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An essay by Vernon Lee

Ruskinism, The Would-Be Study Of A Conscience

Title:     Ruskinism, The Would-Be Study Of A Conscience
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

I give a place to the following pages, because, for all the difference of form, this essay is of the same sort, has had the same kind of origin, as the so seemingly incongruous studies with which it is bound up. For this also is the rough putting together of notes made at various times and in various phases of study; it is a series of self-questionings and answers, of problems, perhaps only half-formulated and half-solved, which have arisen round one man, one artist, one art philosophy, even as in the adjoining essays they have arisen around some one statue, or song, or picture; self-questionings and problems, these present ones, not of aesthetic right and wrong suggested by a given work of art, but of moral fitness and unfitness suggested by the doubts, the divisions, the mistakes, by the comprehension (or, if you prefer, the misapprehension) of the conscience of perhaps the greatest and strangest artist of our days.

* * * * *

John Ruskin stands quite isolated among writers on art. His truths and his errors are alike of a far higher sort than the truths and errors of his fellow-workers: they are truths and errors not of mere fact, nor of mere reasoning, but of tendency, of moral attitude; and his philosophy is of far greater importance than any other system of aesthetics, because it is not the philosophy of the genius, evolution or meaning of any art or of all art, but the philosophy of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of all and every art. In the case of every other writer on art the evils due to a false system are, in proportion to the great interests of our lives and of the life around, but very paltry evils: the evils of misconceiving the relations between various masters and various schools, and the causes of various artistic phenomena; the evils of misappreciating a work or a form of art, of preferring an inferior picture, or statue or piece of music, to a superior one; the evils of buying fluttering St. Theresas of Bernini rather than noble goddesses of Scopas; of ornamenting our houses with plaster dragons, grimacing toothless masks, and meagre lines of lintel and clumsy agglomerations of columns, rather than with the leaf and flower moulding, the noble arches and dainty cornices of mediaeval art; the evils in short of not understanding quite well or of not appreciating quite correctly. Very important evils within the limited sphere of our artistic interests, and which we must not neglect to eradicate; but evils such as cannot deeply trouble our whole nature, or seriously damage our whole lives. Such is the case with the aesthetic systems, with the truths and errors of men like Winckelmann, Lessing, Hegel, or Taine; but it is not so with the aesthetic system of Ruskin. For the theories of all other writers on art deal only with the meaning and value of one work or school of art compared with another work or school; they deal only with the question how much of our liking or disliking should we give to this art or to that; they are all true or false within the region allotted to art. But the theories of Ruskin deal with the comparative importance of artistic concerns and the other concerns of our lives: they deal with the problem, how much of our thoughts and our energies we have a right to give to art, and for what reasons we may give any portion of them: it deals with the question of the legitimacy not of one kind of artistic enjoyment more than another, but of the enjoyment of art at all.

The question may at first sight seem futile from its very magnitude: unnecessary because it has so long been answered. In the first moment many of us may answer with contempt that the thinking men and women of to-day are not ascetics of the Middle Ages, nor utilitarians of the 18th century, nor Scotch Calvinists, that they should require to be taught that beauty is neither sinful nor useless, that enjoyment of art is not foul self-indulgence nor childish pastime. And so at first it seems. The thinking men and women of our day are not any of these things, and do not require to be answered these questions. But though these scruples and doubts no longer trouble us, we, in our nineteenth century, are yet not entirely at peace in our hearts. For, just in proportion as the old religious faith is dying out, we are feeling the necessity to create a new; as the old vocations of belief are becoming fewer and further between, the new vocations of duty are becoming commoner; as the old restrictions of the written law are melting away, so there appears the new restriction of the unwritten law, the law of our emancipated conscience; and the less we go to our priests, the more do we go to our own inner selves to know what we may do and what we should sacrifice: with our daily growing liberty, grows and must grow, to all the nobler among us, our responsibility. Nay, the more we realise that we have but this one brief life wherein to act and to expiate, the more earnestly do we ask ourselves to what use we should put the little that is vouchsafed us. And thus it comes to pass that there exist among us many who, seeing the evil around them, seeing the infinitude of falsehood which requires to be dispelled and of pain which requires to be alleviated, and of injustice which requires to be destroyed, must occasionally pause and ask themselves what right they have to give all, or any, of their limited time and thought and energy to the mere enjoyment of the beautiful, when there exists on all sides evil which it seems to require unlimited effort to quell. Many there must be, and every day more, who are harried by their love of art and their sense of duty, who daily ask themselves the question which first arose, nearly forty years ago, in the mind of John Ruskin; and which, settled by false answers, has recurred to him ever and anon, and has shaken and shattered the very system which was intended to answer it for ever.

John Ruskin has been endowed as have been very few men as an artist, a critic, and a moralist; in the immense chaotic mass, the constantly altered and constantly propped up ruins of an impossible system, which constitute the bulk of his writings, he has taught us more of the subtle reasons of art, he has reproduced with his pen more of the beauty of physical nature, and he has made us feel more profoundly the beauty of moral nature, than has, perhaps, been done separately by any critic, or artist, or moralist of his day. He has possessed within himself two very perfect characters, has been fitted out for two very noble missions:--the creation of beauty and the destruction of evil; and of these two halves each has been warped; of these two missions each has been hampered; warped and hampered by the very nobility of the man's nature: by his obstinate refusal to compromise with the reality of things, by his perpetual resistance to the evidence of his reason, by his heroic and lamentable clinging to his own belief in harmony where there is discord, in perfection where there is imperfection. There are natures which cannot be coldly or resignedly reasonable, which, despite all possible demonstration, cannot accept evil as a necessity and injustice as a fact; which must believe their own heart rather than their own reason; and when we meet such natures, we in our cold wisdom must look upon them with pity, perhaps, and regret, but with admiration and awe and envy. Such a nature is that of John Ruskin. He belongs, it is true, to a generation which is rapidly passing away; he is the almost isolated champion of creeds and ideas which have ceased even to be discussed among the thinking part of our nation; he is a believer not only in Good and in God, but in Christianity, in the Bible, in Protestantism; he is, in many respects, a man left far behind by the current of modern thought; but he is, nevertheless, and unconsciously, perhaps, to himself, the greatest representative of the highly developed and conflicting ethical and aesthetical nature which is becoming more common in proportion as men are taking to think and feel for themselves; his is the greatest example of the strange battles and compromises which are daily taking place between our moral and our artistic halves; and the history of his aspirations and his errors is the type of the inner history of many a humbler thinker and humbler artist around us.

