60 in 60: #15 – Ruskin’s On Art and Life (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

On Art and Life
by John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Memorable Line
“…while in all things that we see or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may the more surely enjoy the complacency of success.”

The Skinny
The two essays included in this selection of John Ruskin’s work examine the role of the builder in what has been built, the role of setting, and the role of individuality in art.

Relevance? Argument?
I love John Ruskin’s writings. Whenever I read Ruskin’s work I always feel like I am safe, in that I’m going to read something that has a reverence for specific details but can also provide a wider context and framework for universal understanding. Ruskin builds his theories and observations on foundations as solid and yet fanciful as the architecture or art under discussion. He also often takes a comfortably conversational tone with the reader, even while talking about very “formal” elements of architecture. The Penguin text consists of two essays, “The Nature of Gothic” and “The Work of Iron,” and the book itself, appropriately enough, is one of the most beautiful in the series (this specific design by David Pearson).

Whenever I think of Ruskin, I think of Nabokov, too, in that Nabokov’s lectures on literature often focus on the specifics of, say, the floorplan of a house in one of Jane Austen’s novels. Nabokov’s point to his sometimes puzzled students was that these kinds of specific details greatly affect, and form the foundation of, the works under discussion–that just as one word cannot mean the same thing as another word, so too the particular details that comprise the imaginary structure of a novel cannot substitute for others; they have a meaning that gives life to the events and characters.

In Ruskin’s case, his discussions of, for example, the precise nature of Gothic architecture provide the reader with a foundation for an exploration of the nature of creativity, of setting–and even an argument for individuality over groupthink. In a very real way, Ruskin can be read not just as reveries about, say, the delights of Venetian architecture, but as a handbook for any creative person. I find Ruskin can inform my understanding of the craft of fiction even as he educates me about the nature of buildings.

My main problem in talking about Ruskin, I must confess, is a danger of over-quoting from him, because what I really want to do is sit down with each reader of this blog and spend an afternoon just reading Ruskin. Nevertheless, let me elaborate on a few of what I see as Ruskin’s virtues, especially as expressed through “The Nature of Gothic.”

First, I love Ruskin’s patience–his willingness to explain a concept in full to the reader, in a way that is vivid and interesting. As he first tackles the subject of the Gothic–in this case, to provide context because we are about to “enter upon examination of that school of Venetian architecture which forms an intermediate step between the Byzantine and Gothic forms”–Ruskin discusses varying degrees of Gothicness. In doing so, he confesses the difficulty of doing so, writing that it is the same difficulty encountered “by anyone who undertook to explain, for instance, the nature of Redness, without any actually red thing to point to, but only orange and purple things. Suppose he had only a piece of heather and a dead oak-leaf to do it with. He might say, the colour which is mixed with the yellow in this oak-leaf, and with the blue in this heather, would be red, if you had it separate; but it would be difficult, nevertheless, to make the abstraction perfectly intelligible,” and there is a similar difficulty in describing the Gothic. Why? Because “pointed arches do not constitute Gothic, nor vaulted roofs, nor flying buttresses, nor grotesque sculptures; but all or some of these things, and many other things with them, when they come together so as to have life.” Thus, Ruskin expresses the idea that his is an imprecise science, and yet the kind of science in which inanimate stone and wood must form a kind of chemical reaction, not a physical one, in order to become Art–or, in this case, true Gothic architecture. From this patient beginning, Ruskin can now open up his discussion of the Gothic in ways not dissimilar from the wild rhetorical devices of Swift (see: A Tale of a Tub) , if in a more controlled context, for a different purpose.

