Ruskin (1819-1900) was a sensitive soul who pitted himself against the inhumanity of the age of machine. Born in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, he raised his prophetic voice against the rank materialism which had been ushered in the industrial expansion and cut-throat competition. But what is more, he was an artist himself 23i a keen lover of all art. He made himself felt in the field of art criticism as well as in that of social criticism. Add to that his remarkable sense of vigorous and colourful style. So Ruskin’s work and achievement have to be studied under three heads as given below:
(i) as an art critic;
(ii) as a social critic; and
(iii) as a literary artist.
As an Art Critic:
Art was Ruskin’s life and soul. He himself was both an artist and an art critic. His numerous paintings and drawings testify to the keenness of his eye and the subtle perception to which he gave a sensitive and exquisite expression. His eminence as an art critic is easily recognised the moment we recall that he served for a number-of years as the Slade Professor of Art at Oxford. In fact he entered the world of letters through art criticism. His Modern Painters, whose first volume appeared in 1843 (when he was only twenty-four) and whose subsequent volumes sporadically appeared over a number of years following, was a remarkable book of its kind. The long, original title of the book effectively indicated its content: Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to all the Ancient Masters proved by Examples of the True, the Beautiful, and the Intellectual, from the Works of Modern Artists, especially those of J. M. W. Turner, By a Graduate of Oxford. In painting, Ruskin made a plea for the spurning of all academism and conventionalism. He favoured simplicity and naturalism. He pointed out that the artist should approach nature with no prejudice or preoccupation. He should select nothing, reject nothing, despise nothing, and exaggerate nothing. With these ideas it was natural for Ruskin to praise Turner, as also such naturalistic painters as Veronese, Tintoret, and Titian. He stood for a kind of utter simplicity as contrasted to technical virtuosity. He averred that painting should be something more than “an ingenious arrangement of pigments.” He limited himself only to landscape painting. He did not have much sympathy for the painting of “the human form divine.” The painting of the human body in the nude simply scandalised him, as it did most Victorians. He was extremely critical of the “fleshliness” of the Pre-Raphaelites though he defended (of course, only later) their realism and devotion to detail, which, as a matter of fact, he also supported in Modern Painters.
As an art critic, Ruskin did not concern himself only with painting. He went ahead, and in some of his writings, particularly The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice, he came forward to discuss the art of architecture. His fundamental point, which he repeated over and over again, was, in his own words “that certain right states of temper and moral feeling were the magic powers by which all good architecture had been produced.” For him art was to be considered as the spiritual history of a nation. He emphasized the relation between art and life, and art and morality. “Art,” he asserted, “in all its forms was but a manifestation of a sound personal and social life.” Art he considered to be an action; and, therefore, as indicative of the artist’s temper and spiritual condition as any other important action of his. Though he favoured principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood yet he keenly opposed their slogan “Art for the sake of art.” The “seven lamps of architecture,” according to him, are:
These are the “lamps” which illuminate all architecture and without which it would be a gloomy, listless affair.
The Stones of Venice, which Carlyle described as “a sermon in stones,” envisaged a practical application of the principles of architecture enunciated by Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture. In this .work Ruskin praised Venetian Gothic architecture as illustrative of the faith and spirituality of the people of that era. However, he forgot the very important point that Venetian architecture reached its apogee only when the moral and spiritual rot had already set in, seriously damaging the faith and spirituality of the earlier era. Anyway, Raskin exalted Gothic architecture, to the discredit or Renaissance architecture. Ruskin’s laudation of Gothic art and architecture was greatly responsible for the revival of Gothicism in architecture in the Victorian era. According to Peter Quennell, one of the chief reasons why Ruskin’s popularity has declined in the modern age is that “his name recalls the worst excesses of the Victorian neo-Gothic architecture.” Indeed, it is Ruskin’s patent fault to have gone too far in stressing the presence of a very strong bond between art and morality:- intransigent defiance of the fact that great art has been produced even jn ages notorious for moral depravity and spiritual bankruptcy.
