Introduction: The Spiritual in our time by Laurence Fuller
As we stand on the dawn of a new epoch in human history complete and divided, the debates of the 20th Century still rage on. Hillary Clinton with many years of experience navigating the corridors of power in the name of both America and personal gain, a pristine icon of the extreme centre. Donald Trump navigating his own corridors in the name of Trump. One of these people will be the leader of the New World and take office at the White House in January. My question is not just who will it be and why, but where do we find ourselves located in the constellation of ideologies? Have we plateaued the potential for popular culture to extend beyond a greater refinement of formula, and are merely emulating the successes of our ancestors, if the movie studios are anything to go by with their endless reboots this could well be the case? Or is the eclecticism of post-modernism such an unstoppable monster with the advent of the internet, that we find ourselves in the cultural swamp of randomness? Does any of it matter to the individual who seeks to speak with feeling through the language of art to the best version of himself to another?
It seems we are faced with increasing divisions in the West, that in one sense allow for greater individuality then ever before and yet what we give up is any sense of unity. In researching a film about my father this last two years, I looked back at the revolutionary 60s and how far away from that united utopia they envisioned we now find ourselves. It could be said that this idea of connectedness is just an illusion and what politicians are all fighting for is a feeling that rests beneath all their rhetoric. What we all really want to end the impenetrable loneliness that we are born with, this strange feeling that others walk with us yet are never there, that is fleetingly resolved in moments of realizing our own fragility in the face of another and being met with a smile and hand on ones shoulder. Or to stand with courage in service of something larger than ourselves that we can with confidence give over to. Or as a creator, bare the weight of humanities loneliness for that period of creation to reveal our gift at the end of it all and speak with something greater than language could ever hope to compensate for.
In The Name Of God, a figure sits in the middle of disparate factions laying in the carnage that their ideological positions had lead them, in front of a presence of something other that they at first wished to seek; the unifying figure of Ghandi. A man who once brought together a divided India, split into argument and conflicting positions on the matters of not just material, but humanity and the spirit, he railed against the institution and demanded that we seek a deeper substance to the rhetoric. As a young man he was inspired by the essay by John Ruskin and wrote a paraphrase to Ruskin's essay Unto This Last, with the introduction 'This exclusive search for physical and economic well-being prosecuted in disregard of morality is contrary to the divine law, as some wise men in the West have shown. One of these was John Ruskin who contends in Unto This Last that men can be happy only if they obey this moral law' - Ghandi
I first saw Johan Anderson's work in 2007 after recently having graduated in Classical Theatre from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I was being guided by a conceptual artist, as she took me through the halls of Central Saint Martin's School of Art, I believe the project she was working on at the time was letting balloons go on the rooftop of the college and filming it. There was another melting candle wax into a wooden box, one of the students mumbled something about Ways Of Seeing. Much of the art she was showing me didn't exist. I wandered through the halls mostly uninterested. Until something happened, I encountered Johan Andersson painting "Randie", as I stopped staring into the portrait flashes of old master painters came flooding into my consciousness, from Rembrandt to Freud to Peter Howson. I was overcome by the humanity emanating from the canvas, more human than human, the presence of sentience.
detailed the experience in Art Influence which was run at the time by the Peter Fuller Memorial Foundation now represented in this blog, it was my first published essay on art. I only corresponded with Johan via email and very briefly during that time. Subsequently our journeys diverged as I went into British theatre and independent films. I remember getting on the tube to rehearsals for my first West End show at Trafalgar Studios Madness In Valencia, script in hand as I stepped up to the platform and looked across the tracks it was unmistakably the same hand of Johan Andersson's striking me again with that same distinct feeling.
Crossing the pond to Los Angeles without knowing he was out here I encountered Johan again at the Los Angeles Art Fair, as a line of people sued up around the block to experience The Last Supper:
This is Johan's latest series of paintings on gun violence, compassionate and subversive
It's no secret the affinity my father felt for Ruskin, what he connected to was the spiritual outlook directed towards nature and art. Though Ruskin's relationship with Christianity was a source of disillusion for him, as it was for Peter, as he battled his father on religious matters his entire life. But it was never the institution that he sort out, it was the deeper purpose of what a religion meant to people. He would often make the point that art now stood a chance to stand in place of the shattered shared symbolic order that a religion once provided.