When, nearly forty years ago, Ruskin first came before the world with the wonderful book--wonderful in sustained argument and description, and in obscure, half crazy, half prophetic utterances--called Modern Painters, it was felt that a totally new power had entered the region of artistic analysis. It was not the subtle sympathy with line and curve, with leaf and moulding, nor the wondrous power of reproducing with mere words the depths of sky and sea, the radiancies of light and the flame and smoulder of cloud; it was not his critical insight nor his artistic faculty which drew to him at once the souls of a public so different, in its universality, from the small eclectic bands which surround other aestheticians; it was the feeling, in all who read his books, that this man was giving a soul to the skies and seas; that he was breathing human feeling into every carved stone and painted canvas; that he was bidding capital and mosaic, nay, every rudest ornament hewn by the humblest workman, to speak to men with the voice of their own heart; that for the first time there had been brought into the serene and egotistic world of art the passion, the love, and the wrath of righteousness. He came into it as an apostle and a reformer, but as an apostle and a reformer strangely different from Winckelmann and Schlegel, from Lessing and Goethe. For, while attacking the architecture of Palladio and the painting of Salvator Rosa; while expounding the landscapes of Turner and the churches of Verona, he was not merely demolishing false classicism and false realism, not merely vindicating a neglected artist or a wronged school: he was come to sweep usurping evil out of the kingdom of art, and to reinstate as its sole sovereign no human craftsman, but God himself.

God or Good: for to Ruskin the two words have but one meaning. God and Good must receive the whole domain of art; it must become the holy of holies, the temple and citadel of righteousness. To do this was the avowed mission of this strange successor, haughty and humble, and tender and wrathful, of the pagan Winckelmann, of the coldly serene Goethe. How came John Ruskin by this mission, or why should his mission differ so completely from that of all his fellows? Why should he insist upon the necessity of morally sanctifying art, instead of merely aesthetically reforming it? Why was it not enough for him that artistic pleasure should be innocent, without trying to make it holy? Because, for Ruskin's nature, compounded of artist and moralist, artistic engagement was a moral danger, a distraction from his duty--for Ruskin was not the mere artist, who, powerless outside his art, may, because he can only, give his whole energies to it; he was not the mere moralist who, indifferent to art, can give it a passing glance without interrupting for a moment his work of good; he felt himself endowed to struggle for righteousness and bound to do so, and he felt himself also irresistibly attracted by mere beauty. To the moral nature of the man this mere beauty, which threatened to absorb his existence, became positively sinful; while he knew that evil was raging without requiring all his energies to quell it, every minute, every thought diverted from the cause of good was so much gain for the cause of evil; innocence, mere negative good, there could not be, as long as there remained positive evil. Thus it appeared to Ruskin. This strange knight-errant of righteousness, conscious of his heaven endowed strength, felt that during every half-hour of delay in the Armida's garden of art, new rootlets were being put forth, new leaves were being unfolded by the enchanted forest of error which overshadowed and poisoned the earth, and which it was his work to hew and burn down; that every moment of reluctant farewell from the weird witch of beauty meant a fresh outrage, an additional defiling of the holy of holies to rescue which he had received his strong muscle and his sharp weapons. Thus, refusing to divide his time and thoughts between his moral work and his artistic, Ruskin must absolutely and completely abandon the latter; if art seemed to him not merely a waste of power, but an absolute danger for his nobler side, there evidently was no alternative but to abjure it for ever. But a man cannot thus abandon his own field, abjure the work for which he is specially fitted; he may mortify, and mutilate and imprison his body, but he cannot mortify or mutilate his mind, he cannot imprison his thoughts. John Ruskin was drawn irresistibly towards art because he was specially organised for it. The impossible cannot be done: nature must find a vent, and the artistic half of Ruskin's mind found its way of eluding the apparently insoluble difficulty: his desire reasoned, and his desire was persuaded. A revelation came to him: he was neither to compromise with sin nor to renounce his own nature. For it struck him suddenly that this irresistible craving for the beautiful, which he would have silenced as a temptation of evil, was in reality the call to his mission; that this domain of art, which he had felt bound to abandon, was in reality the destined field for his moral combats, the realm which he must reconquer for God and for Good. Ruskin had considered art as sinful as long as it was only negatively innocent: by the strange logic of desire he made it positively righteous, actively holy; what he had been afraid to touch, he suddenly perceived that he was commanded to handle. He had sought for a solution of his own doubts, and the solution was the very gospel which he was to preach to others; the truth which had saved him was the truth which he must proclaim. And that truth, which had ended Ruskin's own scruples, was that the basis of art is moral; that art cannot be merely pleasant or unpleasant, but must be lawful or unlawful, that every legitimate artistic enjoyment is due to the perception of moral propriety, that every artistic excellence is a moral virtue, every artistic fault is a moral vice; that noble art can spring only from noble feeling, that the whole system of the beautiful is a system of moral emotions, moral selections, and moral appreciation; and that the aim and end of art is the expression of man's obedience to God's will, and of his recognition of God's goodness.

