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

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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.

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Paul Varner

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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.

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Paul Varner

 

John Ruskin’s Definition of Greatness in Art: Text from Modern Painters

ruskin-cartoon-as-teacher-an01150308_001_lJohn Ruskin as a Teacher. Contemporary Cartoon.

October 26, 2016

The next several blog posts on John Ruskin will relate to this excerpt from one of the massive works of art criticism and scholarship that primarily make John Ruskin’s reputation of one of the greatest thinkers of Victorian England and beyond. What Ruskin says here in relation to visual art has relevance to literary art as well.

from MODERN PAINTERS, “A Definition of Greatness in Art”

The Text from vol. 1, part 1, section 1, chapter 2

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. 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. 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. The language is, indeed, more difficult of acquirement in the one case than in the other, and possesses more power of delighting the sense, while it speaks to the intellect; but it is, nevertheless, nothing more than language, and all those excellences which are peculiar to the painter as such, are merely what rhythm, melody, precision, and force are in the words of the orator and the poet, necessary to their greatness, but 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….

***

[If] I say that the greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas, I have a definition which will include as subjects of comparison every pleasure which art is capable of conveying. If I were to say, on the contrary, that the best picture was that which most closely imitated nature, I should assume that art could only please by imitating nature; and I should cast out of the pale of criticism those parts of works of art which are not imitative, that is to say, intrinsic beauties of colour and form, and those works of art wholly, which, like the Arabesques of Raffaelle in the Loggias, are not imitative at all. Now, I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim. I do not say, therefore, that the art is greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach, and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But 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.

   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.

 

 

John Ruskin as a Teacher

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October 25, 2016

We usually remember of the great Victorian critic of art, literature, and culture, John Ruskin, for his massive multivolume works: Modern Painters in five volumes (1843-1960) or Stones of Venice in three volumes (1851-1853). But Ruskin was also the Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford for many years. Especially in his later years his reputation among undergraduates filled his lecture rooms. Here is the great English poet A. E. Housman looking back to his college days in 1877 and to a lecture by the eminent Professor Ruskin. The lecture was as much as about water and air pollution in England as about Great Art.

“This afternoon Ruskin gave us a great outburst against modern times. He had got a picture of Turner’s, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river. He read the account of Wolsey’s death out of Henry VIII. Then he pointed to the picture as representing Leicester when Turner had drawn it. Then he said, ‘You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess.’ Then he caught up a paintbrush. ‘These stepping-stones of course have been done away with, and are replaced by a be-au-ti-ful iron bridge.’ Then he dashed in the iron bridge on the glass of the picture. ‘The color of the steam is supplied on one side by the indigo factory.’ Forthwith one side of the steam became indigo. ‘On the other side of the soap factory.’ Soap dashed in. ‘They mix in the middle like curds,’ he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. ‘This field, over which you see the sun setting by the abbey, is now occupied in a proper manner.’ Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and red brick, and rushed up into a chimney. ‘The atmosphere is supplied—thus!’ A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner’s sky: and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilization amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now, as he has this term become immensely popular, his lectures being crowded, whereas of old he used to prophesy to empty benches.”

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Paul Varner

John Ruskin and Rose La Touche

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October 20, 2016

John Ruskin and Rose La Touche

Years after John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray collapsed due to his lack of sexual attraction for her (and despite her being regarded as one of the most beautiful women of her day), Ruskin met a nine-year old girl named Rose La Touche. He was 40. But wait. Don’t jump to too many conclusions. Well, maybe you can jump to one or two.

The attraction was not, they say, ahem, entirely one way. But the two maintained a close, probably Platonic relationship, at least in the Victorian style. But La Touche turned Ruskin’s marriage proposal down when she was eighteen.

The sticking point was her staunchly pious Evangelical faith that Ruskin could not embrace. Rose La Touche died at age 25 after bouts of mental illness.

So John Ruskin’s personal life—what a guy, by the way—was fraught with tumult which no doubt contributed to his own numerous breakdowns. How his problems affected him he speculated upon in his autobiography:

“I wonder mightily what sort of creature I should have turned out, if instead of the distracting and useless pain, I had had the joy of approved love, and the untellable, incalculable motive of its sympathy and praise. It seems to me such things are not allowed in the world. The men capable of the highest imaginative passion are always tossed on fiery waves by it.”

