I Know What I Know

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“And you must remember always that your business, as manufacturers, is to form the market, as much as to supply it. If, in short-sighted and reckless eagerness for wealth, you catch at every humour of the populace as it shapes itself into momentary demand–if, in jealous rivalry with neighbouring States, or with other producers, you try to attracts attention by singularities, novelties, and gaudinesses–to make every design an advertisement, and pilfer every idea of a successful neighbour’s, that you may insidiously imitate it, or pompously eclipse–no good design will ever be possible to you, or perceived by you. You may, by accident, snatch the market; or, by energy, command it; you may obtain the confidence of the public, and cause the ruin of opponent houses; or you may, with equal justice of fortune, be ruined by them. But whatever happens to you, this, at least, is certain, that the whole of your life will have been spent in corrupting the public taste and encouraging public extravagance. Every preference you have won by gaudiness must have been based on the purchaser’s vanity; every demand you have created by novelty has fostered in the consumer a habit of discontent; and when you retire into inactive life, you may, as a subject of consolation for your declining years, reflect that precisely according to the extent of your past operations, your life has been successful in retarding the arts, tarnishing the virtues, and confusing the manners of your country.”

John Ruskin, “Modern Manufacture and Design,” a speech delivered at the Mechanics’ Institute, Bradford, March 1, 1859

Ruskin is such an interminable grump. He’s brilliant, but he’s a grump. Don’t believe me? Take a look at how he opened a speech from 1864, when he had been asked to talk about the planned Exchange in Bradford:

My good Yorkshire friends, you asked me down here among your hills that I might talk to you about this Exchange you are going to build: but, earnestly and seriously asking you to pardon me, I am going to donothing of the kind. I cannot talk, or at least can say very little, about this same Exchange. I must talk of quite other things, though not willingly;–I could not deserve your pardon, if, when you invited me to speak on one subject, I wilfully spoke on another. But I cannot speak, to purpose, of anything about which I do not care; and most simply and sorrowfully I have to tell you, in the outset, that I do not care about this Exchange of yours.

If, however, when you sent me your invitation, I had answered, “I won’t come, I don’t care about the Exchange of Bradford,” you would have been justly offended with me, not knowing the reasons of so blunt a carelessness. So I have come down, hoping that you will patiently let me tell you why, on this and many other such occasions, I now remain silent, when formerly I should have caught at the opportunity of speaking to a gracious audience.

In a word, then, I do not care about this Exchange–because you don’t; and because you know perfectly well I cannot make you.

After the 1850s, Ruskin spent a great deal of time yelling at people, while at the same time developing his theories about the relationship between architecture and national character. While he speaks a great deal about “taste” (which for him is an expression of national character, and hence “an index of morality”), in the end, Ruskin is going to put together a coherent theory of architecture that emphasizes the degree to which it is always a kind of historical record of national taste–and so it can be used to evaluate other cultures. Ruskin will argue that uniformity of architecture indicates the degree to which the workers were enslaved, while variety indicates the degree to which the workers were free.

And so poor taste–an inability or an unwillingness to acknowledge the ways any product takes part in slavery–makes the individual complicit in that slave-trade, and so

every young lady, therefore, who buys glass beads is engaged in the slave-trade, and in a much more cruel one than that which we have so long been endeavouring to put down.


Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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