Friday, February 29, 2008

BOOKS | Why I Want to Read John Ruskin (One Day)

Marcel Proust was a great admirer of Ruskin, and from Proust I gathered he was a great art and social critic. While I have never read anything by John Ruskin, I hope to read Praeterita one day.

Why am I interested in Ruskin? Simply because Proust admired Ruskin? That's not a good excuse -- it's like reading Anna Karenina only because Oprah recommends it.

Proust brought Ruskin to my attention; I was curious. However, my real introduction to Ruskin's ideas was via Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. In the book, De Botton outlines the five central conclusions of John Ruskin's treatise on why we desire to possess beauty:

  1. Beauty is the result of a series of complicated factors that come together to affect the mind both psychologically and visually (huh?)
  2. Human have an innate tendency to respond to beauty and the desire to possess it.
  3. Desire for souvenirs, carving one's name on pillars, taking photographs – these are the more vulgar expression of the human desire for possession
  4. There is only one way to possess beauty – and that is by understanding it, and making one-self conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) responsible for it. In short, we need to process
  5. The most effective means of pursuing this conscious understanding is by attempting to describe beauty – by writing or drawing – whether we have any talent for doing so (which is why there are so many badly written poetry out there)

Ruskin was known for being extremely generous with his time teaching art to the layperson. He believed that one does not have to be an artist, or even be remotely skilled to learn how to draw: "My efforts are directed not to making a carpenter an artist but to making him happier as a carpenter."

Ruskin believed that just practicing how to draw – even if you are not gifted – teaches us to see, to notice, rather than merely look. The process of art enhances our perception, helps us develop the aesthetic sensibilities that we can bring to our ordinary lives. It is an affirmation of art and its relevance to life, because it refines us. In learning to draw, we will also learn more about our preference, and in the process perhaps discover for ourselves the rational behind our tastes. When we understand why we prefer one thing over another, we begin to develop an 'aesthetic', a capacity to assert judgements about beauty – and ugliness.

Ruskin described writing as a form of 'word-paint.' He encouraged writing about our experience as it can help us crystalise our impressions of beauty – but one needs to write effectively. Effective writing is more than mere description; it should also analyse the effect something has on us in "psychological language." When we fail to write adequately, it is simply the failure of not asking ourselves the crucial questions, the failure to examine the experience incisively. In short, we fail because we have not applied our critical faculties to a sufficient vigor.

I admit: this is the weakness in my reading and writing – not being critical enough. I am guilty of complacency and never really venturing out of my comfort zone. Ruskin's ideas shame me a little, but it also motivates me to work harder at developing my own aesthetic faculties.

From what little of Ruskin (via de Botton) that I have learnt, I can see why Proust was such an admirer. What is so captivating about Proust's epic (in spite of his annoying snobbery and his loooooong, sinuous prose) is his relentless exploration of that shadow labyrinth known as the human heart. Reading Charles Swann's jealousies over Odette in Lydia Davis's superb translation of Swann's Way, I immediately became a Proustian groupie. Proust seems to exemplify Ruskin's idea of pursuing art and beauty by attempting to "word-paint" in psychological landscape -- and how he painted.

This is why I want to read Ruskin. One day. And why I need to pick up The Prisoner and The Fugitive soon.

4 comments:

Imani said...

Penguin released one of Ruskin's essays in its "Great Ideas" series with a gorgeous cover. That could be a pretty easy, handy way to start.

Dark Orpheus said...

imani Oh yeah - I remember that. I think my local library has a copy - thanks. I'll have to check it out tomorrow.

Nymeth said...

Those are definitely some interesting ideas. Now I also want to read Ruskin some day.

Dark Orpheus said...

Nymeth I've just picked up the Penguin Great Ideas's "On Art and Life". Will report if it's really good. Or really dry.