Wednesday, June 10, 2020

John Ruskin, abstraction, anime, & effie (pt 1)

Decades ago, during the early weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown in Philadelphia (such simpler times those were, way back then), I went out for a bike ride after staying indoors for several days, and sat around Fairmount Park with a small stack of books. One was the Oxford World Classics volume of John Ruskin's selected writings, which I periodically enjoy leafing through, and is a fine read for a sunny spring day when the magnolias are in bloom. I dogeared a page excerpted from The Eagle's Nest, the text of a series of lectures Ruskin gave at Oxford in 1872, and reread it once or twice since then. Today I'd like to trace some of the contrails from the flight of imagination the passage inspired.

It reads:

That is Shakespeare’s judgment of his own art. And by strange coincidence, he has put the words into the mouth of the hero whose shadow, or semblance in marble, is admittedly the most ideal and heroic we possess, of man; yet, I need not ask you, whether of the two, if it were granted you to see the statue by Phidias, or the hero Theseus himself, you would choose rather to see the carved stone, or the living King. Do you recollect how Shakespeare’s Theseus concludes his sentence, spoken of the poor tradesmen’s kindly offered art, in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?

“The best in this kind are but shadows: and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.”

It will not burden your memories painfully, I hope, though it may not advance you materially in the class list, if you will learn this entire sentence by heart, being, as it is, a faultless and complete epitome of the laws of mimetic art.

“But Shadows!” Make them as beautiful as you can; use them only to enable you to remember and love what they are cast by. If ever you prefer the skill of them to the simplicity of the truth, or the pleasure of them to the power of the truth, you have fallen into that vice of folly, (whether you call her κακία or μωρία,) which concludes the subtle description of her given by Prodicus, that she might be seen continually εἰς τὴν ἑαυτης σκιὰν ἀποβλέπειν
—to look with love, and exclusive wonder, at her own shadow.
There is nothing that I tell you with more eager desire that you should believe—nothing with wider ground in my experience for requiring you to believe, than this, that you never will love art well, till you love what she mirrors better.
It is the widest, as the clearest experience I have to give you; for the beginning of all my own right art work in life, (and it may not be unprofitable that I should tell you this,) depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and sea. All boys with any good in them are fond of boats, and of course I liked the mountains best when they had lakes at the bottom; and I used to walk always in the middle of the loosest gravel I could find in the roads of the midland counties, that I might hear, as I trod on it, something like the sound of the pebbles on sea-beach. No chance occurred for some time to develop what gift of drawing I had; but I would pass entire days in rambling on the Cumberland hill-sides, or staring at the lines of surf on a low sand; and when I was taken annually to the Water-colour Exhibition, I used to get hold of a catalogue before-hand, mark all the Robsons, which I knew would be of purple mountains, and all the Copley Fieldings, which I knew would be of lakes or sea; and then go deliberately round the room to these, for the sake, observe, not of the pictures, in any wise, but only of the things painted.

And through the whole of following life, whatever power of judgment I have obtained, in art, which I am now confident and happy in using, or communicating, has depended on my steady habit of always looking for the subject principally, and for the art, only as the means of expressing it.
Well: what do we think of this?

(I) Though Ruskin's prose evinces his erudition and passion, his ideas about art are so old-fashioned as to seem rather quaint to the modern aesthete. He was a traditionalist, of course: given his reaction to Whistler's Nocturne paintings ("[I] never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face"), we don't even have to guess how he'd have reacted to cubism or geometric abstraction had he lived another fifteen years to see it.

John Ruskin, Stone Pines at Sestri (1845)

Let's assume Ruskin intuits an actual fact in his remark that one "can never love art well" until she better loves the objects represented in/by it. To be a first-rate artist then (according to Ruskin), one must be more invested in and enamored of the subject she views than in the object she produces as the result of her study and scrutiny.

Where would that leave somebody like Kandinsky? Could anyone today seriously accuse him of not loving art well, or of being a second-rate painter? Doubtful.