THE RUSKIN LECTURE
by Peter Fuller
When I was 'Critic-in-Residence' at an art school in Newcastle in the late 1970s, I returned to work after the Easter break and was told about a terrible and awesome spectacle to be seen in the Life Room. I went along to investigate. As usual, a small group of students stood behind their easels, drawing. But they were ranged in front of a young man mounted in the crucified position upon a large wooden cross. His hands grasped pegs at the extremities of the cross-beam; his head sagged towards the left, his knees were bent and his feet rested on a small platform. He was wearing a white loin cloth and his arms were decorated incongruously with tattoos.
Even for an unrepentant atheist like myself this was a disturbing sight. Not only did the lithesome banality of the young man's body jar against 2,000 years of religious iconography, I also felt jolted because this picture seemed to epitomise the way in which the great epic of Modernism has collapsed. If you'll pardon the expression, not so long ago, no self-respecting art student - least of all in Newcastle, sometime centre of the 'Basic Design' approach to art education - would have been caught dead in the Life Room with a crucifix.
There is, however, a change of sensibility sweeping through the visual arts. Modernism taught that the only truth was 'truth to materials', but more and more artists are again seeking a truth in the visible forms of nature. This is why they are flocking back into the Life Room or out into the landscape.
Modernism also maintained that the only symbolic frame work that mattered was that of 'Art' itself, but today artists are seeking to create images which appeal to far more widely- shared 'structures of feeling'. Until recently, much art criticism and art practice has had its nose pressed so closely to the surface of the canvas that it has tended to ignore the world of natural form, the human spirit and imagination. If some are returning to the traditional iconography of Christianity, it is not necessarily because of their religious beliefs, but because they feel they have nowhere else to go.
In such a climate it is inevitable that John Ruskin's contribution will be revalued too. Ruskin was not just British literature's first major art critic, he was, I believe, the greatest critic the world has yet seen. He has been much neglected throughout this century, but now Ruskin is attracting attention again because of the way he scrutinised the evidence of his senses and sought to connect what he saw with the moral and cultural issues of his day.
Indeed, Ruskin's work seems constantly to raise the question: 'Can the arts flourish outside a shared framework of affective and symbolic beliefs - a religion, in fact?' One might like the answer to be an unequivocal 'yes', but it is by no means certain that this is so. The recent history of Modernism suggests rather the opposite.
This problem was implicit in the very first piece of Ruskin's writing that I encountered. When I was a student at Peterhouse, Cambridge, in the mid-1960s, I came across a copy of The Political Economy ofArt in the college library. This book was quite unlike anything I had read before, consisting of lectures Ruskin gave in Manchester in 1857, when he was invited to speak on the occasion of a major 'Art Treasures' exhibition. Manchester was at that time the mecca of laissez-faire capitalism and the headquarters of the economic 'Liberals' who believed that everything should be left to the operation of market forces. No doubt, the worthy manufacturers and their wives who crowded into the Manchester Athenaeum expected some edifying aesthetic sentiments from the protagonist of Turner, the fashionable author of Modern Painters.
This work, with which Ruskin made his name, began as a brochure replying to scoffing criticisms of Turner's art. It subsequently swelled to five volumes, with Ruskin changing his views on art and much else, during its writing. When he set out, his intention was to show that Turner had paid greater attention to nature and depicted it more truthfully than any of the masters of the past or any of his contemporaries. For Ruskin this did not mean that Turner was locked into physical and empirical realities which other painters overlooked, but that he could transcend these things more effectively than they. At this stage of his thinking, Ruskin saw 'nature' as little more than a synonym for the handiwork of God. Linking this with Turner's achievement, he wrote that 'each exertion of his mighty mind' might be 'both hymn and prophecy; adoration to the Deity, revelation to mankind'.
But 1857, when Ruskin visited Manchester, was a time of transition in his thinking. It was one year before his 'unconver- §ion' in Turin, after which he came close to adopting a sensualist aesthetics, arguing that 'a good, stout, Self-commanding mag nificent animality is the make for poets and artists'.