Such was the solution of Ruskin's scruples respecting his right of giving to art the time and energies he might have given to moral improvement; and such the aesthetical creed which he felt bound, by conviction and by the necessity of self-justification, to develop into a system and to apply to every single case. The notion of making beauty not merely a vague emanation from the divinity, as in the old platonic philosophies, but a direct result, an infallible concomitant of moral excellence; of making the physical the mere reflexion of the moral, is indeed a very beautiful and noble idea; but it is a false idea. For--and this is one of the points which Ruskin will not admit--the true state of things is by no means always the noblest or the most beautiful; our longing for ineffable harmony is no proof that such harmony exists: the phantom of perfection which hovers before us is often not the mirage of some distant reality, but a mere vain shadow projected by our own desires, which we must follow, but may never obtain. In the soul of all of us exists, oftenest fragmentary and blurred, a plan of harmony and perfection which must serve us as guide in our workings, in our altering and rebuilding of things; but we must not expect that with this plan should coincide the actual arrangements of nature; we must beware lest we use as a map of the earth into which we have been created the map of the heaven which we seek to create; for we shall find that the ways are different, we shall go astray bewildered and in bitterness, we shall sit down in despair in this country which is evil where it should have been good, arid where it should have been fruitful, and we shall uselessly weep or rage until all the time for our journeyings and workings is over, and death has come to ask how much we have done. Sin and Pain and Injustice are realities, and what is worse, they are necessities: they are not despite Nature, but through Nature; destructive forces perhaps, but which Nature requires for her endless work of construction; punished perhaps in the individual wretch devoted to them, but ordered nevertheless by that same punishing power which requires them. And worse still, evil and good are not opponents, they are not for ever destroying each other's work, for ever marshalled in battle against each other; they are combined though hostile, used in the same great work of action and reaction: together they build and destroy, together they are knit in closest and most twisted bonds of cause and effect; bonds so close, so inextricably crossed and recrossed that severing one of them, tearing and cutting them asunder, it seems as if the whole universe would crash down upon us. In this world of reality where evil leads to good and life to death; where harmonies are imperfect, there is no unvarying correspondence between things, no necessary genesis of good from good, and evil from evil. There is much conflict and much isolation. And thus the world of the physically beautiful is isolated from the world of the morally excellent: there is sometimes correspondence between them, and sometimes conflict, but both accidental and due to no inner affinity, but only to exterior causes: most often there is no relation at all. For the qualities of right and wrong, and of beautiful and ugly, and our perceptions of them, belong to different parts of our being, even as to a yet different part of our being belong our perception of true and false, that is, of existing and non-existing. A true thing need by no means be a good or a beautiful thing: that generations of men are doomed to sin and misery is no good fact; that millions of putrifying bodies lie beneath the ground is no beautiful fact, but both are nevertheless true facts, true with that truth of which science, had it perception of good and of beauty as well as mere perception of truth, should say, "I recognize, but I shudder"--And thus also is it with the good and the beautiful: they have no connection except that, each in its kingdom, is the best, the desirable, that for which we should all strive, that for which the whole of nature, despite its inextricable evils, seems to crave and to struggle. A pure state of soul is like a pure state of body: a morbid craving is like a disease; a noble moral attitude is like a noble physical attitude: moral excellence and physical beauty are both the healthy, the perfect; but they are the healthy, the perfect, in two totally different halves of nature, and we perceive and judge them by totally different organisms. Whence our moral instincts have come, or how they ever entered into the scheme of a world in which there is so much to shock them; how the preference for the good of others was ever evolved out of the preference for the good of self is a question most speedily solved by the men of science who seek the reasons why Christ is good and the thinned gold-leaved poplars by the river are beautiful, in the living nerves of ripped-up beasts; this much is evident that moral instinct judges that part of actions which is neither to be felt with our hands, nor to be seen with our eyes, nor to be tasted or heard or smelt: it judges and finds good or evil certain qualities or combinations of qualities which do not materially exist: things which though they have as real an existence as anything which can be tasted or sniffed or fingered, have yet a purely intellectual existence, can be found only by those mysterious senses which, even as touch and hearing, and smell and taste and sight, put us in communication with the physical world outside us, put us far more wonderfully in communication with the moral world within us. The qualities constituting physical beauty, on the other hand, are, to a large extent at least, perceived by our physical senses: there is indeed a point where the mere nerve sensations no longer serve to explain aesthetical likings or dislikings, where, on the other hand, the addition of mere logical considerations of fitness seem insufficient to account for phenomena, where, in short, we are forced to have recourse to a very confused and at present untenable idea of inherited habits and love of proportion, but it nevertheless remains evident that physical beauty is a thing perceived through the physical senses and concretely extant in the world around us. We say that a character is morally good because certain actions or words reveal to us the existence of certain tendencies and habits of feeling which (no matter how instituted) satisfy and delight our moral nature, because there is between these tendencies of feeling and our moral nature a mysterious affinity, which may depend on nerve cells or on logical arguments, but does not in the least resemble either. But when we say that a tree is beautiful, it is because, in the first instance, its mere sensation-giving qualities, taken separately, affect us agreeably in our various physical parts: the colour stimulating or soothing our colour nerves, the size, enabling our visual nerves to take in its shape agreeably; its shadyness, which even as a mere suggestion, pleases our tactile nerves, its rustle, which pleasantly moves our nerves of hearing; and even if we admit that the perception that the tree as a whole is beautiful, as distinguished from certain of its qualities being agreeable, depends upon something higher and more recondite than mere nerve tickle, even then it remains that whatever abstract instinct of beauty we may possess, it is only through physical sensations that this instinct is reached; and that a man born blind cannot perceive beauty of colours nor a man born deaf beauty of sounds, simply because the physical receptive organs of sight and sound are wanting. Thus, in short, beauty is a physical quality, as goodness is a moral quality: and if they are in a way equivalents, beauty being physical goodness, and goodness moral beauty, it is exactly because each has a separate sphere in which each respectively, represents the best. That beauty is in itself physical, is a point which few have denied: that beautiful curves and harmonies are moral qualities very few have asserted. But few have as yet been willing to admit that beauty is a quality independent of goodness, independent sometimes to the extent of hostility: that it is as independent of moral excellence as is logical correctness. Yet thus it is; and thus all of us must vaguely feel; all those who think, must closely perceive it to be. There is no justice, no charity, no moral excellence in physical beauty. It is a negative thing. If it refuses to associate with evil, to dwell in the putrid corpse or in the face of the murderer, it is because physical beauty is a concomitant of physical purity and health, and decaying corpses are always unhealthy, while evil souls nearly always leave ugly marks on the bodies: but the putrescent corpse and the murderer's face are both ugly because they are physically wrong, not because they are morally abominable. Beauty, in itself, is neither morally good nor morally bad: it is aesthetically good, even as virtue is neither aesthetically good nor aesthetically bad, but morally good. Beauty is pure, complete, egotistic: it has no other value than its being beautiful. This is a bitter thing to say, a cruel confession on the part of one whose love and whose chief interest is the beautiful, to make to himself: this that his beloved and much studied Beautiful, which is his happiness and his study, has no moral value: that above this superb and fascinating thing, there are things which are better, nobler, more necessary, and for whose sake, in case of conflict, this adored quality must be trampled under foot. A bitter confession; but the truth is the truth, and must be admitted; to ourselves first of all. It is, as we have said, one of the wicked anomalies of this world that the true, the existing, is at variance with that which we should wish to exist: we cannot replace with impunity the ugly, the cruel, the mean truth by the charming, the generous fancy; if we do so, we must be prepared to break with all truth, or to compromise with all falsehood: we shall create an evil a hundredfold worse than the one we wished to avoid. We are afraid of a truth which jars upon our sense of the morally desirable: we invent and accept a lie, plausible and noble; and behold! in a moment we are surrounded by a logical work of falsehood, which must be for ever torn and for ever patched up if any portion of truth is to enter.

