Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ruskin--Part XII

There is some especially good material today.

On the topic of marble, still in the chapter called "Early Renaissance": "Over the greater part of the surface of the world, we find that a rock has been providentially distributed, in a manner particularly pointing it out as intended for the service of man." The more I study the past, the better I am able to grasp that this really was the mindset of even many of our most intelligent ancestors. I suppose many people still have feelings akin to this regarding oil, or diamonds, or uranium, and so on, though perhaps not so finely formulated. Such an attitude doubtless contributes to the vigor, invention, violent struggle, and even romance which continue to be associated with those industries, however.

Fig. 1--Santa Maria della Salute by Turner. Ruskin was an especial champion of Turner, as was Kenneth Clark, to such an extent that I think he is broadly regarded by most people who take an interest in such rankings as the greatest of all English painters. He is quite good. The famous light in his pictures does most definitely capture the perceived light of the mind in a moment of high feeling as well as anyone's does; for while it truly looks nothing like any real light really ever looked, yet it strikes one as a more accurate portrayal of things than what the eye ordinarily sees in them.
Various forms of the word "noble", including its negatives, ignoble, etc, I noted as being particular favorites of the author's.

On the discernment of the difference between real and imitation marble: "And the whole field of this knowledge, which nature intended us to possess when we were children, is hopelessly shut out from us." This argument, which I think everyone instinctively feels, that exposure to cheap imitations of superior materials contributes in no insignificant way to preventing us from fully realizing our manhood, is worth being reminded of, especially as it is put here in a fairly forceful manner. On the other hand, taking this tenet too much to heart would force any readership this blog might have to abandon their patronage and seek more substantial nourishment for their minds. But it is our foremost duty to ourselves, and to others, to raise ourselves up to the highest state of personhood we can attain, not merely to humor ourselves and everyone around us in lives of darkness and folly. This does not mean I will abandon the blog however, though it must be divested of its readership; for it remains my duty to seek my own improvement, however meager, wherever I honestly consider I have the most reasonable expectation of finding it.

Figure 2--Example of Italian Marble. I don't know specifically what building this is. It looks decidedly Florentine however. "Nature has supplied other materials,--clay for brick, or forest for timber,--in the working of which she intends other characters of the human mind to be developed, and by the proper use of which certain local advantages will assuredly be attained..." I would not put it in quite these terms, although I don't think the underlying idea is as ridiculous as it initially seems. I do conceive of existence, perhaps foolishly but nonetheless it is so, both my own as well as that of all the natural world, as necessarily having a purpose, though what it may be and what is directing it are entirely inscrutable to me, as well as, I suspect most of the time, not commensurate with most of the more grandiose conceptions of the human ego. Man having sprung from and being in fact part of what is referred to as Nature, of course his relations to it, his responses to its limits and recognitions of its possibilities, have shaped every step of his evolution and progress; and a certain level of conscious engagement with and consideration of the natural/material world does seem to have uncannily positive effects on the development of the mind. My belief is that this is because such considerations encourage the welling up of strong feelings of a beneficent quality, which I must make it a point to define more clearly; for obviously some people are aroused by strong feelings in libraries or particularly luxurious department stores, though these feelings are, I would argue, of a different character, supplementary, and perhaps even fortifying, but not, I think, sustaining in themselves.

"I know not anything so humiliating as to see a human being, with arms and limbs complete, and apparently a head, and assuredly a soul, yet into the hands of which when you have put a brush and palette, it cannot do anything with them but imitate a piece of wood." He is still railing against the concept of imitation materials here. This thought reminds me of a place I once worked for two days when I was employed by a temp agency. It was in a large 1960s-ish building that resembled an old factory, which is probably what it was--high windows with large metal fans in them, enormous flourescent lights, pipes, tubes, wires, exhausts, various loud machines, etc, on the ceiling, lemon and pale green lead paint on the walls, cold concrete floors, locker rooms, heavy doors with windows of wired glass, etc, etc. The business of this factory was essentially assembling the contents of junk mail, though much of this was done by machine (you had to feed the machine) so the noise was similar to being in a factory. Loud bells rang when it was time for breaks, and when it was time to go back to work. It employed hundreds of people, very grotesque people, unintelligent, vulgar, very ugly, very badly dressed; the kind of people one sees at places like Wal-Mart and thinks "Who are these people? Where do they come from? What do they do?" Apparently a lot of them work at places like the envelope stuffing factory. During the breaks at this place it was not uncommon to see five or six different couples among the employees--usually fat and often well north of 30 years old--getting in ten minutes of fairly serious making out and groping each other in a hallway or a corner of the break room or in a phone booth (this was quite a few years ago). I suppose there was some concession to the idea of discretion, but all of this was certainly well within sight of anyone who chose not to willfully ignore it. The bosses evidently did not care that this went on, though obviously it would be well beyond scandalous to even think about carrying on in such a manner at most bourgeois workplaces. My idea I guess was that if Ruskin thought the artisans of artificial wood were degraded men...