His thoughts were also shifting from the kingdom of God to the society of men, and the lectures he delivered to the good citizens of Manchester amounted to a teasing indictment of Victorian, mid-century capitalism. Ruskin criticised unbridled economic competition and promoted the principles of co operation, while attacking the indifference of government to the quality of life endured by the governed. How, he wanted to know, was laissez-faire theory and practice compatible with, say, the employment of artists, the education of workmen, the elevation of public taste and the regulation of patronage? Ruskin was especially concerned about the way in which laissez-faire capitalism was destroying the aesthetic dimension in human life. Contemporary society was such that it seemed to be squeezing out all room for art whatsoever. He pointed to things like the tasteless luxury of the rich, ignorant patronage, the destruction of ancient buildings, and the decline of artistic work in ornament, furniture and dress.
These lectures are scattered with suggestions about what the Government might do to make things better. For example, Ruskin thought it would be a good idea if the Government set standards and regulated the production of artists' materials, such as brushes and paper, to ensure the maintenance of quality. His audience, committed as it was to laissez-faire ideas, seems not to have objected too much at the time, and applauded frequently while he was speaking. Perhaps they were misled by the tone of profoundly anti-democratic paternalism which stamped even Ruskin's most utopian imaginings. Yet when the press had a chance to study the lectures, they realised some thing of their significance. The Manchester Examiner dismissed Ruskin's pleas for the involvement of the state in the arts as 'genius divorced from common sense' and 'arrant nonsense'.
So when I chanced upon these lectures in 1967 - a mere 110 years after they were first delivered - 1 set out to study Ruskin for my next undergraduate essay. My supervisor suggested I should entitle it, 'Ruskin's social, economic and aesthetic teaching was confused by puritanical prejudice. Discuss.' I dug out that old essay recently, and was not surprised to find that it was a highly ambivalent text. I wanted to say that, however eccentric and bigoted Ruskin may have been, he was also right in the emphasis he placed on the aesthetic elements in human life - on what he called 'the qualitative channel of human experience' - and in his critique of work under industrial capitalism. But I also berated him, not just for his religiosity and evangelical ethics, but for his 'blindness' towards what I then took to be the aesthetic potentialities of the new age. I could not endure his preference for Gothicism, over and above engineer ing; for wood and stone, rather than iron; for ornament, as against structure; for the arched, rather than rectangular, window frame. I wrote as if there was no real difficulty in separating a Ruskinian kernel from the husk of his 'archaic' religious thought, and assimilating the former to Modernism while quietly flushing away the latter.
The ambivalence of my views at that time was probably less surprising than the fact that I chose to write about Ruskin at all. Although Raymond Williams had argued, in his influential study, Culture and Society, of 1958, that Ruskin should be taken seriously, I doubt if this had much effect. Indeed, when Kenneth Clark published his anthology of selections from Ruskin in 1964 he prefaced it with the remark that no other writer had suffered so great a fall in reputation. In the mid- 1960s, one could easily buy copies of Ruskin's works for a shilling from book stalls in Cambridge market place. At that time, while there was plenty of academic scholarship focused upon the pathetic details of Ruskin's biography, as a cultural force he was not even an echo, let alone a voice.
My generation of revolting students were preoccupied with issues such as anti-capitalism and 'art and society'. After all, in the years immediately preceding 1968, it seemed to many of us that the world might be about to undergo a change for the better. We were infatuated with the ethic of Modernism; we believed that - in all sorts of strange and complex ways - the Modernist movement in art prefigured the great historical transformations we felt to be imminent. In those days the colleges were in ferment, but - with our eyes glued to television sets watching events across the Channel - it never occurred to us to refer to a rich, British tradition of political and aesthetic thought, a tradition which finds its roots in Ruskin's fertile prose.
Instead, in 1968, Walter Benjamin's now-famous essay, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', became easily available in English translation for the first time. Benjamin spoke about how modern means of producing and reproducing images were shattering the 'cultic' associations and the 'aesthetic aura' which had once surrounded works of art. He claimed that this process was part of progress and proletarianisation. He saw traditional literary, musical and artistic forms streaming into 'an incandescent liquid mass' out of which new forms would be cast. Naturally, all this was much more congenial to those of us concerned with art and revolu tion, than whatever puritanical prejudices might be found in those olive-green, second-hand volumes of old fuddy-duddy Ruskin.