Such has been the case with John Ruskin; he shrank from owning to himself what we have just recognized, with reluctance, indeed, and sorrow, that the beautiful to whose study and creation he was so irresistibly drawn, had no moral value; that in the great battle between good and evil, beauty remained neutral, passive, serenely egotistic. It was necessary for him that beauty should be more than passively innocent: he must make it actively holy. Only a moral meaning could make art noble; and as, in the deep-rooted convictions of Ruskin, art was noble, a moral meaning must be found. The whole of the philosophy of art must be remodelled upon an ethical basis; a moral value must everywhere sanction the artistic attraction. And thus Ruskin came to construct a strange system of falsehood, in which moral motives applied to purely physical actions, moral meanings given to the merely aesthetically significant, moral consequences drawn from absolutely unethical decisions; even the merest coincidences in historical and artistic phenomena, nay, even in the mere growth of various sorts of plants, nay, even the most ludicrously applied biblical texts, were all dragged forward and combined into a wondrous legal summing-up for the beatification of art; the sense of the impossibility of rationally referring certain aesthetical phenomena to ethical causes producing in this lucid and noble thinker a sort of frenzy, a wild impulse to solve irrational questions by direct appeals for an oracular judgment of God, to be sought for in the most trumpery coincidences of accidents; so that the man who has understood most of the subtle reasons of artistic beauty, who has grasped most completely the psychological causes of great art and poor art, is often reduced to answer his perplexities by a sort of aesthetico-moral key and bible divination, or heads-win tails-lose, toss-up decision. The main pivots of Ruskin's system are, however, but few: first, the assertion that all legitimate artistic action is governed by moral considerations, is the direct putting in practice of the commandments of God; and secondly, that all pleasure in the beautiful is the act of appreciating the goodness and wisdom of God. These two main theories completely balance one another; between them, and with the occasional addition of mystic symbolism, they must explain the whole question of artistic right and wrong. Now for Ruskin artistic right and wrong is not only a very complex, but, in many respects, a very fluctuating question; in order to see how complex and how fluctuating, we must remember what Ruskin is, and what are his aims. Ruskin is no ordinary aesthetician, interested in art only inasmuch as it is a subject for thought, untroubled in the framing of histories, psychological systems of art philosophy by any personal likings and dislikings; Ruskin is essentially an artist, he thinks about art because he feels about art, and his sole object is morally to justify his artistic sympathies and aversions, morally to justify his caring about art at all. With him the instinctive likings and dislikings are the original motor, the system is there only for their sake. He cannot, therefore, like Lessing, or Hegel, or Taine, quietly shove aside any phenomenon of artistic preference which does not happen to fit into his system; he could, like Hegel, assign an inferior rank to painting, because painting has to fall into the category assigned to romantic, that is to say, imperfect art; he could not, like Taine, deliberately stigmatise music as a morbid art because it had arisen, according to his theory, in a morbid state of society; with Ruskin everything must finally yield to the testimony of his artistic sense: everything which he likes must be legitimated, everything which he dislikes must be condemned; and for this purpose the system of artistic morality must for ever be altered, annotated, provided with endless saving-clauses, and special cases. And all this the more especially as, in the course of his studies, Ruskin frequently perceives that things which on superficial acquaintance displeased him, are in reality delightful, in consequence of which discovery a new legislation is required to annul their previous condemnation and provide for their due honour. Thus, having conceived a perhaps exaggerated aversion (due, in great part, to the injustice of his adversaries) to the manner of representing the nature of certain Dutch painters of the 17th century, Ruskin immediately formulated a theory that minute imitation of nature was base and sinful; and when he conceived a perhaps equally exaggerated admiration for the works of certain extremely careful and even servile English painters of our own times, he was forced to formulate an explanatory theory that minuteness of work was conscientious, appreciative, and distinctly holy. Had he been satisfied with mere artistic value, he need only have said that the Dutch pictures were ugly, and the English pictures beautiful; but having once established all artistic judgment upon an ethical basis, it became urgent that he should invent a more or less casuistic reason, something not unlike the distinguo by means of which the Jesuit moralists rendered innocent in their powerful penitents what they had declared sinful in less privileged people, to explain that, under certain circumstances, minute imitation was the result of insolence and apathy, and in other cases the sign of humility and appreciation. Again, having been instinctively impressed by the coldness and insipidity of the schools of art which ostensibly refused