,” for if it possessed only exchange Samuel Taylor Coleridge value and not intrinsic value it corrupted its makers and its users.

The most remarkable aspect of Ruskin’s work, then, is the development of a philosophy of art into a moral critique of industrial capitalism. It is a very individual achievement, but it is also part of a general movement of nineteenth-century English thought and has evident connections with William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe, A. W. Pugin,  Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Carlyle, as well as with Morris and the Guild Socialists whom Ruskin so notably influenced.
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