Ruskin and Baudelaire: Modernity

John Ruskin’s believed art should lead the viewer to the truth and that imitation was the downfall of art. Art was meant to be created in good taste and reason in order to lead the viewer to pleasure. The ability to discern beauty shows good taste and thus inserts itself into morality. Imitation is a lack of morality and thus needs multiple ideas in order to sustain itself. Art is the only place in which imitation can be found because art provides the world with pleasure. While we derive pleasure from things created by nature, nature is not the ideal or the absolute truth. The ideal comes from a deity that was created by humans in order to explain why certain forms, colors, and textures create a sense of pleasure and thus are morally good.

Beauty is all about perception and the ability to use reason. If there were no ugly or falseness in the world then reason, beauty and what is morally good would be taken for granted and would not be understood. Beauty stems from the ideas and expressions that are related to the object depicted. The idea of relating art to someone is the most powerful source of pleasure because it plays of emotions, which attaches people immediately (for good or for bad), to the image.

To be avant-garde is to be forward thinking; to create something that is at the very edge of innovation. For Ruskin, landscape painting is not avant-garde because it has a tendency to idealize the scene. Ruskin states that for landscape painting there was no passion and honesty and will never teach the world about anything divine. Having an imagination, according to Ruskin, is an important quality for artists to have and thus an idealized landscape is important. Also when the viewer discovers a piece of art is false, there will be a feeling of pleasure due to their ability to use reason. If artists were only using canons to create art then there would be no innovation; there would be nothing for the viewer to reason through in order to reach the morally good.

Here are three examples of works of art that show Ruskin’s philosophy.

William Holman Hunt  The Awakening Conscience  1853  Oil on Canvas

William Holman Hunt
The Awakening Conscience
1853
Oil on Canvas

Joseph Mallord William Turner  Snow Storm Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps 1812 Oil on Canvas

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps
1812
Oil on canvas

Edouard Manet  Lunch on the Grass 1863 Oil on canvas

Edouard Manet
Luncheon on the Grass
1863
Oil on canvas

This information is based on readings from: Robert Williams, Art Theory: An Historical Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, UK, 2009) and  Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford University Press, NY, 2009).

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