“Industry without Art is Brutality” – Part 2

The message that a 19th Century artist tried to teach

John Rushkin (1819-1900)

John Rushkin was not perfect, was at times unwise, but he was refreshingly honest; truthful, and idealistic. A commentary about him on readbookonline.net said this: He (Rushkin) had been asking himself what are the conditions that produce great art, and the answer he found declared that art cannot be separated from life, nor life from industry and industrial conditions. A civilization founded upon unrestricted competition therefore seemed to him necessarily feeble in appreciation of the beautiful, and unequal to its creation. In this way loyalty to his mission bred apparent disloyalty. Delightful discourses upon art gave way to fervid pleas for humanity.

He rejected what he perceived as the compromises of materialistic art, but he did much more in instilling a God-given moral perspective that opposed the vagaries of the industrial revolution. Only in the orb of his all-encompassing vision for life inspired by God’s morality can we understand what he meant when he wrote: Industry without art is brutality.

I have to catch my breath at his vision, when I consider the outcome of the capitalism he opposed for our modern day (capitalism is amoral, and is really the servant of those who use it, either morally, or immorally). For me, his was a prescient attitude, and there may still be time to take lessons from it in our current sociology – a kind of prophetic cry warning about our day that was largely ignored in his day! Creativity depends on honest and integumental interpretations of life. In this sense, Rushkin was a prophetic sociologist, artist and critic. His guild that still exists at Sheffield England [the Guild of St. George] failed to be transformational (in my view, it was swept aside in the ‘heady’ days of growth fuelled by a new consumerism; debt accumulation and profit), but his ideas remain to remind us that life is doomed that abandons the moral underpinning and values of honor, respect, and the worth of every human (I do not mean to eulogize John Rushkin, but merely to point out that voices interceding for the value of every person, and for the importance of God-given morality in human affairs have never been silent!).

He tried to establish a national store through the guild as a radical answer to capitalism’s fast accumulating national debt. He was considered utopic. However, I cannot argue with his belief that happiness; health; wealth; nature; society, and work are all intricately rooted in a God-given morality. He linked public good with personal conduct. Rushkin was searching for artistic expression and effective application in a broader tableau than was then accepted as norm. He put his money where his mouth was. He gave away his personal fortune to support and to finance initiatives that he believed were more consistent with all-rounded-value-based industrial sociology. He, for instance, saw creativity, and thus art, as a triumvirate of nature, and society. To him art could not be separated from life, hence his opposition to Whistler’s ‘art for art’s sake’, an attitude concomitant with the capitalism of the day. He did not reject industry, but saw (in hindsight we can say: clearly!) that the direction it was heading could spell doom for his society.

Today, as we face what can arguably be said to be the end of the “Western” era, we can only gaze longingly, at what could have been if the moderating voices of our past had been heeded. In his defense of the Pre-Raphaelites, he affirmed their quest for meaning, which was to reject, for instance, the contrived aspects of Raphaelesque art; he lauded their bravery in the pursuit of needful change. In my view, he was challenging two things, firstly, dishonest interpretations of  life, and secondly, discriminating applications of  life. He believed that art should be visionary, and if communicated honestly would carry the power to inspire transformed living. He was a purist in this sense. Artists search for expression; they react to the past; they reach into the present; they are tuned in to the mood on the streets, but that is the nature of art – it seeks out; it challenges; it questions; it reflects. Rushkin was a reformist whose sphere extended well beyond the realm of art. Rushkin’s vision represents for me a prophetic quest for truth, the marriage of romance and reality, and the strong link between God and happiness.

I end with this question and statement: Can we find men or women today willing to stake their all on moral and human life-enhancing courses of action diametrically opposed to the way of their world, their culture; or their age group? If so, we find one, or more, who have placed the value of human life, and respect for others above their own needs (I do not claim that this is even remotely possible without a personal relationship with God). We should search for such, since the future will most likely depend on what they do! WE WOULD THINK A LUNATIC someone who, like John Rushkin (at the time Slade professor of Fine Art at Oxford), says from the hallways of Harvard: “the current situation is so drastic that we should all stop spending our money. Despite collapsing the national economy, this will guarantee that we together are able to pay off the national debt, and afford the next generation the opportunity to build with the wealth they are able to generate from their gifts and abilities. More than that, if we accept this challenge together, we will end up with more for each person, and enough to give to others elsewhere who have less.” Perhaps our second challenge should be: Who can prove to us that this is too idealistic? Perhaps we dare not, because we have become all too comfortable with what we think we ‘possess’. However, this is not a treatise of the WEST versus anything – it is just a call to all to stop and think for a moment what kind of future do we want for our children! We should thus  investigate these things thoroughly without excuse, tokenism or accusation?

I imagine that such a person, if he, or she, had the power to establish this idea would be treated as Israel treated Jeremiah when he prophesied that they would be blessed by God if they surrendered their entire society; gave up their activities; their freedom, and their identity to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 29:10-14; 36; 37; 38). Jeremiah’s point was less that they were able to do so, than that God was still working for their good. In other words, God would remain their inspiration and help in their needful adjustment. But, they sought to kill Jeremiah then and to shut him up for his ‘betrayal’ of all they held dear. Nonetheless, they were compelled in the end to give themselves to the Babylonians. But, despite their stubbornness, God did help them in their captivity. He did not end their posterity, on the contrary, he taught them that any society that distances itself from God will not prosper – it cannot prosper since any distancing from God equates to a diminishing love for others. Could we then not say that a stronger case can be made for lunacy over those who think that our society can maintain its present course?

 “It may be proved, with much certainty, that God intends no man to live in this world without working: but it seems to me no less evident that He intends every man to be happy in his work. It is written, “in the sweat of thy brow,” but it was never written, “in the breaking of thine heart,” thou shalt eat bread; and I find that, as on the one hand, infinite misery is caused by idle people, who both fail in doing what was appointed for them to do, and set in motion various springs of mischief in matters in which they should have had no concern… I believe the fact of their being unhappy is in itself a violation of divine law, and a sign of some kind of folly or sin in their way of life”

John Rushkin in his book Pre-Raphaelitism (http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/19615/)