to copy individual nature, and professed to reproduce only the more important and essential character of things, Ruskin annihilated these idealistic conventionalists by a charge of impious contempt for the details of individual peculiarities which God had been pleased to put into his work; and when, on the other hand, his growing love for mediaeval art and for mysticism began to draw him towards the Giottesque and even the pre-Giottesque artists, who left out of their work all except the absolutely essential and typical traits, Ruskin sanctified their conventionalism as the result of preference for the merely spiritual and morally interesting portion of the subject. The fact that the over refinement of the idealists of the 16th century ended in insipidity because it was due to a general organic decline in the art, and that the rudeness of the conventional artists of the 14th century possessed a certain nobility because it was merely a momentary incapacity in a rapidly progressing art; this fact, and with it the knowledge that the development and decline of every art is due to certain necessities of general change, all that explains the life of any and every art, completely escapes Ruskin on account of his explanation by moral motives. In this way Ruskin has constructed a whole system of artistic ethics, extremely contradictory and, as we have remarked, bearing as great a resemblance to the text book, full of distinguos and directions of the intention of one of Pascal's Jesuits as a very morally pure and noble work can bear to a very base and depraved one. And throughout this system scattered fragmentarily throughout his various books, every artistic merit or demerit is disposed of as a virtuous action or a crime; the moral principle established for the explanation of one case naturally involving the prejudgment of another case; and the whole system explaining by moral delinquencies the artistic inferiority of a given time or people, and, on the other hand, attributing the moral and social ruin of a century or a nation to the artistic abominations it had perpetrated. The arrangements of lintels and columns, the amount of incrustation of coloured marble on to brick, the degree to which window traceries may be legitimately attenuated and curled, the value of Greek honeysuckle patterns as compared with Gothic hedge-rose ornaments, all these and a thousand other questions of mere excellence of artistic effect, are discussed on the score of their morality or baseness, of their truthfulness, or justice, or humility; and Ruskin's madness against any kind of cheating or deception goes to the length, in one memorable passage in the Seven Lamps of Architecture, of condemning Correggio's ceiling of St. Paolo at Parma because, as real children might be climbing in a real vine trellise above our heads, there is possibility of deception and of sin; whereas, as none of us expect to see the heavens open above us, there is no possibility of deception, and consequently no sin in Correggio's glory of angels in the Parma Cathedral; thus absolving on the score of morality a rather confused and sprawling composition, and condemning as immoral one of the most graceful and childlike works of the Renaissance. The result of this system of explaining all artistic phenomena by ethical causes is, as we have remarked, that the real cause of any phenomenon, the explanation afforded us by history, is entirely overlooked or even ignominiously rejected. Thus Ruskin attributes the decay of Gothic architecture to "one endeavour to assume, in excessive flimsiness of tracery, the semblance of what it was not"--to its having "sacrificed a single truth." Now the violation of the nature and possibilities of the material, what Ruskin in ethical language calls the endeavour to trick, was not the cause but the effect of a gradual decline in the art. The lace work of 15th century Gothic is not a lie, it is an effete form. The perfect forms had been obtained, and as the growth of the art could not be checked, imperfect ones naturally succeeded them; the workman had hewn enough, had diminished the stone surfaces sufficiently, had carved the leafage as much as was compatible with beauty; the succeeding generations of workmen continued to work, and what happened? They hewed away too much, they diminished the stone surface too much, they carved the leafage too deep, each generation cutting away more and more, until the whole fabric had reached such a degree of flimsiness that, had not the Renaissance swept its cobwebs away, they would have been torn to shreds by the Gothic artists themselves. An art corrupts and dies of its own vital principles, as does every other living and changing thing, as a flower withers of its own life: you begin by chipping, you end, as in Gothic architecture, by chipping into nothingness. You begin with grouping: you end with grouping, like Michelangiolo and Parmegianno, into knots and lumps; you begin by raising your figures out of the background: you end, like Ghiberti, by tying them on with the narrowest slip of bronze; you begin with modulating: you end, like Raff, Brahms, and other Wagnerists, by modulating into chaos. Art, if it lives, must grow, and if it grows it must grow old and die. And this fact gradually, though instinctively, beginning to be felt by all thinkers on art, Ruskin, with his theory of moral aesthetics, could never recognize. For him the corruption of the art is due to the moral corruption of the artist: if the artist remained truthfully modest, the perfection of the art would continue indefinitely.

