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John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art, Part Two


October 27, 2016

Sometimes nowadays it’s not fashionable to talk about one work of literature being better than another much less that any given work of literature might be GREAT while a similar work might be not so great. Especially when it comes to contemporary literature or fairly recent literature. Is Cormac McCarthy a great novelist? What about Larry McMurtry? Are either what we might call a Great novelist? Usually we just let the question alone.

Even when it comes to the writers in the Canon we generally just let matters rest where they are. Of course there was that time back in the old days of the Canon Wars when a hardy few even questioned Shakespeare’s and Milton’s greatness.

Still–we generally can’t let the question go. What determines greatness in literature? It’s a Big Question.

But maybe help is on the way. Or not. Anyway, I’ve been working with John Ruskin here in The Literary Life lately, and for the last two installments I’ve been examining what this great thinker of the Victorian era had to say about greatness. Don’t forget, here’s a guy who had a mental breakdown because he was afraid he wasn’t being taken as a Great writer.

So I’ve posted an excerpt from Ruskin’s Modern Painters where he tackles this Big Question. Then yesterday I posted Part One of this series. There I quoted Ruskin on what matters in determining Greatness. All that’s well and good, but: What things are we not concerned with in determining what great art is? Remember, Ruskin said, “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….”

But then,  “I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.”

There you go. I hope that resolves all your questions. Of course there is the little matter of the “higher faculty of the mind.” A great idea, by which a work’s greatness is determined (and the more great ideas the better) can operate only on the “higher faculty” of your mind. So—do you have a higher faculty?

So, what makes a great writer or poet? Back to John Ruskin: “If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.”

You want to know which writer is greater than another? Add up the number of great ideas in each other’s work and compare them. Maybe I’m being a bit silly here and I apologize. Surely a work of literature that involves substantial ideas, substantial thinking, and that is received in a profound way by readers who really have a depth of mind that matters is a greater work of literature than another one that deals with less substantial thought. And the writer who in his or her whole body of work demonstrates such depth is greater than a writer whose work is less demonstrative of such. Right?

But what about works without such great ideas? What about comedy? (Shakespeare’s The Tempest?) Or farce? (Moliere’s A Physician in Spite of Himself?)

Or, what kinds of literary art in our time, I mean today, cannot be considered great (so says Ruskin) simply based upon their essential premise? Maybe fantasy? Or action thrillers? Cheap romance? I’d better stop before someone gets mad.

But, really, does John Ruskin have a point about what makes a work of literature GREAT. Is Ruskin correct? (Don’t forget the higher faculty of your mind when answering this question.)

I hope these discussions really make you think. I hope they are relevant to the literary life you lead. If you are new to The Literary Life blog click on #Big Questions in the tags and categories to see similar questions I have been treating this season and last.

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

Paul Varner


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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