During The 1860

’s Ruskin Developed Into An Outspoken Social Critic. With Reference To ‘The Stones O Essay, Research Paper

John Ruskin was debatably the foremost Victorian critic of art and architecture, expressing what were at the time unprecedented and sometimes shocking views. However, it was as a critic of Victorian society that he spent a large part of his career and in this essay I will look at how his earlier work, particularly ‘The Stones of Venice’(1850-3);although ostensibly about architecture, can be seen to be a forerunner of his later more outspoken social criticism of the 1860’s and after. Perhaps the most striking aspect of “The Stones of Venice” to an audience of the day would have been Ruskin’s denunciation of the Classical style of architecture in Venice and in general, in favour of the then unfashionable and largely unappreciated Gothic style. We are soon to discover, however, that this is no mere aesthetic preference on his behalf and it is his strong views on the superiority of this style and the reasons behind his belief that give us the clearest indication of the social critic he would become in the ensuing years In part two of ‘The Stones of Venice’ Chapter Four (’The Nature of Gothic’) Ruskin attempts to give a broad definition of what he means by ‘Gothic’ architecture. He lists the six most important elements as being, in order of importance: 1. Savageness 2. Changefulness 3. Naturalism 4. Grotesqueness 5. Rigidity 6. Redundance He goes on to apply these qualities to the workers carrying out the building process and translates them as: 1. Savageness or Rudeness 2. Love of Change 3. Love of Nature 4. Disturbed Imagination 5. Obstinacy 6. Generosity Above all, Ruskin appreciated the means for expression of that savageness and disturbed imagination of the worker that the Gothic style provided. Renaissance architecture in his opinion made slaves of its executors, with its uniform style and repetitive decoration. Architectural style reflected, in Ruskin’s view, the state of the society that produced it and he believed that Renaissance architecture reflected meaninglessness and inhumanism. It is his condemnation of the Classical style of architecture that was popular in Victorian Britain, therefore, that demonstrates his disapproval of Victorian values and society. At the time Ruskin was writing, industrialism was beginning to take hold of the major cities of Britain. Mass manufacturing industries were developing and a privileged few were becoming rich from the near slave labour of a mass of impoverished workers who were producing often luxury goods for the growing wealth of the middle classes. Cities were therefore expanding rapidly, both to cope with the influx of people this new industry demanded and also as a result of the new found wealth of factory owners who frequently built huge grand buildings such as The Alhambra Theatre in Bradford or The Empire in Liverpool ~mainly as an exposition of wealth. Ruskin believed the Renaissance style of architecture that was fashionable at the time reflected the decay and corruption of society. He dates the beginning of the decline of Venice precisely as being after the death of Carlo Zeno in 1418. This, he believed, coincided with the decrescendo of the usage of the Gothic style in buildings. He did not, however, give credence to the notion that the decline was due to the encroachment of the Renaissance style; he simply believed that the Gothic reflected the greatness of Venice and the Classical style became popular as a result of the values that contributed to its decline. Even in his earliest published works which were ostensibly art criticism, Ruskin shows a preoccupation with aspects of truth and moral purpose. He states in The Stones of Venice that the usefulness of art criticism is “…to show that the Truth of greater Art was that which the soul apprehended not the sight merely; that the beauty of art was in like manner that which the soul perceived, not the senses merely.” Ruskin declares that the Renaissance style “makes slaves of its craftsmen” in its demand for uniformity and slavish imitation of repetitive styles. In his opinion it dehumanises the workers who create it by not allowing them to have an influence on it as individuals. They are no longer valued as people but merely as ‘hands’ to carry out the instructions of cleverer (or superior) men. It is not difficult to see an analogy between the state of the enslaved Renaissance ‘hand’ and the growing masses of industrial workers of the day performing soul-destroying, monotonous work to produce uniform products as quickly and cheaply as possible. Ruskin scorns this mentality even in The Seven Lamps of Architecture~ (1849) where he calls architecture a ‘distinctively political art’~ In the section entitled ~’The Lamp of Sacrifice’~ he ascertains that decoration should be carried out in the spirit in which precious and expensive materials are used for no other reason than that they are beautiful and they honour and please others by the costliness of the sacrifice they imply; something