As a Social Critic:
Apparently, there appears a great contradiction between Ruskin ±e aesthete and Ruskin the socio-economist. But when we look closely and deeply we find the development of the artist into a social reforrtrer bereft of all inconsistency. His zeal for social reform grew legitimately out of his immense enthusiasm for aesthetic studies. He did not desert art for sociology, as has been said of him; rather he took up sociology because of his love of art. With his perpetual insistence on the connexion between art and life he felt that great art could not be realised in an age like his where the conditions of life were so degrading and spiritually deadening. He felt, as he himself put it, to be living in a besieged city in which all talk of art and beauty would go unheard. All art grew out of national character, and, therefore, for the growth of great art it was imperative to cleanse and remodel all the social institutions which went to determine national character. These considerations led Ruskin the art critic to Ruskin the social critic. Thus we can agree with Compton-Rickett when he observes: “His life was all a piece. His social teaching is a corollary of his art criticism…” Indeed, as Ruskin said, “no one could go on painting pictures in a burning house.”
So Ruskin came forward to extinguish this “fire” of social injustice and a million other ailments from which the society of his age was suffering. The Industrial Revolution had brought prosperity to thousands, but, at the same time, misery to millions. Ruskin declared: “The atmosphere in which the comfortable classes of modern English society live, is most unfavourable to intellectual stature.” He found on one side absolute richness which deadened the soul, on the other,
absolute poverty which deadened both body and soul.
absolute poverty which deadened both body and soul.
Ruskin’s object as social critic and reformer was to quote Compton-Rickett, “to humanise political economy.” The conventional “political economy” which Ruskin called “nescience,” and elsewhere, “a bastard science,” owed its origin to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations which was the bible of the political economists of Ruskin’s age—such as Mill and Ricardo. Unto This Last was a remarkable work by Ruskin, where he somewhat systematically set about the task of challenging the pontifical utterances of self-important political economists. He gave a new definition of wealth and value, but, most of all, he apparently succeeded in demolishing the superstructure of “the bastard science” by shaking its very foundations. The political economists based all their principles on the assumption of “the economic man”. Ruskin tried to show that there was none like an economic man, that is, a man who is wholly motivated by considerations of monetary profit. Ruskin contended that our motive power is not the desire of gain, but a soul. He emphasised the importance of what he called “social affections” in determining the actions of a normal human being. Thus he tried to nullify all the conclusions of the political economists by challenging their very premises.
Political economy was, according to him, concerned with “certain accidental phenomena of modem commercial operations,” and thus it deserved to be called not political but mercantile economy. True political economy, he pointed out should concern the economy of the entire nation. In Munra Pulveris he affirmed that there could be no real political economy apart from a comprehensive sociology. A rational political economy, in fact, has to be just one of the several ramifications of a comprehensive philosophy of society. Ruskin here and there in his work did try to give something like such a comprehensive philosophy but he miserably failed. He seized the root of the matter, but thereafter could not make any headway. He confined himself to such haphazard resources as the Bible, Plato, Gothic art, and Carlyle. Hence was it that he was condemned by many as one who was talking something about which he knew nothing. Thus one opinion described him as “a lounging aesthete who walked into economics and talked sentimentalism.” But whatever might be said against him we cannot, with reason, call his knowledge of political economy into question. He failed-as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Leibnitz had failed-to give an integrated philosophy of society, but he had a rare dialectical skill. In a word, by knowledge, he was fit to be a critic of political economy; but, by temperament, he was not.
For his temperament was not scientific but prophetic and oratorical. For one thing, he was an economist who campaigned against the love of money! He often shrieked against contemporary society-“this yelping, carnivorous crew mad for money and lust; tearing each other to pieces, and starving each other to death and leaving heaps of their dung and ponds of their spittle on every palace floor and altar stone.” Now such fulminations are not “scientific”; and nor was Ruskin a scientist. He was a prophet and a critic of the type of Carlyle whose “young lieutenant” he was. Like Carlyle he tried to rouse the moral consciousness of his age. But his message was not unoften, both confusing and confused. And not only this; he was often self-contradictory. To his deep chagrin many thought that his “sound and fury” signified “nothing.”