Again, the necessity of referring all good art to morality and all bad art to immorality, obliges Ruskin to postulate that every period which has produced bad art has been a period of moral decay. The artistic habits which displease him must be a direct result of a vicious way of feeling and acting in all things: the decay of Venetian architecture and sculpture must be distinctly referable to the decay of Venetian morality in the 15th century; and the final corruption and ruin of the state must be traced to the moral obliquity which caused Venetians to adopt pseudo-classic forms in the Riva facade of the Ducal palace; moral degradation and artistic degradation, acting and re-acting on each other, bring about, according to Ruskin, political ruin; the iniquities of the men who became apostates to Gothic architecture are visited upon their distant descendants, upon the Venetians of the days of Campo Formio. Now here again the ethical basis induces a complete historical misconception, a misconception not only in the history of art, but also in the history of civilization. For, just as his system of moral sin and artistic punishment blinds Ruskin to the necessities of change and decay in art, so, also, it prevents his seeing the inevitable necessity of political growth and decline. Ruskin seeks the cause of the fall of Venice in moral corruption manifested, or supposed to be manifested, in art; but the cause of the fall of Venice must be sought elsewhere. Look at this lagoon, this Adriatic, this Mediterranean: in the 14th century they are the source of the greatness of the Zenos and Pisanis; three or four hundred years later they will be the cause of the pettiness of the Morosinis and Emos. In the present, in this time of Dandolo, into which Ruskin has led us, it is to them that Venice owes the humiliation of Barbarossa in the porch of St. Mark's; to them in the future will be owed the triumph of Bonaparte and the tricolour waving from the flagstaff of the square. For in the middle ages the sea means the Mediterranean and the Baltic, the two great navigable, wealth-yielding lakes, and around them arises prosperity: Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa, Venice, Luebeck, Dantzig, Brehmen; the men who live on the shores of the Mediterranean take the riches of the East and of India, and conquer Greece and the islands, and grow rich; and on this strip of marshland keep armies which can cope with the united forces of Europe. Such is the sea of the middle ages. But the sea of modern times is the ocean; give the means of navigating that, give to the barbarians who inhabit its coasts just enough civilization to build a ship and steer it, and those barbarians, yes, the boors of Frisia, the savages of England, and of Normandy, and of Portugal, will become the masters of the world, and Venetians and Genoese shall be their puppets, and the Mediterranean their pond. Since to the commerce of the Mediterranean they will oppose the commerce of the ocean, to the riches of Greece, of Asia Minor, Persia, and Egypt, the riches of Mexico and Peru, of India and of China, which will flow into the banks of London, of Lisbon, of Antwerp, and which will create armies to sweep all Italy out of the field. The Ocean has superseded the Mediterranean, the boundless the bounded; this is the explanation of the fall of Venice, of her political torpor and her consequent vices. It is a law of nature that the small and sheltered spots shall suffice while civilization is small, but that as it grows it will seek a wider field, and its original homes be abandoned. A small country, a small sea, made Greece and Italy greatest in antiquity and the middle ages; a small country, a narrow sea, make them smallest in modern times. And when the first galley of Prince Henry, the first pinnace of Amsterdam or London, nay, the first little Norman craft set sail for St. Brandan's Isle, the fate of Venice was sealed; Lodovico Manin, and Casanova, and Bonaparte, and Campo Formio, all that in Venetian history can mean corruption and disgrace, all was irrevocably fixed; the geographical chance which had raised the palaces of Venice has also caused them to moulder; time which made has also unmade, for life is movement and movement is change. That immorality is not the cause but the effect of political decline is as little conceived by Ruskin as that neither the one nor the other can be produced by artistic degradation; in his system which makes artistic inferiority the visible expression of moral corruption, and national misfortune its direct punishment, there can be no room for any of the great laws of development and decay which historical science is now beginning to perceive. All things must be carried on upon the miraculous system of Sunday school books, where planks of bridges give way from the cogent mechanical reason that the little boys passing over them have just been telling lies or stealing apples; God is for ever busy unbolting trapdoors beneath the feet of the iniquitous and rolling stones down on the heads of blasphemers. And this same necessity of condemning morally a period whose artistic work in any particular line is aesthetically worthless in Ruskin's judgment, not only leads him into the most absurd misappreciation of the moral value of a time, but entirely forbids his recognizing the fact that the decay of one art is frequently coincident with, and in some measure due to, the efflorescence of another. The independent development of painting required the decay of the architecture of the middle ages, whose symbolical, purely decorative tendency condemned painting to be a sort of allegorical or narrative Arabesque; whose well defined arches might not be broken through by daring perspective, whose delicate cornices might not enclose more than a mere rigid and simply tinted mosaic, or mosaic-like fresco. When, therefore, painting arose mature in the 16th century, architecture was necessarily crumbling. But to Ruskin the 16th century, being the century of bad architecture, is hopelessly immoral, and being immoral, its painting, Raphael, Michel Angelo, Correggio, all except a few privileged Venetians, must needs be swept away as so much rubbish; while the very imperfect painting of the Giottesques, because it belongs to a time whose morality must be high since its architecture is good, is considered as the ideal of pictorial art. Again, Ruskin perceives that the whole plastic art of the 18th century, architecture, sculpture, and painting, are as bad as bad can be; the cause must necessarily be found not in the inevitable decline of all plastic art since the Renaissance, but in the fiendish wickedness of the 18th century, that abominable age which first taught men the meaning of justice as distinguished from mercy, of humanity as distinguished from charity: which first taught us not to shrink from evil but to combat it. And thus, because the 18th century is proved by its smirking furbelowed goddesses and handkerchief-cravatted urns to be utterly, morally, abominable, the one great art which flourished in this period, the glorious music of Bach, and Gluck, and Marcello, and Mozart, must necessarily be silently carted off to the dust heap of artistic baseness.