Second, I love the emotion and imagination in Ruskin’s expression of the attributes of architecture, because he fully understands that behind every building stands a person. Thus, he lists the characteristics of the Gothic as

1. Savageness
2. Changefulness
3. Naturalism
4. Grotesqueness
5. Rigidity
6. Redundance

but immediately adds that expressed as “belonging to the builder” these characteristics would be “1. Savageness or Rudeness. 2. Love of Change. 3. Love of Nature. 4. Disturbed Imagination. 5. Obstinacy. 6. Generosity.” Ruskin then tackles each attribute in turn, and it is not by chance that “Savageness or Rudeness” comes first, because, in the patience of his argument, he must first put aside the reader’s prejudice against the heaviness, sometimes the crudeness, of the Gothic. For this reason, we soon get as creative a fly-over of Europe as we might expect from Swift. It is Ruskin’s passion for his subject that comes through as he divides North from South, and then soars above each. The passage in question requires quotation in full to do it justice, a luxury of space not available herein, as Ruskin moves from the Alps to the Apennines, the Danube to the Volga, “Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue, chased, as we stoop nearer to them, with bossy beaten work of mountain chains, and glowing softly with terraced gardens, and flowers heavy with frankincense, mixed among masses of laurel and orange, and plumy palm, that abate with their grey-green shadows the burning of the marble rocks…”

Ruskin is, of course, making a case for the vast difference between North and South, from the landscape to the animals found there, and thus a case for “savagery and rudeness” being appropriate–indeed, an expression of–the Gothic of the North. And he does it within the kind of reverie one might expect instead from the Lake District poets.

Third, I love Ruskin’s ability to engage the reader in the nitty-gritty of the subject under discussion. From the soaring heights of a wheeling eagle’s flight, Ruskin brings us down low, to a worker’s viewpoint. He examines the architectural styles of various eras, with an assessment of the skill level of the laborers involved, from the Egyptians forward. In so doing, he contrasts the ideal of perfection at a lower level of imagination with the imperfection inherent in allowing your reach to exceed your grasp: “…you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature [worker], or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must dehumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must go to the accomplishment of the mean act.” From this detailed but remote series of images, Ruskin then leaps forward to his own time period, urging the reader to “look round this English room of yours,” decrying the kind of dead perfection to be found there as evidence of the slavery of working men in a “feudal” system. Ruskin then slyly asks the reader to re-examine the “old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors: examine once more those ugly goblins and formless monsters, and stern statues…but do not mock them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone.” Like Swift, Ruskin has a three-dimensional imagination, one that allows him to operate at multiple levels of experience and detail, one that allows him to use extended metaphors in a coherent and often brilliant way, all in the service of making a multi-faceted argument that nonetheless has focus and depth. (I know I keep going back to Swift, but among everything I’ve read for the 60 in 60 thus far, Swift has the most in common with Ruskin.)

Fourth, I love Ruskin’s ability to make a political statement through his writings about art. There is something stirring in his defense of individuality, something that engages me more than anything in Rousseau and yet seems akin to Rousseau, even as I recognize a note of false romanticism: “Men may be beaten, chained, tormented…and yet remain in one sense, and the best sense, free. But to smother their souls with them, to blight and hew into rotting pollards the suckling branches of their human intelligence…this is to be slave-masters indeed.”

Fifth, I love Ruskin’s defense of ambition and audacity in art, which I read as an admiration for these qualities in creative work generally. Ruskin loves a risk-taker, understands in his gut that perfection can be a signal of a lack of imagination. We have but one life–why would we then devote that life to the attainment of a stifling standard that is about as exciting as mentally noting a mile marker when we drive by it. To be great, we must attempt so much that we not only are in danger of forever failing, but that we do fail, and in the failure create something greater than if we had set our sights lower. Otherwise, we become what Schopenhauer called creators who “shine moreover only with a borrowed light, and their sphere of influence is limited to their own fellow travellers.” Ruskin writes, “in the work of man, those which are more perfect in their kind are always inferior to those which are, in their nature, liable to more faults and shortcomings. For the finer the nature, the more flaws it will show through the clearness of it; and it is a law of this universe, that the best things shall be seldomest seen in their best form…”

And all of this just within Ruskin’s discussion of the Gothic quality of Savagery.