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Paul Varner

John Ruskin’s Marriage

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October 18, 2016

You really need to know something about the second most famous literary scandal (behind Oscar Wilde’s problems) of the Victorian age—John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray.

Gray married Ruskin in 1848, but nearly everything about the marriage of six years was trouble. Evidently Ruskin just simply loathed Gray. He could not bring himself to consummate the marriage. It was a completely celibate relationship—not mutually, however. Why? Well, Ruskin testified at the end that to him Effie Gray simply was too ugly; she was not physically attractive.

Don’t stop reading.

Ok, what do you say? But here’s the thing. Effie Gray was considered one of the most beautiful women of her day. Go to Google images and type in her name. You will pull up dozens more images of Ruskin’s “ugly” wife than you see here. She was a favorite model of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Her figure and face showed up everywhere in those days. This was a celebrity marriage gone bad. The painter John Millais fell in love with her when she modeled for him and after Ruskin’s annulment they eventually married.

 

Ah well. If you want the details download or stream the 2014 film Effie Gray, starring Dakota Fanning.

Again, what do you say? But alas for Ruskin, his problems did not end with the annulment of his marriage. Have you ever heard of Rose La Touche? Well, stay tuned, because, again, Ruskin’s next affair was not the usual story.

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Paul Varner

John Ruskin’s Mental Breakdowns

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October 13, 2016

John Ruskin’s essential biography is well known and you can find all you need to know in Wikipedia, so I’m not going to compete with that. I do, however, want to talk about a few more famous episodes in his life that might make him more than just a face on a cigar box to you. I mean, go to a good university library and just look at the rows upon rows of all Ruskin’s works on the shelves. There you will see his expansive multivolume works like Modern Painters in five volumes (1843-1960) or Stones of Venice in three volumes (1851-1853), and many more. You’re not going to read John Ruskin on your Kindle.

So what were the tabloid news stories of 19th century that our man here participated in? Well, first his mental breakdowns. By 1860, his career in full swing, the famous John Ruskin, eminent man of letters, critic, and trending influencer if ever there was one, began to despair. Seemingly his fame had peaked and his followers were beginning to turn away from him. He had been seeing himself as a prophet for his age. Here was the man who was determining in chapter after chapter, volume after volume, the opinions on painting and architecture for his time. Here he was pointing out problems with all that was current, including strong criticism of economic and environmental policy. You may not have agreed with him, but his ideas mattered.

Yet the age seemed to be moving in directions opposite his own. Then it all came crashing down. The first collapse came in 1860. He recorded these times in Fors Clavigera (1880): “The doctors said I went mad, that time two years ago, from overwork.” Such was preposterous because he had not been working any harder than usual. Instead, he said, “I went mad because nothing came of my work . . . because after I got [my work] published, nobody believed a word of them.”

Ruskin continued to suffer periodic mental breakdowns from 1875 to his death in1900.

Well, ok, but both Ruskin and his doctors may have been glossing over much bigger problems than merely his perception that he was losing his following due to his ideas. Actually, while his ideas met sharp criticism, matters in his relationships with women were the real news of the day. But his was not the same old story. Not at all.

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Paul Varner

John Ruskin and the Literary Life

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October 11, 2016

Obviously, there are many ways of thinking about the literary life. For most of us, living the literary life is a passive experience consisting primarily of reading Great Literature for pleasure and thinking about matters literary. Some of us study and write about Great Literature. Many of us are content with leading a sedentary life, dwelling in our studies at home or visiting great libraries the way others visit famous art galleries. Then we have the John Ruskins of the world, people who change world attitudes, who write some of the most profound studies of literature in history. These are the people who write based upon incredible amounts of reading and study. Let’s look back at John Ruskin.

The Victorian Age in England (1837-1901) was an era in which a number of writers could make claim to being a dominant figure of their generation. One such figure was Ruskin, the literary, art, architecture, and cultural critic. His lush and rhythmical prose style makes even some of his more erudite works readable and memorable.

So often writers of even more recent times than Ruskin’s are unreadable today because their ideas and their writing styles simply date their work out of interest to any but scholars and pedants. But Ruskin’s ideas, controversial in his time, remain fresh today, still relevant, and often still influential.

In the last few weeks I posted two anecdotes in my First Impressions series of young Ruskin’s coming of age. Let’s start looking at this great man of letters and a few of his ideas.

Here is one of those people who lived out the literary life fully if not without personal turmoil.

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Paul Varner

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