Rescuing Ruskin

The most recent Lana Turner Journal features three essays on J.M.W. Turner, prompted by the exhibition Late Turner – Painting Set Free, recently displayed at Tate Britain and the Getty. The attention to Turner’s astonishing work is welcome, but comments in those essays about John Ruskin—the critic who helped shape Turner’s legacy—misrepresent him both as a critic of Turner and as an important thinker/writer in his own right.

Here’s what LT editor Calvin Bedient has to say about Ruskin:

Poor Ruskin, so intent on championing a fictitious Turner, a painter of the “exquisite realization of objects.” Turner was really only fascinated by multiples – crowds, not individual faces; moonlight scattered in clouds, not the moon. Multitudes and diffusion, blurs.

This is a classic case of the critic criticizing his own shortcomings in another: Ruskin did not champion “a fictitious Turner”; however, Bedient is giving us a fictitious Ruskin.

First of all, Ruskin never called Turner a painter of the “exquisite realization of objects”; indeed, he never used that exact phrase anywhere. Something like the phrase appears in Ruskin’s discussion of the religious painting of the Italian Renaissance, where he first points out its shortcomings with regard its depiction of landscape: “Its grasp of nature is narrow and its treatment…too severe and conventional to form a profitable example when the landscape is to be alone the subject of thought.” But, he adds, “The great virtue of it is its entire, exquisite, and humble realization of those objects it selects” (my emphasis). In other words, Ruskin is giving lukewarm praise regarding the one thing those painters, working around 400 years before Turner, sort of did right. He specifically says their landscapes cannot withstand scrutiny solely as landscape—something he never would have said of Turner’s landscapes, in which he praised the painter’s ability to render “the dazzle and indecision of distance.”

Ruskin is not, as Bedient suggests, a narrow-minded “champion” of clarity in painting. In fact, he’s close to the opposite, especially when he’s discussing Turner. For instance, Book IV of Modern Painters contains a section entitled “OF TURNERIAN MYSTERY:—FIRST, AS ESSENTIAL” in which he defends Turner’s “foggy choice”—his obsession with clouds and mist, rather than the objects they occlude—pointing out that “not only is there a partial and variable mystery thus caused by clouds and vapors throughout great spaces of landscape; there is a continual mystery caused throughout all spaces, caused by the absolute infinity of things. WE NEVER SEE ANYTHING CLEARLY.” 

Ruskin adds that “all great work is indistinct; and if we find, on examining any picture closely, that it is all clearly to be made out, it cannot be, as painting, first-rate. There is no exception to this rule. Excellence of the highest kind, without obscurity, cannot exist.” Later in this section, Ruskin points out that we all live “under a universal law of obscurity.” As a result, “all distinct drawing must be bad drawing, and that nothing can be right, till it is unintelligible.”

These passages are merely what I gleaned from a scan of the collections of Ruskin I have on hand; there are many more similar passages found throughout Ruskin’s work, and also passages where Ruskin takes other painters to task for their dedication to a specious clarity.

Another essay in this issue of Lana Turner asks, “J.M.W. Turner – Why Now?” But the real question for me is “John Ruskin—Why now?” This is why I find Bedient’s misrepresentation of Ruskin so distressing. There are many reasons I think a return to Ruskin would be relevant: his quasi-phenomenological exploration of perception; his interest in vagueness and obscurity**; and his dedication, especially in his later work, to questions of labor, social justice, and income inequality. I hope that Bedient’s comments don’t discourage anyone from taking up and reading Ruskin’s challenging and compelling but—at least at this moment—underappreciated work. 


**Ambiguity—hallmark of New Criticism and postmodern thought—is not obscurity. Ambiguity still trucks in meanings, albeit multiple or contradictory ones; vagueness and obscurity are about that which resists meaning—where meaning gives out. Ambiguity, it goes without saying, is overdone; the vague/obscure, it seems to me, is an under-explored region of semiotics/aesthetics/etc.

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