Monthly Archives: February 2013

One’s Duty to Art

From Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, Vol. 3 (Works, XI, 212ff.)

We have just seen that all great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul. But it is not only the work of the whole creature, it likewise addresses the whole creature. That in which the perfect being speaks must also have the perfect being to listen. I am not to spend my utmost spirit, and give all my strength and life to my work, while you, spectator or hearer, will give me only the attention of half your soul. You must be all mine, as I am all yours; it is the only condition on which we can meet each other. All your faculties, all that is in you of greatest and best, must be awake in you, or I have no reward. The painter is not to cast the entire treasure of his human nature into his labour merely to please a part of the beholder; not merely to delight his senses, not merely to amuse his fancy, not merely to beguile him into emotion, not merely to lead him into thought; but to do all this. Senses, fancy, feeling, reason, the whole of the beholding spirit, must be stilled in attention or stirred with delight; else the labouring spirit has not done its work well. For observe, it is not merely its right to be thus met, face to face, heart to heart; but it is its duty to evoke this answering of the other soul; its trumpet call must be so clear, that though the challenge may by dulness or indolence be unanswered, there shall be no error as to the meaning of the appeal; there must be a summons in the work, which it shall be our own fault if we do not obey. We require this of it, we beseech this of it. Most men to not know what is in them till they receive this summons from their fellows: their hearts die within them, sleep settles upon them, the lethargy of the world’s miasmata; there is nothing for which they are so thankful as that cry, “Awake, thou that sleepest.” And this cry must be most loudly uttered to their noblest facilities; first of all, to the imagination, for that is the most tender, and the soonest struck into numbness by the poisoned air; so that one of the main functions of art, in its service to man, is to rouse the imagination from its palsy, like the angel troubling the Bethesda pool; and the art which does not do this is false to its duty, and degraded in its nature. It is not enough that it be well imagined, it must task the beholder to imagine well; and this so imperatively, that if he does not choose to rouse himself to meet the work, he shall not taste it, nor enjoy it in any wise. Once that he is well awake, the guidance which the artist gives him should be full and authoritative: the beholder’s imagination should not be suffered to take its own way, or wander hither and thither; but neither must it be left at rest; and the right point of realization, for any given work of art, is that which will enable the spectator to complete it for himself, in the exact way the artist would have him, but not that which will save him the trouble of effecting the completion. So soon as the idea is entirely conveyed, the artist’s labour should cease; and every touch which he adds beyond the point when, with the help of the beholder’s imagination, the story ought to have been told, is a degradation to his work. So that the art is wrong which either realizes its subject completely, or fails in giving such devinite aid as shall enable it to be realized by the beholding imagination.

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