Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Week 07, John Ruskin

Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, “The Nature of Gothic.”

The Renaissance in Venice should serve as a warning to the British Empire: just as that sea empire fell because of its debased pursuit of wealth and soulless perfection, so will England if it continues on its current path. Ruskin is a prophetic Sage-writer who alternately threatens damnation and promises redemption. Gothic architecture expresses the workers’ mental tendencies. “Fallen” but humble laborers built cathedrals. The products of their labor served as expressive offerings to god and dwelling places for him as well as gathering places for the faithful who are the invisible Church, spiritual community. So this is labor directed towards the achievement of spiritual community. Renaissance authors and critics such as Vasari condemned the Gothic as naïve and crude, stern and contemptible. But wildness is to be honored if it expresses spiritual striving. The fool sees not the same Church as the wise man sees, we might say after the manner of Blake. The Renaissance critics couldn’t see spiritual ramifications of labor; they gave in to the lust and over-refinement of the eye, which is to become blind. Renaissance pride in perfection, then, is selfish—their buildings are not offerings to god but monuments to the architects’ and patrons’ egos. The Renaissance amounts to a Second Fall that tries to overcome by science and technological perfection the effects of the First Fall. Venice the sea-empire fell because of its pridefulness and greedy commercialism. England, too is promoting sensualism, mechanism, false individualism cut off from relation to God. It puts its hopes not in the New Jerusalem but in a false Capitalist Utopia.

Servile Ornament: worker is slave performing to low standards.

Constitutional Ornament: medieval worker free; imperfect striving in labor honors God.

Revolutionary Ornament: Pride reigns in Renaissance art: workers must all be experts in minor tasks. Modern version of this is industrial division of labor—bead-makers, etc. The English seek Greek perfection by means of machinery; this necessarily tends towards Renaissance revolutionary debasement. Important to say tends because there’s still time to repent. Christianity values the individual soul; imperfect labor is an admission of one’s fallen condition, and valuing it shows right-minded criticism and a pure eye for expressions of spiritual striving. It shows that one’s priorities are straight: spirit before material perfection. Perfect work is limited, and it indicates complacency. The flaws in a fine, imperfect thing link it to infinity. This is similar to romanticism and Christian theology: a fragment is greater than the limited, finite whole because fragment indicates striving and progress upward. Man is a fragment of the Divine. Ruskin as a Christian emphasizes not Byronic attempts at self-transcendence but humility. Acknowledge your imperfections and express yourself through the medium of that imperfection. This is humility towards God. The body and the works of the body are finite; art/architecture are of value only insofar as they express the soul’s striving to break free, while still accepting that it cannot entirely do so.

We should consider the Hegelian hierarchy of art, with music highest because most free of matter. Clouds: reference to Turner. Clouds at once veil and bear the sun’s divine radiance. The worker’s failure, his limits (clouds), show his spiritual value. Clouds of any sort must be read, understood as semi-translucent markers of boundary between finite and infinite. Class and hierarchy are not, for Ruskin, the cause of chaos and Mammonism. Neither even is distribution of wealth. The problem is lack of satisfaction in grossly material work in the service of a grossly materialistic society. Similar to Marx on alienation, dehumanization. Ruskin says division of labor is division of human beings. He is not interested in accumulation or scientific progress; he largely rejects the whole Baconian empirical view of science as a handmaiden to humble amelioration of the human condition. Social solution is to encourage invention, not finish or imitation. Our attitude towards consumption must change; supply will adapt itself to more spiritualized demands on the part of consumers. Example: glass bead manufacture is slavery / opposed to imperfect Venetian glass. Work is the main human activity and source of value. Work must acknowledge imperfection; allow for expression of worker’s spirit, striving to please God.

Work is an offering, a sacrifice, the law of fallen life. It took a healthier society to make Venetian glass. The way glass is made shows how a society is functioning, what its priorities are. Venetian artisan infused his work with imagination; the modern worker is one tool among others. Thought and labor should not be separated, or else unhealthy class divisions become entrenched, antagonism rather than communal spirit animating noble hierarchy. Refer to Adam Smith on division of labor applying even to intellection. Foxglove / Human Nature: Always passing from one state to another. Read typologically: law of fallen life is change, imperfection, striving. Christian teleology of the figure: decay > bud > bloom. Humans are always oriented towards the spiritual future. One’s works are “blooms,” indicators of healthy spiritual progress. The foxglove is an imperfect-seeming, rude plant that nevertheless is prized for its beauty. No human work is perfect to god’s eyes. The effort, the attitude of the offering, elicits mercy. Recall the Cain/Abel story. Work must be imperfect to acknowledge that the human condition is imperfect. Ruskin’s stress on imperfection / incompleteness is a critique of capitalist utopia and Marxist utopia alike. He favors REDUNDANCY (a law of his style, too) against philosophies of production and material abundance. Not accumulation of money but accumulation of detail (organized or not) is the goal.

“There is no wealth but life.” Architecture is a romantic expressive poem for an entire people. The Gothic is the product of “the average power of man.” Gothic’s changefulness expresses one truth about humankind: desire of change; it’s what supposedly sets us beyond animal nature. Imperfection is the other truth. Humans are spiritual, restless, incomplete. Ruskin’s tradition is romantic expressivism—see Shelley’s “To a Skylark” and theory of poetic creation, which itself traces its notions back to biblical expressivism: work as expressive of spirit, an offering to god. R is almost utilitarian, oddly, in his emphasis on an economy of redundancy and richness: at least, the aim is pleasure.


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