Figure 3--This medal is awarded annually by the Geological Society of London, which august organization features in one of the sentences below. I imagine it must be no too minor thrill for most of its recipients to win one of these. When I went to see the career counsellor a few years back I lamented at one point that I ought to have studied geology (no reason other than that I had never met anyone who had actually studied geology and I imagined one got to do jobs in Mongolia or on the Black Sea, working side by side with earnest and sexy young research assistants, sleeping in tents and grilling wild boar at night for weeks at a time, all while contributing to the store of human knowledge) but the counselor told me she had just had a distraught unemployed geologist in to see her a couple of days before. We have now moved on to the chapter titled "The Spite of the Proud."

Ruskin attempts to defend art as a superior means for gaining insight than science. "Science studies the relations of things to each other; but art studies only their relations to man...Art does not represent things falsely, but truly as they appear to mankind..." What a thing has to say to men, and what it can become to them, is "a field of question just as much vaster than that of science, as the soul is larger than the material creation." This conception of the centrality of human existence in the universal order is a fight that it is pretty clear educated modern first world men, despite his rampant personal egomania, has lost. This more objective viewpoint however seems not to be, as currently formulated, to the long-term or even temporal benefit of human self-interest. The admission, in high language, of individual hope or vital essence beyond triumphing in competition, now mainly among one's fellow humans, seems not to be present in many contemporary breasts.

There is a section of decent length on the nature of an artist. "...the kind of truth with which art is exclusively to be ascertained and accumulated...only, by perception and feeling. Never either by reasoning or report. Nothing must come between Nature and the artist's sight; nothing between God and the artist's soul...There is no great painter, no great workman in any art, but he sees more with the glance of a moment than he could learn by the labour of a thousand hours...God has made every man fit for his work: he has given to the man whom He means for a student, the reflective, logical, sequential faculties; and to the man whom He means for an artist, the perceptive, sensitive, retentive faculties." This is a little too simplistic, I think, though it at least acknowledges the very real existence of different mental types, which though certainly studied and categorized to death is scholars, is still not much accepted by us in our day-to-day dealing with people, and I have to include myself as being ever inpatient and irritated with those who reveal themselves to be of an especially opposed type to myself. The idea of God suiting us to our particular line of work (assuming one even has one) I do not find a comforting proposition.

Figure 4--The College of Surgeons, London. The lamp makes it look like a stage set for a musical.

Ruskin says, disdainfully, that it took the Geological society 50 years of labor to ascertain "those truths respecting mountain form which Turner saw and expressed with a few strokes of a camel's hair pencil fifty years ago, when he was a boy." The astronomers' knowledge of planetary laws and the curves of the motion of projectiles would not enable them to draw a waterfall or a wave; "and all the members of Surgeon's Hall helping each other could not at this moment see, or represent, the natural movement of a human body in vigorous action..." This ragging on scientists for their inability to draw a great picture of course would not be considered at all important by anyone in our day, would be laughed at. Still, it is an interesting perspective on the lack of deep value which we place on the talent for drawing, and the insight which it reveals in a person. Ruskin advocates in another of his writings for drawing being made as major a part of the school curriculum as reading and mathematics, for the capacities of the mind, particularly those of seeing, that this would hopefully develop. I thought it was an interesting idea.

"...what we want art to do for us is to stay what is fleeting, and to enlighten what is incomprehensible, to incorporate the things that have no measure, and immortalize the things that have no duration...this, the beginning and the end of the aim of all noble art, we have, in the ancient art, by perception; and we have not, in the newer art, by knowledge." The first part of this is pretty much in accord with my own sensibilities. I am sympathetic with the premise of the second part as well, though I don't have quite the confidence of Ruskin to bash knowledge, the cult of which I don't think set out expressly to destroy the artistic capacity of man at all, though at times it certainly seems that it had this result, mostly by making the effort of high artistic creation--which was physically much more labor-intensive in the past, even leaving aside the mere fact of procuring and making the very materials--paint, writing implements, paper, musical instruments-- increasingly unnecessary.

Fig.5--This is an especially nice-looking photo of the climactic confluence of the Venetian experience.

"...for as soon as we try to put our knowledge to good use, we shall find that we have much more than we can use, and that what more we have is an encumbrance." Now there's an insight for you.

No comments: