The anger of John Ruskin

Ruskin’s illustrious career as art critic and cultural thinker begins when he is a teenager. The October 1836 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine contained an attack on the later paintings of Turner. Ruskin père was a wealthy and generous wine merchant who had raised his only son in awareness of art, and to be capable of the disinterest that is required to sustain a noble passion. Ruskin fils was from his beginning filled with an unselfish anger. It is an anger that is borne of love.

It applied to more than landscape painting, and his first series of books, Modern Painters, merely started with his beloved Turner. The five volumes, displaced through time, are also a chronicle of his growing sense of an entire civilization, hidden from us but looking at us from within art. By volume two, his range had encompassed the Old Masters of the Renaissance; and then “Christian Art” became his subject. Eventually, in essays moral and political — in talks to artists, craftsmen, working men — he went to war against what had failed within that civilization.

His dates become identical with those of Nietzsche; both died in 1900. Though Nietzsche is a generation younger, their public hectoring flourished in the same decades, but both complete the balance of their lives quite insane. But whereas Ruskin’s derangement tended to quiet and soften him, and turn his attention to harmless and cheerful memoir, Nietzsche’s best works were written in his derangement, until the tumour in his head retired him.

It is curious that Ruskin is routinely given credit for his own intellectual degeneration, by our Anglo-Saxon art historians. They see it, I suppose, as a consequence of his resistance to modernity. Yet from the beginning, he was equipped with acute self-understanding, and when you read him (which we don’t do any more) you discover a remarkable gift of humility, actually rising from the anger. At an early age, when accused of being cocky, he wrote a delightful self-criticism admitting the charge, and cataloguing his youthful rhetorical excesses. He was consistently polite, and kindly in person; generous, like his father. When the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Millais, stole his pretty young wife, he would not allow it to disturb his friendship, and he continued to write of Millais with esteem.

Indeed, the remarkable thing about Ruskin’s anger is the purity of it. He is appalled by the glibness of his cultural surroundings; by the aesthetic lies that are communicated through it. He must stand up to them. He must do so all by himself, and may be forgiven for mistakes of his era. (A few.) His prose is always graceful, and his production immense.

Ruskin astounded me, when I was a teenager myself and reading him, by his sharpness and directness. He pointed out that Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Thomas Gainsborough, did not paint madonnas. Blam! One caught a sudden glimpse of the spiritual poverty that had overcome England since the Reformation, and which had poisoned the English-speaking world. Ruskin had overcome it, single-handedly, as one must always do with England.

For Ruskin, “the seven lamps of” architecture could be seen as a species of poetry, having little to do with building technology, and the fact of unworthy building was apparent wherever the staleness of “efficient business” had prevailed. Today, it is not just the vileness and ugliness of our commercial buildings, however. The cancer has spread through every human settlement. A genuinely beautiful Catholic church has not been designed in several generations, or perhaps centuries. Our hands and minds have failed to provide us, with this crucial need.

We must cultivate a pure anger.