Many writers and painters and creative people of all types say they don’t want their thinking to outdo their doing. Minimal self-consciousness is their goal, and they don’t want to be distracted by matters outside the work. Let the particulars of style and technique take care of themselves, they mean to focus on the subject. Me too, but I can’t help myself and periodically have to ask what the hell I’m doing.
Reading John Ruskin’s Modern Painters reminds me how far off I can be. He gets in a grumbling match with metaphysicians over where the quality of a thing resides, in the observer or in the thing itself, and he turns to poets who engage in pathetic fallacy and assign qualities to things.
Ruskin objects to pathetic fallacy. He chooses the things themselves as the source of artistic power. Artists only fulfill that inherent power:
This power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not, and would remain there though there were not left a man on the face of the earth. Precisely in the same way gunpowder has a power of exploding. It will not explode if you put no match to it. But it has always the power of so exploding, and is therefore called an explosive compound, which it very positively and assuredly is, whatever philosophy may say to the contrary.
The artist, according to Ruskin, elicits the greatest pleasure when he or she offers something “true” and unleashes the inherent power of the subject. The moment an artist says what something is, art dissipates. You must realize the power of the thing, not posit some other power. You will put readers or viewers in an impossible position if you suggest that, if they can’t see what you say, the problem is theirs. Ruskin explains that you can’t assert “All gunpowder is subjective and all explosion imaginary” without making someone into “an ill-made match.”
Ruskin offers a proof from bad poetry. Where Homer has Odysseus ask his dead crewmate Elpenor how he reached the underworld so quickly, Alexander Pope has Odysseus ask:
O, say, what angry power Elpenor led
To glide in shades, and wander with the dead?
How could thy soul, by realms and seas disjoined,
Outfly the nimble sail, and leave the lagging wind?
I share Ruskin’s impatience with Pope, so it’s easy for me to agree something is wrong here. There’s no “angry power” in Odysseus’ curiosity, no “outflying” or “nimble sail” in his simple question. All that’s in Pope’s head, a solipsism. And this passage isn’t even about the subject, which Pope saw as nothing new or noteworthy, but the artists’ artistry. Pope said elsewhere, True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest.”
That “oft’s been thought” insinuates no new explosiveness to discover in things, and his “so well expressed” implies the artist’s powers come before the power of the subject. Contemporary artists have more in common with Pope than Ruskin. Ruskin’s idea that the artist is a medium to nature’s power has lost out to artifice.
Contemporary creativity allows the artist so much more license. We’re free to declare anything gunpowder and celebrated for doing so. We never hesitate to create ill-made matches. Not appreciating art is often the perceiver’s problem. The specialized and rarified realm of Art sits on a mountain of self-definition. I think Ruskin might say we’ve changed the landscape to place ourselves above the true business of creation. He might say we want to regard ourselves as above the power of things.
Ignoring Ruskin makes life easier for artists, which makes me think we shouldn’t ignore him. I suspect any aesthetic relying too exclusively on fabrication. Yet, my work is full of the most pathetic sort of projection, and I paint mostly abstracts that have no true Ruskinian analogues in the natural world. They are synthetic gunpowder, if that, and I’m asking viewers to be acetylene torches, not just matches.
Maybe I should ask how synthetic my synthetic imagery is. Maybe I should ask if what someone reads or sees has some place in this world as well.
In the end, Ruskin is willing to acknowledge that an inspired writer, “in full impetuosity of passion may speak wisely and truly of ‘raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame’,” but if a writer “cannot speak of the sea without talking of ‘raging waves’,’ remorseless floods’, ‘ravenous billows’,” he or she is “the basest sort of writer.”
I don’t want to be base. I’d like to unleash the power in things. I’d like to find gunpowder ready for matches.