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John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art? Part 1

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October 27, 2016

Yesterday I posted to The Literary Life a short excerpt from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters that handles one of the biggest of the Big Questions relating to art or literature: What makes one work of art great and another one not great. So I urge you to scroll back in the blog one day to that selection from Modern Painters. Now, all of Ruskin’s examples are from painting, but as far as I know everyone agrees, it is a given, that what Ruskin says about great painting also applies to Great Literature.

Ok, let’s think for a minute. How do we evaluate literature? Do we just say I like what I see and that’s good enough for me? Well, of course, sometimes it really doesn’t matter. But if you are like me, especially as I was when I was pretty young, you surely have wondered why it a universal given that, say, William Shakespeare is a great–with a capital G—GREAT playwright and poet whereas (I know I am going to get into trouble for this) J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, is not a GREAT playwright and writer. Or substitute any two extremes of writers that you like. There clearly is a difference that goes way, way beyond “O gee whiz everybody has a right to their [sic.] own opinion.” This might be a good time for you to go way back into the archives of The Literary Life to that series I had last year on “What is Good Taste?” in literature.

As then, I am not promoting my opinions so much as I am merely asking you to think about these Big Questions by seeing what some of the great minds of the past have thought about them.

I have posted several celebrated facts of John Ruskin’s life and reputation recently. So here, let’s see what Ruskin has to say about the matter at hand: how do we evaluate a work’s tendency to greatness?

First, what is the importance of an artist’s carefully trained technique or lack thereof in determining greatness?

Ok, go John Ruskin. Tell us. How about this quote: “Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.”

What, you say? You mean all that work you did at the Chicago Art Institute the last four years for your MFA doesn’t make your painting great? Or, look buddy, I got an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and that’s not good enough?

Well, ahem, let’s get back to Professor Ruskin who says, “He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed.” All that technique and craftsmanship is not enough.

Again, “He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet.” And, it is “nothing more than language.”

But relax. You didn’t waste your time learning technique. Ruskin does provide a caveat to all the above. Matters of technique of all kinds are necessary for a work of art to be great, but they are “not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”

Now, unfortunately, it seems to me as a critic that there are way to many writers or would-be writers who skip right past the whole technique and craft thing and head right toward saying (or “saying”) something great.

Of course, before Modernism, what mattered as far as technique and craft was pretty clear-cut. It’s always a good question to explore, for readers and writers, what matters by way of craft and technique, for us as postmodern readers and writers. Again, clearly some technical details do matter. What are they? Some things are obvious in, oh, say film production. but what about for poetry? For fiction? What about drama? I don’t know if I can tell you.  I could make a few guess, but I’ll bet there are those ready to tell you.

There we go, John Ruskin beginning his discussion on what makes a work of art great. Stay tuned for more.

If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.

Paul Varner

 

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