Upon reading my undergraduate essay, a colleague felt that even such an ambivalent and half-hearted endorsement of Ruskin amounted to a kind of betrayal - not just of the Modernist movement, but of the revolutionary politics to which we were committed without reservation. Any refusal to go along unconditionally with what I would now describe as the philistinism of the so-called 'avant-garde', was read as a sign of incipient political 'conservatism'.
When I left university and went to London in 1968 to work as a professional art critic, no one ever suggested that I should read Ruskin, even though discussions of social issues dominated the art community throughout the 1970s. If Ruskin was ever mentioned it was usually to imply that much of what angered him about nineteenth-century capitalism had been rectified. What he said about art was presumed to be wrong or, at best, irrelevant. Maybe the Government doesn't put its seal of approval on every sheet of cartridge paper, but we do have public museums and an Arts Council. Aesthetically, Ruskin had not even been able to stomach Whistler, so what could he possibly have to say to the heirs of Cezanne? Besides, didn't he have terrible sexual problems and eventually go mad?
In one sense such attitudes are understandable. We no longer live under the kind of laissez-faire capitalism that so appalled Ruskin, although it appeared for a long time that the Thatcher Government wanted to return us to those days. For better or worse, through books like Unto This Last, Ruskin had a profound influence on the British labour movement and the emergent ideology of the welfare state. Again and again in his late work one finds ideas that would have appalled his Manchester audience but which, at least until the rise of Thatcherism, have been considered political common sense in our century, supported by both Government and opposition. This includes the proposal that the Government must intervene to mitigate the effects of market forces and to provide educa tional, health and cultural facilities.
A few years ago I started reading Ruskin again, and now I see him neither as I did in 1967, nor as a tame prophet of the modern welfare state. To set out to read Ruskin's work today is to begin climbing an unknown mountain. Admittedly, it is a deeply flawed mountain, and it is easy to lose one's way among all that granite stubbornness, those dangerous crevices, valleys clogged with the silt of dead ideas, and endless strata of categories. It is a mountain upon which one encounters strange fossils of thought, glacial drifts of verbiage, springs of brilliant insight and frequent glints of an almost preternaturally acute perception. Despite the arduous, rocky passages where the going gets so tough that one wants to give up, it is also an infinitely varied mountain, fascinating for its dappled surface, rich in filigreed rocks and luminous hoar-frost. It offers spec tacular changes of view and mazes of argument at every turn. Above all it is a majestic mountain, with its foothills and lower slopes rooted firmly in the common-or-garden facts of nature and physical being, but soaring up towards those giddy and sublime heights, swathed in clouds of rapture, where non believers must leave Ruskin to tramp on to meet with his maker.
Above all, Ruskin is not, as some of his anthologists would have it, simply a quarry for paradoxes and purple passages. What he is saying, and the way he says it, is all of a piece - that kind of unity in profusion and contradiction which one finds in the Gothic cathedrals whose beauties he did so much to popularise. This kind of unity was at odds not just with the laissez-faire capitalism of mid-nineteenth-century Britain. It emerges from the thirty-nine volumes of the Library Edition of Ruskin's work as an even more formidable indictment of twentieth-century monopoly capitalism and its sad, technist apology for a human culture.
Ruskin, I believe, is far more radical than many of his commentators allow, but his radicalism is of a deeply conserva tive kind. In the 1870s Ruskin began to issue his eccentric monthly letters for working men, Fors Clavigera. In the seventh number he announced, 'Indeed, I am myself a Communist of the old school, reddest also of the red.' Three issues later, he was saying, 'I will tell you plainly. I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school.' This contradiction is much less inscrutable than it at first appears if one remembers that Ruskin believed a significant potentiality of human life which had been realised in the past, was being suppressed in the present, but might be brought to life again in a changed future. What was that potentiality, or rather, cluster of related potentialities? It was everything Ruskin came to express through his notion of 'the Gothic', which, insofar as it was a purely historical category, might be described as the conditions under which the aesthetic dimension in human culture could flourish. This aesthetic potentiality was denied by nineteenth-century capitalism, but it has also been ignored by many of those who opposed themselves to it. Herein lies the importance of Ruskin for the present day.