Ruskin apparently failed to take into account the possibility that cultivated and principled artist may have best loved color, shape, and composition as such. This is not surprising—but it is worth considering how such a radical break from custom as Kandinsky's foray into nonrepresentational painting was possible, and how it managed to gain acceptance. In a way, each of these two questions merely paraphrases the other.

Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28, Second Version (1914)

Discussions about what is or isn't art are doomed to spiral into mutual confusion and intransigent misunderstanding because "art" is one of those dangerous words (like "freedom") that tends to be used both passionately and promiscuously. What does it mean? Who knows. As a category, "art" includes digital illustration, statuary from Renaissance Italy, Haisla totem poles, Persian carpets, Greek ceramics, and everything in between. As long as the word unites objects ancient and modern, many of which were crafted for very different purposes, asserting any but the broadest generalizations about the whys, wherefores, shoulds, and is its of "art" is futile. To understand art, whatever it is, one must perceive that the various artifacts to which it refers were each and all developed for a definite social purpose, and the forms a given craft assumes are determined by the incentives and strictures set in place by the community in which (and for which) it was made.

The first instance of a painter realizing he could enjoy yellow independently of its occurrence in flowers, leaves, birds, or their representations must belong to prehistory. Picture a man squatting in the dark recesses of an underground cave ten, twelve, fifteen thousand years ago. By firelight he dabs pigments on the wall with a simple brush made of moss or animal fur. Perhaps, as he regards a roughly ovular smear of ground umber and animal fat on his calcite canvas, the synthesis of color and shape, and its definition against the pale stone, unexpectedly pleases him. Perhaps he experiences a fleeting pang of regret for the necessity of completing the body, giving it legs to stand on and a head that will bring it to life as the bison or reindeer he wishes to influence.

The idea would have been fleeting. His work fulfilled a practical social function (even if its purpose boiled down to ritual superstition), and he could not leave it incomplete for the sake of whimsical vanity. It would have rather been like putting hinges in a door frame without mounting a door.¹

At some point during the nineteenth century—when the low cost of watercolor tablets made the medium popular among amateurs—probably there was at least one child somewhere who received a watercolor kit for her fourth birthday, and wasn't immediately inclined to try painting familiar people or objects. She'd streak a page with various colors, or saturate it with a single hue, and would have perhaps continued to do so if her audience (in this case, her family) hadn't intervened. "What's this supposed to be?" her father might have asked in a kind tone, studying a sheet of paper blotted with blue, yellow, and purple. "What were you trying to paint here? Is this the sky? The lake?"

Maybe he would have encouraged her more explicitly to paint things, while discouraging her from painting "nothing." In most cases, feedback of this sort will modify what a young child paints as effectively as schedules of reward and punishment will determine how she speaks.

Beyond these fictitious (but not implausible) scenarios, the existence of mature forms of aniconic art prior to the twentieth century—the hallucinatory vegetal flourishes of medieval illuminated manuscripts, the numinous arabesques of the Islamic world, the combinations of kaleidoscopic and cartographic imagery in Hindu and Buddhist mandalas—can be adduced as reasonable evidence that the "discovery" of abstract art did not require an intellectual breakthrough on the part of a Hilma af Klint or Vasiliy Kandinsky, but was permitted to surface, and then reinforced, by the social environment in which those artists lived and worked. By the same token, Ruskin may not have been so enamored of his hills and trees later on in life if the culture of the Georgian and Victorian periods, for whatever reason, proactively discouraged artists from representing "natural" objects in their work.

Detail from The Book of Kells (circa 800 CE)

Mandala of Bhutadamara (14th century)

Detail from The Khamsah of Niẓāmī (1539–43) 

Books of hundreds of pages can, have, and will be written to explicate the character of that environment; giving a thorough description here is out of the question. A few generalizations will have to suffice. Some of the intellectual lodestars of mainland Europe at the turn of the twentieth century were the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin, and Freud. Baudelaire was far from out of vogue. The world was riding high on a socio-technological wave that had advanced without cresting for over a century, and showed no signs of abating. The impressionists had once been ridiculed; now they were The Establishment. "Make it new," chanted the poets. There may have been no better time in history to be an artist who flouted tradition: the au courant bourgeoisie on whom the professional painter of canvases depended for his livelihood were slathering for novelty, for The Next Big Thing.²