But we must value Ruskin for the numerous concrete proposals which he made and which have since been put into operation. Many of them were considered at that time too radical but now they appear to be only too tame. He campaigned (without being a “socialist” in the accepted sense of the term) for the abandonment by the government of the policy of laissez-faire. He wanted it to take effectual steps to safeguard the interests of workers against unscrupulous industrial magnates. Such a view as Ruskin’s was considered the most scandalous by the economic theorists, and was dubbed as interference in the “natural” working of the “natural” law of demand and supply. Ricardo’s iron law of wages according to which wages in an industry working on the principle of laissez faire were bound to drop to the mere subsistence level, made Ruskin simply sick. He campaigned for the fixation of wages, the number of working hours, and so on. He also made a plea for the establishment of government training schools for youth, state enterprise in the manufacture and distribution of consumer goods, unemployment benefits, the provision of food and shelter “for the old and destitute and so forth. Almost all of his proposals (leaving aside some very fantastic ones) have since been accepted-even in India. He has often, and rightly, been called a pioneer of the welfare state. He summed up the basis of his ideal state in these words “I hold it undisputably that the first duty of a state is to see that every child born therein shall be well housed, clothed, fed and educated, till it attained years of discretion.”
As a social critic, Ruskin aligned himself with no political party. As John Rosenberg observes in his recent book on Ruskin, The Darkening Glass, Ruskin “was as apolitical as a rational creature could be.” He dissociated himself from both Tories and Liberals. He could well say: “Of course, I am a socialist of the most stern sort, but I am a Tory of the sternest sort.” At another time he shouted: “I am violent liberal and I hate all Liberalism as I do Beelzebub,” and at another: “I am the reddest of the red.” He refused to yoke his prophetic inspiration and reformative zeal to any single political party or movement. “Like all genuine revolutionaries,” observes John Rosenberg, “he passed beyond politics.” He might not have been powerful, but he was certainly influential. The Labour Party of England accepted many of his teachings, and even some very eminent foreigners like Tolstoy and Gandhi were profoundly influenced by his work.
As a Literary Artist:
As a literary artist, too, Ruskin did not belong to any one particular “school.” His prose was enriched by as various influences as the Bible, Jeremy Taylor, Pope, and Scott. It is ofinterest to note that he used not one but many kinds of style. From Modern Painters to Unto This Last is a far cry. In the former, he shows a marked predilection for gorgeous and colourful effects and poetic flavour. The style is finished, glossy, elaborate, rhythmical, profuse, using the subtlest devices of alliteration, assonance, parallelism, and many others. Many of his sentences sprawl interminably in the seventeenth-century fashion. Many passages read like blank verse-of course, written as prose. Very often images, epithets, and allusions intertwine themselves into a mass of mazy plexus from which it becomes difficult to extract the sound and the sense together. Groping for some sense, the reader has to play hide and seek in a painted labyrinth of verbiage. Later, however, Ruskin realised that prose has to be functional. The result of this realisation was a marked change of style. From Unto This Last onwards he was all for simplicity, lucidity, and vigour of expression. Later, in one of his lectures, he quoted a passage each from Modern Painters and Unto This Last and pointed out the very obvious stylistic difference between the two. He gave a piquant illustration. Formerly, he pointed out, if he found somebody’s house on fire, he would say to him: “Sir, the abode in which you probably passed the delightful days of youth, is in a state of inflammation.” But now he would simply say: “Sir, your house is on fire.”
But though Ruskin’s style underwent a change, it will be wrong to assume that he totally lost the sense of the aesthetic in words and his poetic spells. Even though such works as Unto This Last and The Crown of Wild Olive are couched in a simple and lucid style, this style is not without evidence of verbal felicity and the spell and cadence associated with his earlier style. For one thing, he has a wonderful ability of glowing description, and in his descriptions he combines the poet’s ear for music with the painter’s eye for colour. Natural beauties, particularly those of the landscape, touch his sensitive soul making it pour itself out in glowing musical terms. If Turner, his everlasting favourite, was the “colour-poet of nature,” Ruskin was the “prose poet of nature.”