John Ruskin: conservative attitudes to the modern 1836-1860
thesisposted on 27.04.2015, 10:57 by Michael A. Williams
I examine the way in which, in his work of the 1840s, Ruskin uses methods and assumptions derived from eighteenth-century Materialist, Mechanist and Vitalist Natural Philosophy, especially his assertion that the meanings which he reads into natural phenomena are objectively present and can be quantified, and the way in which therefore aesthetic concepts, responses and judgements can be quantified, and their values fixed. I examine the ways in which Ruskin seeks to demonstrate the relationship between the unity of Nature and the Multipilicity of Phenomena, not only as existing objectively in the external world, but also as reflected in the paintings of Turner. I suggest that his attempt at demonstration features a problematic relationship between his accounting for a material reality and the spiritual significances which he sees as immanent in it, and that resistance to the dynamism of contemporary industrial and social change is implicit in his celebration of an eternalised natural order. I examine four features of his correspondence during the 1840s: his dealings in the art market, his outright opposition to a number of modern developments, his urgent desires to see his favourite European architectural heritage preserved, and his strident xenophobia, and suggest relationships between the last two and his resistance to the modern. I examine the shift in his interests in the 1840s and 1850s from Nature and Art to Architecture and Man, and thence to Political Economy, and examine available accounts which rely too heavily on references to his psychological development, or on his claims to regular epiphanies, or on a significant shift in focus which can be explained by revealing the internal continuities in his work. I conclude with an attempt to demonstrate that what I have called the "broad sweep" approach obscures the confusions and contradictions in his position in the late 1840s and 1850s, and suggest that his social and intellectual inheritance, which is of a highly conservative and unremittingly paternalistic nature, crucially limits his work as ~ social critic. I offer three appendices: on the problem of the relationship between the Unity of Nature and the Multiplicity of Phenomena as that had been addressed in the Natural Philosophy on whose assumptions Ruskin draws; on eighteenth century Materialist, Mechanist and Vitalist theories of matter; and on the work of Edmund Burke and Sir Charles Bell.
- The Arts, English and Drama
- English and Drama