Thus the radical falsehood of the ethical system of aesthetics warps the whole of Ruskin's view of the genius and evolution of art, of its relations with national morality and political supremacy. But it does more than this. It warps also Ruskin's view of art itself; its sophisms force him to contradict, to stifle his own artistic instincts. For if, as Ruskin has established, we are not permitted to love the beautiful for its own sake, but only because it is supposed to represent a certain moral excellence, that moral excellence must be the sole valuable portion, and equally artistically valuable when separated from the beautiful; while the beautiful must in itself be worthless, and consequently dangerous. The absolutely ugly must, if it awaken virtuous emotion, have a greater artistic value than the beautiful if it awaken none; the macerated hermits, the lepers and cripples of the middle ages must be artistically preferable to the healthy and beautiful athletes of antiquity; compassion for the physically horrible is more virtuous than the desire for the physically beautiful, therefore Ruskin would replace the one by the other; forgetting, even as the middle ages forgot, that the beautiful, the healthy, are the best and happiest for all of us; that we are given sympathy with the physically evil only that we may endure its contact long enough to transform it into the physically good: that we compassionate disease only that we may cure it.

Thus this sophisticated sense of duty, which, applied to artistic interests where it has no place, has merely caused injustice of all sorts, and falsehood and unceasing contradiction: which has condemned the artistically pure for its juxta-position with the morally impure: which has preferred the inferior in art because it answered to the definition of the superior in morals: which has placed Giotto above Michel Angelo because the second could paint and the first only imagine: which has condemned Greek art as long as it seemed beautiful and acquitted it when it appeared ugly: which has legitimated colour art with one verse of the bible and anathematised linear art with another: which has so often rejected the excellent in art because it wanted the excellent in conduct: which has come to the point of preferring that disease and putrefaction which, in the physical world, are equivalent to sin and corruption in the moral--this sophisticated sense of morality, originally intended to sanction all that which in art is sanctioned by its mere innocence and delightfulness, has at length destroyed the very artistic system which it was to sustain. For the divine elements of justice, and mercy, and honour, cannot be wasted in this world; entrapped and imprisoned in order to consecrate by their presence the already holy, rendered sterile and useless among those artistic things with which they have no concern, they have at last sought for their field of action, for their legitimate objects, and have burst forth, shattering the whole edifice of art philosophy in which they were enclosed, mere useless talismans. And it has come home to Ruskin, once and again, that this virtue thus expended upon cornices and lintels, upon lines and colours, while evil raged outside, is no virtue: that this sanctified art is not holy; that, direct our intentions as we may, think of God as much as we like, we cannot make art one whit the less passive and egotistic; it has come home to him, and with the noble candour of doubt which is his logical weakness and his moral strength, he has confessed that he had never known one man really and exclusively devoted to mere moral good, who cared for art at all. The elaborate system of ethical aesthetics, the ingeniously far-fetched explanations of physical beauty by moral excellence, the triumphant decision that art is the kingdom of God, has, after all and at last, failed to redeem the beautiful in the eyes of Ruskin. He has seen a ragged creature die of starvation on a dung heap; and all the cathedrals of Christendom, all the resplendent Turners and saintly Giottos in the world have seemed to him black and hideous. He has argued and stormed, and patched up once more his tattered theories, and talked more than ever of beauty being virtue, and its appreciation religion, and God being in all fair things; but all this latter talk has been vain; into the midst of art discussions have for ever crept doubts whether art should be at all. The placid paradise of art, whose every flower and grass blade is a generous thought, whose every fruit is a noble action, where every bubbling of waters and every bird's song is a hymn to the goodness of God, has become suspicious to its own creator now that he realises by what it is surrounded; to live in this sweet and noble impossible paradise, where beauty is the mere visible expression of virtue, while the foul world-swamp is stealthily being eaten into, washed away, absorbed by the surrounding flood of hell: is this not a sin, this quiet dwelling in holiness, and a worse sin than any being committed in the darkness and jostle below?

