Reply by DwightC

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Posted on Ruskin on "Taste"

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26 posts in 1260 days

#1 posted 06-07-2016 03:47 AM

I’ll bite. Thanks for posting this the way you did—bare, with no explanation. I tend to muddle my Victorians, I think I’m liable to confuse Ruskin with Carlyle. But, here goes.

To get the ad hominem stuff out of the way. Ruskin, like Lewis Carroll, was what today we’d call a perv—they both had a thing for young girls. Even so, it’s still possible to learn from Ruskin and read Alice in Wonderland to children. That’s one reason the style of argument which attacks the other side, rather than the other side’s argument, has such a poor reputation.

But ad hominem arguments are fun and sometimes effective, so they’re used a lot. Among woodworkers, they take a couple of forms. One runs as follows—the only people qualified to have an opinion about a piece of furniture are woodworkers competent at making furniture. This would come as an enormous surprise to various interior decorators, collectors, customers, etc. (starting with my wife). Another form of this is, unless you can show me your stuff and it’s good, I don’t have to pay any attention to what you say. That’s sort of the opposite of letting an argument stand or fall on its own weight. It makes a lot of sense when something important hangs in the balance—I’ll listen to a lawyer’s advice on a legal matter more than what my neighbor says over the fence, or doctor’s medical opinion more than an advertiser’s copy in a radio announcement. But in an internet forum, I’d say let the argument not the screen name weigh in the balance.

Now, to the substance of Ruskin’s argument. I tend to agree with the first half of it, with a qualification. There is a morality to taste, and there is such a thing as good design (which 100 years after Ruskin’s lecture was the theme of a series of post WWII Museum of Modern Art exhibits which did a lot to resurrect handmade furniture from the ash bin of history). The negative implication of that is that there is bad taste and evil work, as well. Ruskin sent me to wikipedia to check out the Teniers family, but more modern examples of this might be movies such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation or Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Great films, utterly infused with evil.

The qualification to Ruskin’s argument that I’d offer is that sometimes it requires a great deal of historical imagination and knowledge to understand and respond to the work of earlier eras. To put this in the context of furniture, consider what nowadays we call a home entertainment center. I’m old enough to remember my grandparent’s art deco free standing monaural radio—a behemoth. Then came the steereo sound systems and television housings of the second half of the 20th century. Now people are making making things completely different from what went before. This is a pretty easy example—technology, the electronic innards, drive the form of the cabinetry, and the evolution has been breathtakingly swift, so everybody remembers how it was before the latest, greatest iteration. But a great deal of the furniture of great houses, or rural life before electricity and indoor plumbing, is hard to understand properly. We are still building nightstands with a cabinet for the chamberpot, for God’s sake.

Where I think I disagree with the passage is when Ruskin ventures into drawing some political conclusions from his argument—the business about costermongers vs. gentlemen. And that’s where the rather sour complaining you hear to the effect one person’s opinion is a valid as another’s, that there are no absolutes, it’s all relative, that nobody’s any better than anybody else, comes from. People are free to feel that way, but the people that feel that way are . . . well I wouldn’t want to get all ad hominem, now would I? For sure, some like professional football and some like reality TV and some like poetry slams. I’m not so sure that knowing that preference tells you all you need to know about a person, but as popular culture increasingly granulates, the importance of those preferences is probably increasing. Which may well mean that Ruskin’s perspective lies not only in our past, but in our futures.

Hmm. . .

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