I know many persons who have the purest taste in literature, and yet false taste in art, and it is a phenomenon that puzzles me not a little; but I have never known any one with false taste in books and true taste in pictures.
John Ruskin was skeptical of the Victorian era’s flourishing publishing market. Dismayed over the “days of book deluge” in which he lived, he cautioned his audience to “keep out of the salt swamps of literature and live on a rocky little island of your own.” He saw the swell of printed material as a dilutant of public taste, something that confused and coarsened it. His recommended reading list to keep you company in your exile would thrill Mortimer Adler. While he granted some wiggle room for individual preference, he was adamant about one thing:
Among modern books avoid generally magazine and review literature. Sometimes it may contain a useful abridgment or a wholesome piece of criticism; but the chances are ten to one it will either waste your time or mislead you.
Ruskin’s dismissal of journalistic reflection applies ever so keenly to today’s art press, bloated like a puff adder to illusory proportions. From foolscap to Kindle, art commentary is everywhere. Every newspaper has its arts-and-entertainment section devoted to reviews and something called—or misnamed—art criticism. More deliberate weeklies, even the stately monthlies, do not escape the fog of contemporary art chatter. We go at art appreciation like catechumans intent on full communion. Ordained appreciators broadcast the lux et veritas of the new faith in a torrent of print. The study of art has come to mimic the communal role bible study once held in our public life.
Ruskin might not have objected to that last point if only the study were conducted on a higher plane. One that corresponded to his reverence for Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Herodotus, Dante, Shakespeare, and Spenser might easily be welcome:
Every good book . . . is full of admiration and awe; it may contain firm assertion or stern satire, but it never sneers coldly, nor asserts haughtily, and it always leads you to reverence or love something with your whole heart.
I love that final phrase, and bless Ruskin for believing it. But the view from my own rocky little island sees a culture too much altered since Ruskin’s day. There are times when a sneer—a hot, considered sneer, if not a cold one—makes a beeline to the heart of things ahead of more elegant subtleties. It is the Willy Wonka principle: candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.
As a guide through the chocolate factory of the contemporary artmind, I commend it. And I like to think that if Ruskin were here today, he would not fault me for the endorsement.