A critic or collector acclimated to the spectacle of Paris or Munich would look upon paintings of the fauves and expressionists with perhaps a less bigoted (certainly less sensitive) eye than Ruskin, who would have undoubtedly found such works unbearably garish. As the last dregs of romanticism waned, as the welter of the cities were lit by electric lamps and automobiles rumbled down the streets, as the silver screen became a cultural force, and as Europe effervesced in the intellectual, spiritual, and political ferment of the Belle Époque's final years, the philosophy of art which Ruskin championed must have seemed naive at best and dull at worst to the culturati and aesthetes of the Continent. A case for the continued relevance of staid Pre-Raphaelite portraits, or of quiet landscapes painted in "natural" colors, would have fallen on deaf ears. 

(II) Ruskin enjoined his audience to love truth more than artifice. Perhaps he failed to take into account that the material conditions which constitute the "truth" which one experiences were capable of evolving with such rapidity as they did between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

I've a pet theory I'd like to share.

Abstract and non-representational visual art owe their ascendancy in the early twentieth century to the technological advances of the nineteenth, but the relations of contingency aren't as direct as, say, that of the printing press on sixteenth-century visual art or of the phonograph on twentieth-century music.³ Obviously the arrival of photography motivated painters to emphasize color in their work: a camera could reproduce the image of a scene or a portrait subject with mechanical precision, but only in grayscale. The perfection of autochrome colorization in the twentieth century's first decade applied further pressure on the painter to withdraw to a field where photography couldn't follow.⁴ But the more immediate influences were comparatively subtle, and manifold. The commercialization of inexpensive synthetic dyes. The steam-driven printing press and the continuous improvements to color printing techniques. The replacement of oil lamps with gas lamps, and of gas lamps with electric lamps. The addition of synthesized metal chlorates to fireworks. In other words, what made the difference was the profusion of industrial-age changes to the built environment in which artists lived and worked.

The City of Lights was a bright and exceedingly colorful place during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.⁵ A denizen of Paris venturing out across the boulevards during the evening would pass fashionable women promenading in vivid dresses, walls stippled with chromolithograph advertising posters, dyed silk flowers in department store windows, and arbors and gardens aglow in the street lamps. If multicolored fireworks weren't lighting up the sky on a given night, they were almost certainly popping in the theaters. The social and optical environment of Paris was the incubator for impressionism. It was the city where Paul Gauguin began his career as a painter, and to which he often returned for extended periods throughout his life. Van Gogh's style underwent a period of accelerated evolution during his two-year residency in Montmartre. Parisian nightlife molded the sensibilities of Toulouse-Lautrec, who immortalized the seedy vivacity of the Moulin Rouge. Paris was where the central figures of fauvism learned their craft, and where their work was first exhibited. And so on.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le moulin de la Galette (1876)  

Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897)

Luigi Loir, Les Grands Boulevards (date unknown)

As the color and illumination of the built environment strode towards modernity, it was necessary that they be followed by the color and illumination of visual art. Impressionism and post-impressionism were early steps. From there, the color, light, and commotion of the metropolis, the increasingly intense and liberal palettes of successive crops of maturing painters, and the evolving tastes of people positioned to supply funds and positive feedback exerted a triplicate influence on aspiring avant-garde artists like Kandinsky.

Vasily Kandinsky, The Ludwigskirche in Munich (1908)

Here we can see that in 1908—five years before his breakthrough Improvisation pieces—Kandinsky was on the verge of realizing that things were not actually what he wished to paint. One suspects that a procession before a church in Munich was the pretense of this painting, not its subject.

But the impetus to paint compositions of color qua color may have been fatally hampered (or altogether aborted) if Kandinsky and his recent predecessors still lived in a world where broad swaths of the color spectrum were largely restricted to certain objects in certain places at certain occasions. Color had to become promiscuous before an artist like Kandinsky could love it enough to paint it.

A friend recently suggested I try breaking up posts to make them more digestible, especially when they wander from topic to topic. Let's give that a try. I'll post the second part tomorrow.

