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Ruskinism, The Would-Be Study Of A Conscience
by [?]

I give a place to the following pages, because, for all the difference of form, this essay is of the same sort, has had the same kind of origin, as the so seemingly incongruous studies with which it is bound up. For this also is the rough putting together of notes made at various times and in various phases of study; it is a series of self-questionings and answers, of problems, perhaps only half-formulated and half-solved, which have arisen round one man, one artist, one art philosophy, even as in the adjoining essays they have arisen around some one statue, or song, or picture; self-questionings and problems, these present ones, not of aesthetic right and wrong suggested by a given work of art, but of moral fitness and unfitness suggested by the doubts, the divisions, the mistakes, by the comprehension (or, if you prefer, the misapprehension) of the conscience of perhaps the greatest and strangest artist of our days.

* * * * *

John Ruskin stands quite isolated among writers on art. His truths and his errors are alike of a far higher sort than the truths and errors of his fellow-workers: they are truths and errors not of mere fact, nor of mere reasoning, but of tendency, of moral attitude; and his philosophy is of far greater importance than any other system of aesthetics, because it is not the philosophy of the genius, evolution or meaning of any art or of all art, but the philosophy of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of all and every art. In the case of every other writer on art the evils due to a false system are, in proportion to the great interests of our lives and of the life around, but very paltry evils: the evils of misconceiving the relations between various masters and various schools, and the causes of various artistic phenomena; the evils of misappreciating a work or a form of art, of preferring an inferior picture, or statue or piece of music, to a superior one; the evils of buying fluttering St. Theresas of Bernini rather than noble goddesses of Scopas; of ornamenting our houses with plaster dragons, grimacing toothless masks, and meagre lines of lintel and clumsy agglomerations of columns, rather than with the leaf and flower moulding, the noble arches and dainty cornices of mediaeval art; the evils in short of not understanding quite well or of not appreciating quite correctly. Very important evils within the limited sphere of our artistic interests, and which we must not neglect to eradicate; but evils such as cannot deeply trouble our whole nature, or seriously damage our whole lives. Such is the case with the aesthetic systems, with the truths and errors of men like Winckelmann, Lessing, Hegel, or Taine; but it is not so with the aesthetic system of Ruskin. For the theories of all other writers on art deal only with the meaning and value of one work or school of art compared with another work or school; they deal only with the question how much of our liking or disliking should we give to this art or to that; they are all true or false within the region allotted to art. But the theories of Ruskin deal with the comparative importance of artistic concerns and the other concerns of our lives: they deal with the problem, how much of our thoughts and our energies we have a right to give to art, and for what reasons we may give any portion of them: it deals with the question of the legitimacy not of one kind of artistic enjoyment more than another, but of the enjoyment of art at all.

The question may at first sight seem futile from its very magnitude: unnecessary because it has so long been answered. In the first moment many of us may answer with contempt that the thinking men and women of to-day are not ascetics of the Middle Ages, nor utilitarians of the 18th century, nor Scotch Calvinists, that they should require to be taught that beauty is neither sinful nor useless, that enjoyment of art is not foul self-indulgence nor childish pastime. And so at first it seems. The thinking men and women of our day are not any of these things, and do not require to be answered these questions. But though these scruples and doubts no longer trouble us, we, in our nineteenth century, are yet not entirely at peace in our hearts. For, just in proportion as the old religious faith is dying out, we are feeling the necessity to create a new; as the old vocations of belief are becoming fewer and further between, the new vocations of duty are becoming commoner; as the old restrictions of the written law are melting away, so there appears the new restriction of the unwritten law, the law of our emancipated conscience; and the less we go to our priests, the more do we go to our own inner selves to know what we may do and what we should sacrifice: with our daily growing liberty, grows and must grow, to all the nobler among us, our responsibility. Nay, the more we realise that we have but this one brief life wherein to act and to expiate, the more earnestly do we ask ourselves to what use we should put the little that is vouchsafed us. And thus it comes to pass that there exist among us many who, seeing the evil around them, seeing the infinitude of falsehood which requires to be dispelled and of pain which requires to be alleviated, and of injustice which requires to be destroyed, must occasionally pause and ask themselves what right they have to give all, or any, of their limited time and thought and energy to the mere enjoyment of the beautiful, when there exists on all sides evil which it seems to require unlimited effort to quell. Many there must be, and every day more, who are harried by their love of art and their sense of duty, who daily ask themselves the question which first arose, nearly forty years ago, in the mind of John Ruskin; and which, settled by false answers, has recurred to him ever and anon, and has shaken and shattered the very system which was intended to answer it for ever.