Ruskin on "Taste"

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Forum topic by JADobson posted 06-06-2016 09:06 PM 853 views 0 times favorited 2 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1445 posts in 2594 days

06-06-2016 09:06 PM

Topic tags/keywords: taste ruskin

In light of a certain recent thread I thought this passage was particularly appropriate. It comes from the lecture “Traffic” in the book The Crown of Wild Olive by John Ruskin, the grandfather of the Arts and Crafts movement. You can read the whole thing here:

edit: I’ll just add that it is well worth reading the whole lecture.

Permit me, therefore, to fortify this old dogma of mine somewhat. Taste is not only a part and an index of morality — it is the ONLY morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, ‘What do you like?’ Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are. Go out into the street, and ask the first man or woman you meet, what their ‘taste’ is, and if they answer candidly, you know them, body and soul. ‘You, my friend in the rags, with the unsteady gait, what do you like?’ ‘A pipe and a quartern of gin.’ I know you. ‘You, good woman, with the quick step and tidy bonnet, what do you like?’ ‘A swept hearth and a clean tea-table, and my husband opposite me, and a baby at my breast.’ Good, I know you also. ‘You, little girl with the golden hair and the soft eyes, what do you like?’ ‘My canary, and a run among the wood hyacinths.’ ‘You, little boy with the dirty hands and the low forehead, what do you like?’ ‘A shy at the sparrows, and a game at pitch-farthing.’ Good; we know them all now. What more need we ask?

‘Nay,’ perhaps you answer: ‘we need rather to ask what these people and children do, than what they like. If they do right, it is no matter that they like what is wrong; and if they do wrong, it is no matter that they like what is right. Doing is the great thing; and it does not matter that the man likes drinking, so that he does not drink; nor that the little girl likes to be kind to her canary, if she will not learn her lessons; nor that the little boy likes throwing stones at the sparrows, if he goes to the Sunday school.’ Indeed, for a short time, and in a provisional sense, this is true. For if, resolutely, people do what is right, in time they come to like doing it. But they only are in a right moral state when they have come to like doing it; and as long as they don’t like it, they are still in a vicious state. The man is not in health of body who is always thirsting for the bottle in the cupboard, though he bravely bears his thirst; but the man who heartily enjoys water in the morning and wine in the evening, each in its proper quantity and time. And the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things — not merely industrious, but to love industry — not merely learned, but to love knowledge — not merely pure, but to love purity — not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.

But you may answer or think, ‘Is the liking for outside ornaments, — for pictures, or statues, or furniture, or architecture, — a moral quality?’ Yes, most surely, if a rightly set liking. Taste for any pictures or statues is not a moral quality, but taste for good ones is. Only here again we have to define the word ‘good.’ I don’t mean by ‘good,’ clever — or learned — or difficult in the doing. Take a picture by Teniers, of sots quarrelling over their dice: it is an entirely clever picture; so clever that nothing in its kind has ever been done equal to it; but it is also an entirely base and evil picture. It is an expression of delight in the prolonged contemplation of a vile thing, and delight in that is an ‘unmannered,’ or ‘immoral’ quality. It is ‘bad taste’ in the profoundest sense — it is the taste of the devils. On the other hand, a picture of Titian’s, or a Greek statue, or a Greek coin, or a Turner landscape, expresses delight in the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing. That is an entirely moral quality — it is the taste of the angels. And all delight in art, and all love of it, resolve themselves into simple love of that which deserves love. That deserving is the quality which we call ‘loveliness’ — (we ought to have an opposite word, hateliness, to be said of the things which deserve to be hated); and it is not an indifferent nor optional thing whether we love this or that; but it is just the vital function of all our being. What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character. As I was thinking over this, in walking up Fleet Street the other day, my eye caught the title of a book standing open in a bookseller’s window. It was — ‘On the necessity of the diffusion of taste among all classes.’ ‘Ah,’ I thought to myself, ‘my classifying friend, when you have diffused your taste, where will your classes be? The man who likes what you like, belongs to the same class with you, I think. Inevitably so. You may put him to other work if you choose; but, by the condition you have brought him into, he will dislike the other work as much as you would yourself. You get hold of a scavenger, or a costermonger, who enjoyed the Newgate Calendar for literature, and “Pop goes the Weasel” for music. You think you can make him like Dante and Beethoven? I wish you joy of your lessons; but if you do, you have made a gentleman of him: — he won’t like to go back to his costermongering.’

—John Ruskin, April 1864

-- No craft is very far from the line beyond which is magic. -- Lord Dunsany — Instagram @grailwoodworks

2 replies so far

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26 posts in 1259 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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55 posts in 1302 days

#2 posted 06-07-2016 04:41 AM

I think it is completely foolish to take advice from unqualified people.

Would you take investment advice from a hobo?

How about taking medical advice from Jenny McCarthy about autism?

Lots of people have opinions, many of them are wrong, some of them can be damaging. I think it’s the duty of intelligent people to always question the source.


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