that Ruskin expounds as a glorious thing to do, involving self-denial and discipline. “.The opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times which desire to produce the largest results at the least cost.” Ruskin openly wonders about how moral it is to condemn slavery but promote industrial labour and in describing the undesirable working conditions of the labourer, asks whether the consumers of luxuries are responsible to a degree for the suffering entailed in their production. Is the misery caused by repetitive work in which the workman has no creative input unavoidable? Ruskin maintains that the values esteemed by the societies which created Gothic architecture meant that this was not the case. He says that allowing the artisan to express himself in his work meant that he was valued as an individual and found an outlet for his thoughts, dreams and fears; the glory of Gothic architecture was that it provided opportunity for individual imagination; it valued each soul rather like the Christian religion purported too.~ This was important to Ruskin as a devout believer, as was the expression of ’sin and folly; fear of death and love of God’ that he found in Gothic architecture. The refusal to closely prescribe the subordinate’s work meant that much of it was ‘imperfect’ in the Renaissance sense but this made it all the more valuable in Ruskin’s view. The flawed nature of it echoed the imperfect nature of humanity as a result of The Fall. It is not a reluctant acceptance of reality that makes Ruskin admit imperfection into the ornamentation of buildings, but a belief that it is a necessary feature of great work because it is an affirmation of man’s limitation and therefore it tends to the glory of God. He states that ~ ‘…no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect. No architect can do everything himself, therefore he must either make slaves of his workmen in the old Greek and present Enqlish fashion, and lend his work to a slave’s capacities, which is to degrade it; or else he must take his workmen as he finds them, and let them show their weaknesses together with their strength……. for the best that is in them cannot manifest itself, but in company with much error.” Imperfection, therefore, was not only acceptable but desirable in his opinion and a society which strived for perfection at the expense of souls as he believed Victorian society was doing was fundamentally degenerate. He believed that workmen allowed to express themselves freely displayed a “caustic humour, more especially on the failings of their superiors” and that their independent humour was being silenced by the manufacturers of the day, forcing it to pass into transient speech or, as he put it, ‘working class wit.’ He goes on to say later that: “At whatever cost in productivity or profit the engagement of the workmen’s minds in what they do in work must be achieved to prevent their decay and the decay of their society~’ This view can be seen to directly contradict the Victorian preoccupation with economics. Ruskin believed that a capitalist society was fundamentally corrupt, being based on an economic theory founded on immoral and false assumptions that were unchristian and subjected human goodness to selfish and pleasure seeking ends. Nor was he a socialist; he believed that the system of the day was so degenerate that he ruled out the replacement of private enterprise by public ownership based on the same economic principles. He stated that “A Socialist alternative would be likely to perpetuate the same indecencies as capitalism.” His view of an alternative society was founded on Christian principles and biblical theory rather than economic theory. He subjected economics to a wider, more universal inspection, and we can see evidence of the beginnlngs of this in ~’The Stones of Venice~ where he ~ declares that “All old work nearly has been hard work….ours has as constantly the look of money’s worth, of a stopping wherever and whenever we can, of a lazy compliance with low conditions….let us have done with this kind of work at once, cast off every temptation to it: do not let us ,~ degrade ourselves…” He transcends and questions the economic ends that were commonly taken to represent terminal social values in the nineteenth century. In this way he could avoid the economic pitfalls that enclosed the greater part of the debate about work and its direction in the nineteenth century. We can see in ~The Stones of Venice~ that he does not accept the ideal of economic efficiency when he condemns the overriding distinction between manual and intellectual labour. He proclaims that: “We are always these days endeavouring to separate the two: we want one man to be always thinking and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen in the best sense. As it is we make t both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.” ~ ~ He said that the current practice of this was “The most dangerous fissure in society” Indeed, his educational proposals were built on the need for the unity of the two. He states in ‘the Stones