However, one must be careful in attributing an interest in 'the aesthetic dimension' to Ruskin, if only because he himself distinguished between what he called aesthesis, or the response to merely sensuous pleasure (about which he was dismissive), and theoria, the response to beauty of one's whole moral being. In using the term 'aesthetic dimension' as a synonym for Ruskin's concept of the Gothic, I was clearly referring to the latter category rather than the former. Because he made this distinction, Ruskin has been much criticised in the twentieth century for his allegedly 'moralistic' approach to art, but one must remember that this appeal to morality meant something richer than mere ethical considerations. For Ruskin 'morals' encompassed everything we would identify as human affection and emotions, sentiments, 'structures of feeling', and the whole terrain of imaginative and symbolic thought. He attacked 'the general tendency of modern art under the guidance of Paris', because he thought it was in pursuit of aesthesis in isolation from theoria. This was the basis of Ruskin's notorious quarrel with Whistler. In denouncing the search for mere sensation, he wrote, 'I take no notice of the feelings of the beautiful we share with spiders and flies.'
Had Ruskin been able to see the Minimalist and Pop art made in New York during the 1960s and 1970s, he might have thought that his fears about 'the general tendency of modern art' had been realised. It is hard for us to imagine just how revolted Ruskin would be, because his discussion of the 'response to beauty with one's whole moral being' is entirely enmeshed with his thoughts about nature and God. Such things are likely to prove impenetrable to contemporary readers who were fortu nate enough to escape a theologically-infected childhood. One can get some idea about Ruskin's way of seeing things by thinking about St Hilary's question: 'Who can look on nature and not see God?' The immanence of God within his creation was a traditional element of Christian teaching which acquired unprecedented importance in nineteenth-century Protestant thought. Gregory the Great had regarded 'the wonders of a visible creation' as 'the foot-prints of the Creator', but a Victorian divine, such as Charles Kingsley, could detect 'the finger mark of God' even in a rock pool.
Ruskin was the heir to this universe of thought. Just as the evangelical preachers he had heard in his youth sermonised from the 'Types' they perceived in the natural world, Ruskin saw 'Typical Beauty' in organic forms which he believed to be the handiwork of God. In Ruskin's early writing, the natural world is seen as a work of art produced through the supreme imaginative and creative activities of the Creator, and therefore the model for all artistic creativity. Since God seemed to have created diversity in unity, Ruskin looked for such features in art and architecture. He attends to nature in such obsessive detail in his extraordinary passages on mountains and clouds partly because he wanted to know how God went about making things. In Modern Painters he imagines the Alps as a 'great plain, with its infinite treasures of natural beauty, and happy human life, gathered up in God's hands from one edge of the horizon to the other, like a woven garment, and shaken into the deep falling folds, as the robes droop from a king's shoulders'. As late as 1870 he could compare the splendours of the vault of Chartres Cathedral unfavourably with nature - that is, with 'the work of His fingers' and 'the stars of the strange vault which He has ordained'.
But what if there was no God? Unlike St Hilary or Gregory the Great, Ruskin could never be sure. He studied the Bible, but confessed to hearing the chink of the geologists' hammers at the end of every sentence. Indeed, the year before he found Chartres a poor comparison with God's work, he had con cluded that there was 'no Eternal Father . . . man has no helper but himself', and admitted that this conclusion brought with it 'great unhappiness'. For Ruskin, if God did not exist, the human response to nature risked becoming meaningless, and art a futile pursuit. This was the root of Ruskin's revulsion at Poussin's great grey painting, Winter or The Deluge. He believed not only that Poussin's atheism had rendered him unable to paint wetness, but that it had led him to a 'sense of spiritual destitution' which had fastened onto his mind 'together with the hopeless perception of ruin and decay in the existing world'.