1. True: there are a great deal of "squiggles" in cave paintings that would not qualify as representative art by any metric. But we can't place them in the same class as Kandinsky or af Klint's compositions, as their purpose was more than merely aesthetic. Paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger conducted a study of the geometric signs in European cave art and reports some results:

I started by compiling all the signs from 146 French rock art sites into a relational database, and was able to identify 26 distinct shapes. I then trended the results looking for patterns of continuity and change over time and space with three main questions in mind: Do we see the same group of signs being used over the 20,000 year + time period? Do we see the same signs appearing across the whole region of France? Is it true that the signs start out very simply at the beginning, and do they become more varied and complex over time? (This was one of the most common theories when I started my research).

There were two especially significant findings that came out of this study. The first was the early age at which we already see 70% of the signs being used. There is an ongoing debate in this field regarding the timing of the "creative explosion" that is generally seen to mark the beginning of symbolic behaviour in modern humans (Bar-Yosef 2002). Art (both rock art and portable), musical instruments, body ornamentation are the archaeological evidence commonly used to identify abstract thinking in modern humans. This behaviour is often thought to have really emerged for the first time during the European Ice Age. However, with the use of geometric signs already appearing to be well-established at that time, it suggests that the origin of this behaviour could have been earlier, possibly even before our distant ancestors left Africa and prior to when the "creative explosion" is often thought to have taken place. Secondly, over time and space there was a high degree of repetition of this limited number of shapes, with some being replicated throughout the 20,000 year time span of my study. This continuity arguably removes any previous speculation that these signs were random doodles, as we would expect to find more variety if this were so. Based on these results, I was able to conclude with a fair degree of certainty that there was intentionality and that they were making conscious choices about which signs to use at a site (no sign type appears everywhere).

2. The credo of the Aesthetic movement—"art for art's sake"—would have been incomprehensible to the ancients. To recur to a couple of earlier posts, "art for art's sake" represents the subsumption of visual art by Western bourgeoisie culture and the industrial-age repurposing of all objects and social roles as movable commodities. If an object's only function is to be art, the only use-value it possesses is that of being a cultural product with a market value. Unmooring Western art from medieval and Renaissance praxes required the consummation of the West's departure from medieval and Renaissance values (we might also say pre-industrial values) to bourgeoisie values. Curiously, despite its conscientious objection to industrialized craftwork and Victorian rectitude, the Aesthetic movement required the transfer of power from the hoary aristocracy to the upstart bourgeoisie (effectuated by industrialization and performatively authenticated by the bourgeoisie's preoccupation with taste and morality) in order to do what it did and be assured of investors in its program who weren't looking for portraits of saints, tableaus involving Greek gods, or allegorical scenes.

3. Humanist ideas and classical Greco-Roman texts could not have been disseminated very far beyond the cloister and the castle without print technology; the enstatement of the recording industry was the point of departure from "traditional" and/or "folk" music to "popular" music.

4. See Walter Benjamin, "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century" (1938)


  1. I do wonder how the current environment will mold this generation's artists, though, I dread that if things go on and the Corona Virus causes another Great Depression only a fraction of artists will be able to be successful at all, joy.

    Meanwhile, your new book is still coming out soon? If so best of luck with its success.

    1. Historically, to even become an artist you needed to have money backing you. Self-taught, bootstrapping virtuosos were never the norm. You needed to come from a family of means to get trained, and social capital to get commissions and sell work. The best predictor of success, artistic or otherwise, is the kind of family you're born into.

      I think ours is an unusual age: we've trained far more artists, writers, and musicians to paint pictures, write books, and compose songs than we ever needed. I think it would be a fun exercise (I'm not doing it tonight; I'm tired) to do some research and compare the average class size of a nineteenth-century fine arts academy to a twenty-first century art school, and see precisely when it was that universities offered "creative writing" programs.

      Also: I hope it's coming out soon! I'm having a couple of trusted people read it and take notes, but it's taken them longer than a few weeks to read a 750-page novel. Who'd have thought?