of Venice’ that ~ “The present form of work demands the destruction of education and ultimately civilisation.” If this is not a direct criticism of Victorian society it is difficult to imagine what would substantiate as one. He goes on to say that in each profession: “No master should be too proud to do its hardest work~’ and he states that although he accepts that there will always be more and less privileged people in human society these differences should be based only upon experience and skill. He says in ~The Stones of Venice~: “We usually fall into much error by considering the intellectual powers as having dignity in themselves….the truth is that the intellect becomes noble or ignoble according to the food we give it, and the kind of subjects with which it is conversant. It is not the reasoning power which, of itself, is noble, but the reasoning power occupied with its proper objects….” Ruskin is therefore saying that whether intellectual work is valuable or not depends upon its object and its purpose; it has no inherent value of its own. This kind of assertion, which is common in ‘The Stones of Venice’ and even appears in ~’The Seven Lamps of Architecture’~ can be seen to precede very directly Ruskin’s later attempts at community work in the Guild of St. George and his experiment of recruiting an intellectual workforce to rebuild the Hincksey road, which although largely unsuccessful and much ridiculed showed a real commitment to his view of an alternative society. His radical views on architectural style and the nature of work in ‘The Stones of Venice’ can be seen to predict very clearly his later revolutionary denunciations of society and his presentation of a programme for far reaching social change in ‘Unto This Last’ (1862) and ‘Fors Clavigera’ (1871-84) in their concern for humanist values as a pose to the utilitarian extremes of the day. Although ‘The Stones of Venlce’~ appears at first to be primarily a diatribe against the use of Renaissance style architecture, we can see even in this early work that his concern has little to do with the design and decoration of buildings and everything to do with the conditions of the workmen and values of the society that produced them. Indeed he regretted the reintroduction of a pseudo-gothic style in Victorian England that was instigated largely by his work as: “..the partial use of it which has mottled over manufacturing chimneys with black and red brick, dignified our banks and draper’s shops with Venetian tracery, and ~ / pitched our parish churches into dark and slippery arrangement for the advertisement of cheap coloured glass and peintiles.” He condemned the notion that the reproduction of the architecture produced by a moral society could reproduce a moral society, and when speaking in Bradford at a conference to decide the design of the new Wool Exchange he told his assembled audience that it did not matter what style they chose, that in the squalid misery of most modern cities an alteration of architectural style was superfluous, social change was the pressing need. His repeated efforts to distance himself from the Gothic Revival School are perhaps the best answer to his critics who claim that in ~The Stones of Venice~ his preoccupation with the conditions of labourers is only from the point of view of the effect it is bound to have on art and that he is primarily concerned that slavery degrades the work rather than the man. Even in 1849 in ~’The Seven Lamps of Architecture’~ he says in reference to the Revival~ “The stirring which has taken place in our architectural aims and interests within these last few years is thought by many to be full of promise: I trust it is, but it has a sickly look to me.” ~ In ascertaining why it would have been safe to predict in 1853 that Ruskin would become a social critic we are perhaps overlooking the question of whether ‘The Stones of Venice’~ was first and foremost about architectural style or about the conditions that produced it. If we accept the latter interpretation, that it was as a gauge or indication of the moral state of society that architecture was important, then it would be fair to say that even by 1853 Ruskin was a vehement critic of society. He condemns usury and hoarding of wealth even at this early stage and a great deal of his writing digresses to his radical ideas surrounding the changes he believed to be necessary in society. He is attempting even in this relatively early work to ‘turn our moral values on their heads’- a condition he later states to be necessary for any real improvement in society; he does not believe that the radical alterations he clearly sees as necessary can be brought about by any other means. Legislation or insurrection alone will not be enough in his opinion, far less a change in the style of our buildings.BIBLIOGRAPHY Anthony, P.D./ JOHN RUSKIN’S LABOUR (Cambridge Univ.Press) Ruskin, J./ THE SEVEN LAMPS OF ARCHITECTURE (Ballantyne) Ruskin, J./ THE STONES OF VENICE (Collins) Ruskin, J./ UNTO THIS LAST (Everyman)


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