In later life, despite attempts to retrieve the consolations of religious belief, Ruskin was dogged by a sense of the failure of nature, by the feeling that nature had been reduced to the grey, lifeless monotone that had so repelled him as a young man in that late Poussin picture. Soon after he first admitted there was no God, Ruskin began to detect 'the Storm Cloud of the 19th Century', and its accompanying plague wind. This led to the conviction that the failure of nature, brought about by the evil actions of men, was leading to annihilation; to 'blanched Sun, - blighted grass, blinded m an'. At such times, even Turner lost all meaning for him.
It is often said that all this was a result of Ruskin's religious delusions or his growing madness, but I believe that some of his most significant insights are to be found in the writings of this period. We live in a world in which both nature and art seem to have lost their way. We live in an anti-aesthetic or anaesthetic environment, whose emblem is the grey monochrome. As I have argued on many occasions, Ruskin's perception that the actions of men might be leading to a real natural catastrophe and the annihilation of human life, is turning out to be grimly prophetic in this era of nuclear confrontation and ecological crisis.
For Ruskin, large-scale industrialisation was an environ mental and aesthetic disaster. He saw an aesthetically healthy society as one in which each individual could express him or herself through imaginative, creative work, made meaningful by a shared framework of values and beliefs. 'The Gothic' was a paradigm of that dimension of life which he felt industrial capitalism was destroying. One finds examples of such systems in non-industrial societies such as Bali, where, as Margaret Mead noted, 'the arts are a prime aspect of behaviour for all Balinese, and literally everyone makes some contribution to the arts, ranging from dance and music to carving and painting. Nonetheless, an examination of artistic products from Bali shows a wide range of skill and aesthetic quality in artistic production.'
Ruskin, as far as I know, never took serious notice of the artistic productions of so-called 'primitive' cultures, but, as Kristine Garrigan has put it, in discussing Amiens Cathedral Ruskin argues that 'a great architectural masterpiece stands not only figuratively, but also literally for the spiritually unified society, in which each member's creativity is respected and welcomed. This is how Ruskin ''sees'' a building in its entirety: not as a structural enclosure of space but as a symbolic shelter for mankind's noblest aspirations.'
Gothic architecture, in its perpetual variety within unity, not only resembled divinely inhabited nature, but also allowed each individual workman to bend the eye of his soul upon the finger-point in a necessarily feeble imitation of the way God left his finger-marks in creation. Because the Gothic cathedral was, for Ruskin, the place in which all human skills and arts could unite in the creation of this great symbolic vision, he was led on to those emphases which have so scandalised architec tural theorists of the twentieth century. Chief among these is Ruskin's idea that 'the principal part of architecture is orna ment'. Ruskin's attitude to ornament only makes sense in the context of his attitudes to work. He insists that the pleasure we take in a building - beyond simple, functional considerations - is in some way related to the pleasure the workman invested in his labour. Ruskin's theory of ornament is, in effect, a theory of labour. Ornament is not a sensualist 'optional extra', but the guarantee of creative work. It is the means by which the workman expresses his individuality and enters fully into the affective and symbolic life of his community. Ruskin railed against the mechanisation of ornament and against the 'degra dation of the operative into a machine'.
'We have,' he wrote, 'studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: - Divided into mere segments of men - broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail.' Ruskin saw such points and heads as being polished with the 'sand of human soul'. Under such conditions, the aesthetic dimension all but disappeared from the everyday life and work of ordinary men and women.
Since Ruskin holds up true Gothic as a paradigm of excel lence, one can hardly avoid asking whether his view of this form was historically accurate. Well, it was and it wasn't. John Harvey, a medieval scholar, could be echoing Ruskin when he describes late Gothic buildings as 'the climax of European art' and points out that 'not only had individual buildings acquired artistic unity, but every part and detail was so subtly propor tioned to the whole, and to human scale, that it gives the impression of a work of nature rather than of human striving'. Or, as George Henderson argues, Gothic was something beyond and above architecture or building techniques. It was, he says, an intellectual, spiritual and decorative principle which was applied equally to all the major and minor arts, and by which they were blended into one Total Art.