In this way has Ruskin, one of the greatest thinkers on art and on ethics, made morality sterile and art base in his desire to sanctify the one by the other. Sterile and base, indeed, only theoretically: for the instinct of the artist and of the moralist has ever broken out in noble self-contradiction, in beautiful irrelevancies; in those wonderful, almost prophetic passages which seem to make our souls more keen towards beauty and more hardy for good. But all this is incidental, this which is in reality Ruskin's great and useful work. He has made art more beautiful and men better without knowing it--accidentally, without premeditation, in words which are like the eternal truths, grand and exquisite, which lie fragmentary and embedded in every system of theology; the complete and systematic is worthless and even dangerous, for it is false; the irrelevant, the contradictory, is precious, because it is true to our better part. Ruskin has loved art instinctively, fervently, for its own sake; but he has constantly feared lest this love should be sinful or at least base. Like Augustine, he dreads that the Devil maybe lurking in the beautiful sunshine; lest evil be hidden in those beautiful shapes which distract his thoughts from higher subjects of good and God; he trembles lest the beautiful should trouble his senses and his fancy, and make him forget his promises to the Almighty. He perceives that pleasure in art is more or less sensuous and selfish; he is afraid lest some day he be called upon to account for the moments he has not given to others, and be chastised for having permitted his mind to follow the guidance of his senses; he trembles and repeats the praise of God, the anathema of pride, he mumbles confused words about "corrupt earth"--and "sinful man,"--even while looking at his works of art, as some anchorite of old may instinctively have passed his fingers across his beads and stammered out an Ave when some sight of beauty crossed his path and made his heart leap with unwonted pleasure. Ruskin must tranquillize his conscience about art; he must persuade himself that he is justified in employing his thoughts about it; and lest it be a snare of the demon, he must make it a service of God. He must persuade himself that all the pleasure he derives from art is the pleasure in obeying God, in perceiving his goodness: that the pleasure he derives from a flower is pleasure not in its curves and colours and scent, but in its adaptation to its work, in its enjoyment of existence; that the enjoyment he derives from a grand view is enjoyment of the kindness of God, and the enjoyment in the sight of a noble face is enjoyment of the expression of harmony with God's will; in short, all artistic pleasure must become an act of adoration, otherwise, a jealous God, or a jealous conscience, will smite him for abandoning the true altar for some golden calf fashioned by man and inhabited by Satan. And to this constant moralising, hallowing, nay, purifying of art, are due, as we have seen, the greater number of Ruskin's errors; his system is false, and only evil can spring from it; it is a pretence at a perfection which does not exist, and which, like the pretence at the superhuman virtue of the anchorite and mystic, must end in lamentable folly: in making men lie to their own heart because they have sought to clothe all that is really pure in a false garb of sanctity and have blushed at its naked reality; because it makes a return to nature a return to sin, since what is natural has been forbidden and what is innocent has been crookedly obtained; because it tries to make us think we are nothing but soul, and therefore turns us to brutes when we remember that we are also body, and devils when we perceive that we are also reason. Because, in short, it is a lie, and only falsehood can be born of it. For, in his constant reference to a spiritual meaning, Ruskin has not only wasted and sterilised our moral impulses, but has reduced art to mere foulness; in his constant sanctifying of beauty he makes it appear impure. Above all, in his unceasing attempt to attach a moral meaning to physical beauty, he has lost sight of, he has denied, the great truth that all that which is innocent is moral; that the morality of art is an independent quality equivalent to, but separate from, the morality of action; that beauty is the morality of the physical, as morality is the beauty of the spiritual; that as the moral sense hallows the otherwise egotistic relations of man to man, so also the aesthetic sense hallows the otherwise brutish relations of man to matter; that separately but in harmony, equally but differently, these two faculties make our lives pure and noble. All this Ruskin has forgotten: he has made the enjoyment of mere beauty a base pleasure, requiring a moral object to purify it, and in so doing he has destroyed its own purifying power; he has sanctified the already holy, and defiled with holy water, which implies foulness, the dwelling of holiness.

This is the lesson to be derived from the attempt at noble self-delusion which Ruskin has practised upon himself. There is not in the world that harmony and perfection, nay, that analogy of good to good and evil to evil for which our higher nature seeks. As we have said, there is contradiction and anomaly: anomaly the most horrible, since our logical sense must accept it, and our moral sense cannot: anomaly of good springing from evil, and evil from good, of pollution of the noble and hallowing of the foul by the force of inevitable sequence. There is also isolation of one sort of good from the other, and clashing of their interests. All this there is, and against it all our moral sense must for ever protest, and against it, whether free in our endeavour or merely pushed on by the universal necessity, we must struggle. We must seek for ever to resolve the discord between good and good, to disentangle the meshes of good and evil, to destroy the dreadful anomaly of things. But we can do so, however partially, we can really wish to do so, only if we have the courage to see that the lamentable discord and the horrible tangle do exist: only if we do not shrink from the battlefield of reality into an enervating Capua of moral idealism. And thus we should admit that only morality is really moral, and only virtue really virtuous; that physical beauty intrinsically possesses but an aesthetic value quite separate from all moral value; that above it must always remain a more generous world of feeling and endeavour. If we do not shrink from this painful truth we shall see that physical beauty and its egotistic enjoyment have yet a moral value of their own: the value of being, in the lives of others, absolute pleasure, the giving of which is positive good. For in this world all is not completed when we have destroyed evil; it must be replaced by good. We must all of us work, but we must work in different ways. One half of us are the destroyers of evil, the wrestlers with all that is wrong in itself or begets wrong, falsehood, injustice, disease, misery; sent to extirpate the bad, laboriously to weed it out blade by blade, or boldly to plough and burn it up by the sheaf, the field, the acre. But when this half of active mankind has done its work, what would remain? A mere joyless desert of painless vacuity; and the other half of the workers must come and sow and plant absolute good, positive joy in this redeemed life soil; nay, even while the work of destruction is far from completed, and most of all, perhaps, then, do we require that in the very shadow of the yet deep-rooted evil, the little tufts of good should rise up, and console and strengthen us with their sight and their scent. And of all these kinds of egotistic good which we must needs sow while evil is being cleared away, art is one of the noblest and most necessary; and woe betide those who, having the power of creating beauty, would leave their allotted work and join the destroyers of falsehood and of evil. The amount of absolute good in the world is comparatively small, and we must seek to increase it for ever; but increased it cannot be except by the full employment of our activities, and our activities can be fully employed only in their own proper sphere. In every artist there is a man, and the moral perfection of the man is more important than the artistic perfection of the artist; but, in as far as the artist is an artist, he must be satisfied to do well in his art. For, though art has no moral meaning, it has a moral value; art is happiness, and to bestow happiness is to create good.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Ruskinism, The Would-Be Study Of A Conscience