Tuesday, August 3, 2010

John Ruskin and the "Lamp of Life"

A day or two after my last post, I discovered an excerpt from the writings of John Ruskin which summarised eloquently something of my own feeling about the work of creating:

"I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment - was the carver happy while he went about it? It may be the hardest work possible, and the harder because so much pleasure was taken in it; but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living." (p61-2)

The quote above comes from Ruskin's "The Seven Lamps of Architecture". Ruskin was an English art, architectural and social critic whose later inspired for William Morris, instigator of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Arts and Crafts Movement reacted against machine forms and overly-ornate decoration, developing instead an aesthetic of simple, functional beauty in art, architecture and furniture design.

In a section entitled "'The Lamp of Life': Hand and heart for work of art", Ruskin goes on to say:

"...all the short, and cheap, and easy ways of doing that whose difficulty is its honour - are just so many new obstacles in our already encumbered road. They will not make us happier or wiser - they will neither extend the pride of judgment nor the privilege of enjoyment. They will only make us shallower in our understandings, colder in our hearts and feebler in our wits. And most justly. For we are not sent into this world to do anything into which we cannot put our hearts." (p63)

That does seem to me to be a pretty tough call. And one that it's easy enough to shoot holes in by pointing out that in our society, it's only the privileged who have the luxury of choosing the work we find most dignified, the work we can pour our hearts into. But I would suggest that the quest for cheapness and imitation is fuelled by the privileged, anyhow - the rich imitating the richer - and factory labourers producing imitation wood and stone surfaces are victims of a society in which the agenda has been set for them. That society has lost its connection to real things.

I can't say I follow Ruskin entirely - it isn't clear to me why he condemns wrought iron but lauds tile mosaics, for example. I imagine he is a man of his time, and wonder whether people may look back on my own preference for "natural" over "synthetic" fibre as a quaint anachronism. But I think we need to rethink our production agenda, and that part of that rethinking needs to be weighed against the dignity of the work we expect people to perform.

It is no surprise that the inherent "dignity" of a given form of work takes second place to getting bread on the table. But I hope that one day that dignity may be available to all, not only in "art" or the "high" professions; that we may feed, clothe and shelter ourselves through such dignified and difficult work. Then the love of the artisan will be found in the bread, the table, and the shirt on the back of she who eats.

Ruskin, John 1849. "The Seven Lamps of Architecture"
in W. G. Collingwood (ed), 1907. The Ruskin Reader, 49-69. Ballantyne Press: London.

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