Ruskin was absolutely right about these aspects of the Gothic. But if Gothic was for him much more than a matter of style - almost a way of life, in fact, - it is significant that both he, and William Morris after him, misunderstood the conditions under which the artists and craftsmen of that period worked.
Ruskin did not know much about how the cathedrals were built, or the division of labour upon which their construction depended. Chartres or Lincoln did not spring, fully-formed, from collective imagination and collective work. They were designed by architects who, as we now know, were men of distinction and reputation. The specialist craftsmen who built them were much more like early 'professionals' than everyday labourers, as Ruskin and Morris supposed. Furthermore, the late Middle Ages underwent its own 'industrial revolution', and its architectural feats were, at least in part, made possible by the mechanical innovations of the time.
Ruskin liked to believe that the rot started with the Renaissance, and would probably have been horrified to learn about the role of professionalisation, division of labour and mechanisation in his beloved Gothic era. And yet there is an important sense in which these recent historical discoveries only strengthen his argument. In many so-called 'primitive' societies, the aesthetic dimension permeates every aspect of life and work - from personal adornment, through manufacture of bowl, dagger or sculpture, and into ritual preparations for the hunt and celebrations of the harvest. The arts barely exist as separate categories, and the aesthetic dimension is a com ponent of all human skills. But in Gothic Europe, the aesthetic has been displaced from the appearance and everyday work of the body onto certain buildings. The aesthetic dimension becomes lodged, largely though not exclusively, in a space set apart: the space of the great cathedral.
These cathedrals - unrivalled human achievements as they remain - represent the beginnings of the displacement of the aesthetic dimension; its isolation from life, as much as its consummate expression. This separation of the aesthetic dimension accelerated during the Renaissance, which saw the emergence of a division between intellectual and affective life, and the consequent decline of ornamental and architectural arts. From the Renaissance onwards, architectural style in Europe tended to be pillaged from the symbolic orders of the past, rather than arise from the spiritual life of the present.
As the aesthetic dimension was forced to retreat still further out of actual life, it came to reside in that 'other reality within the existing one', the illusory space of the painter, who, through the invention of perspective, ceased to be a decorator of architectural space and became the creator of his own painted world. The arts thereby ceased to be synonymous with all human skills. Art acquired a capital 'A' and became the special and unique province of the privileged creators of that other reality. By the nineteenth century, the artist was one whose imagina tive work was distinct from all other kinds of work. This was not, as some have argued, simply a change in the ideology of art, it was the consequence of a profound change in the nature of work. Ruskin saw this clearly when he wrote, 'the English school of landscape, culminating in Turner, is in reality nothing else than a healthy effort to fill the void which destruction of Gothic architecture has left'.
This is a good moment to return to that conventional wisdom I cited earlier that Ruskin is irrelevant to us because the social conditions about which he complained have been put right by the emergence of the welfare state, while his attitudes to art are inappropriate to the modern age. Even though the conditions of labour have improved since Ruskin's day, its divorce from the aesthetic dimension has been rendered more complete. We live in a culture which is infinitely more 'anaesthetised' than that of the Victorians. In our society, not many artists could credibly be said to be filling that void left by the destruction of Gothic architecture. Too many painters have been content with the pursuit of aesthesis alone, while the very notion of theoria is forgotten or mocked.
Take the case of the Modern movement in architecture. Almost every book on the subject will tell one that Ruskin's attitude to new building practices was 'negative and reac tionary', as Nikolaus Pevsner puts it. Again and again, Ruskin is depicted as having been merely stubborn and stupid in his refusal to celebrate such feats of architectural engineering as the Crystal Palace. But, as it happens, Ruskin was never against functional constructions for the new age. He repeatedly argued that, say, railway stations and bridges should not be orna mented. He was a functionalist to the extent that he believed buildings should be well-proportioned, stand up and do the jobs for which they were designed. Nevertheless, he drew attention to the 'difference between a wasp's nest, a rat hole, or a railway station', and architecture, which, through ornament, entered into the affective and symbolic order, and was expres sive of an aesthetic dimension. The new steel and glass buildings he saw as 'eternally separated from all good and great things by a gulf which not all the tubular bridges nor engineer ing of ten thousand nineteenth centuries cast into one great bronze foreheaded century will ever over-pass one inch of.' He foresaw the dehumanising sterility of those 'machines for living in' produced by modern architectural functionalists. 'You shall draw out your plates of glass,' he predicted, 'and beat out your bars of iron till you have encompassed us all. . . with endless perspective of black skeleton and blinding square.'