To elaborate on the many other joys of Ruskin would be to overstay my welcome today, so I will end now with a personal confession: Ruskin was conscripted as a character mentioned in “The Early History of Ambergris,” from my mosaic novel City of Saints and Madmen. Paraphrased quotes from Ruskin dominate discussion in certain sections of my “Early History,” helping to define my imaginary city. Thus, since he has been so long internalized, revisiting Ruskin here has been like sitting down with a brandy and cigar with a good friend after several years apart. It is a pleasure I recommend for all readers.

Ruskin would no doubt make for a delightful dinner companion, in either his era or ours.

Question for Readers
Is there, for you, a style of architecture that creates a strong emotional response? Why?

Next up, Charles Darwin’s On Natural Selection…


  1. says

    Excellent post, Jeff, a pleasure to read. I’ve been interested in Ruskin ever since I read about him in Alain de Botton’s book ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life’, in which he traces Proust’s fascination with Ruskin, and details the many workshops Ruskin set up for laborers to learn how to draw and in doing so truly see the world about them.

    As for architecture: I find that particularly garish and modern buildings from the 70’s make me shudder, while any massive, contained space like that to be found within a cathedral or airplane hangar give me a pleasurable thrill. The greater the space enclosed, the stronger the sense of the sublime.

  2. says

    Phil–Thanks for that re Proust, which I didn’t know. I’ve passed on that book as perhaps too trendy, but now I think I’ll pick it up.

    I have a slightly different reaction to certain 70s buildings–I see them as imposed upon us by an alien intelligence and find them fascinating. Still shudder-inducing, but fascinating.

    I agree about cathedrals!


  3. says

    Despite living less than 5 miles from Ruskin Cave most of my life, I never bothered reading about John Ruskin and how his ideas influenced the Ruskin Settlement until this year. I need to read this book.

    As for architecture, white clapboard buildings inspire shudders in me, while I find myself preferring more “open,” villa-style architecture. Oh, and the 1920s-1930s Art Deco style buildings in Miami are beautiful. I loved the view when driving into the city from I-95 North and seeing those gorgeous buildings, like the cathedral there.

  4. says

    Wow, I finally read this installment of your 60 in 60, and it’s the best one so far! So glad I came back to it.

    My favorite architecture? 1930s Art Deco and all that stuff William Gibson describes in The Gernsback Continuum. Also, that look from the late fifties and early sixties, with colorful flying-wing coffee tables and crisp, clean NBC peacock lines. Because they seem exciting but safe. “Nothing’s gonna touch us in these golden years” – David Bowie.

  5. dick says

    I thought this was interesting. My favorite architectures are both Art Deco and the Wlliam Morris group designs. I think I need the “hand of man” involved and showing before I can appreciate the architecture and design of things.

    I have lately started cooking in hand made clay pots from South America and Italy. I enjoy the slight imperfections in the details that show a human made them and I also think it makes me enjoy the food a little more. Probably all a psychological artifact but it does makes a difference in the way I look at things. If they are all perfect I tend to disregard them as if they were turned out on an unfeeling assembly line. I think that is part of what interests me if the quotes from Ruskin in your article.

  6. says

    I’ve been reading through your 60 in 60 and simply had to comment at this point! Thanks for the insightful commentary on these books. The first dozen I’ve been unfamiliar with (personally), but these next few titles are authors that I’ve read. Anyway, thanks again and to the topic at hand:

    As a classical major I’ve found that I’ve fallen in love with classical architecture, not neo classical, or the common misconception of what classical architecture is. No, the idea of bold, garish painted buildings and statues appeals to me, it is so alien to modern architecture which seems much more concerned with “clean” lines and muted colors. Nostalgic of me, but it makes me think that the men who designed and built these buildings (many of them actually participated hands-on) were willing to be bold and messy, while still creating structures that remain mathematically beautiful.

  7. richard says