Isn't that exactly what has happened? Ruskin's views on art and architecture are only irrelevant to those - and there are fewer and fewer of them - who remain happy with black skeletons and blinding squares. Today, at the other end of the disastrous Modernist experiment, should we not begin to reconsider what Ruskin had to say about the role of ornament, symbolism and work in architecture? Perhaps he was not so foolish when he declared, 'the highest nobility of a building does not consist in its being well built, but in its being nobly sculpted or painted.'
In recent years, many architects have reassessed the problem of ornament. However, given the divorce between architecture and the fine arts, and the absence of any shared system of affective belief, such as that provided by a religion, it is hard to see how contemporary ornament can be more than mere 'aesthesis'. It acts largely as a stimulus to sensuous pleasure or participates in the debased symbolic orders of advertising, resulting in spectacles such as the neon profusion of Piccadilly Circus. It may well be that we are living in the kind of society in which all that Ruskin understood by 'the Gothic' and I understand as 'the aesthetic dimension', has become impos sible.
In trying to find a way out of this impasse, one must ask whether or not there aren't some components of religion which our secular culture must recuperate in order to redeem itself. Perhaps Ruskin, given his time and place in history, was compelled to express in theological terms what we can discuss more easily in psychological or even ecological terms.
Ruskin was certainly one of the first to understand the importance of play and symbolism in every individual's life, and to perceive the ways in which art and architecture could minister to those needs. He was the first to perceive that there was a vital relationship between a child's playful desire to model animals out of pastry and the adult pursuit of sculpture, indeed of culture itself. He was mocked for such views at the time. Heedless of the mockers, he also foresaw that the advance of capitalism, mechanisation and unbelief - all the great triumphs of Modernism - were combining to seal over that area which psychoanalysts like D. W. Winnicott have called 'the potential space'. That is, the unchallenged imaginative domain between objective and subjective, in which the ego finds its earliest definition. This state is sustained, writes Winnicott, 'in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living'.
It is easy enough to see how, in less-developed cultures, the aesthetic element in work constituted one of the most signifi cant ways in which this 'potential space' between individual and society was held open. Ornamentation, and the interplay between tradition and innovation, provide a significant arena for this exploration of union and separation. This is also relevant to the emotional power of the great Gothic cathedrals, which, as George Henderson has put it, not only 'blur the distinction between the inside and the outside of a building' but express formally the interconnection of all the members of Christ's Church in the supreme unity of the new Jerusalem; as well as allowing those opportunities for individual, expressive work which so impressed Ruskin.
Green politics also finds a progenitor in Ruskin - an environ mentalist who realised that when a man's spiritual and imagina tive response to the world waned, he risked destroying himself. Here he is entirely in agreement with modern biologists such as E. O. Wilson, who has spoken of man's 'biophilia': his need to affiliate with other forms of life. He sees this urge as being violated by the development of technology and the destruction of the natural environment.
Although I believe Ruskin has an important role to play in the growing reaction against the reductionism of the modern age, there is probably not much future in the reversion to Christian iconography I described at the beginning of this essay. One must attend to the secular implications of Ruskin's views about art and imagination, particularly his belief that 'Fine Art must always be produced by the subtlest of all machines, which is the human hand.'
'Thoroughly perfect art,' he continued, 'is that which pro ceeds from the heart, which involves all the noble emotions; - associates with these the head, yet as inferior to the heart; and the hand, yet as inferior to the heart and head; and thus brings out the whole man.' The real importance of Ruskin today lies in the image he presented of the whole man, living within a society which permitted him to imagine, think, feel and work creatively; and to transform his immediate physical environ ment through his non-functional or 'aesthetic' work, informed by the dictates of the spirit. Even though Ruskin's dream has not been realised in any present-day society, I see no reason to believe that we have any less need for such a dream.