Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ruskin: The Virtue of Creativity (Genesis)

Following a global ecology in The Quarry (ch. 1), Ruskin defines some criteria in The Virtues of Architecture (ch. 2) in The Stones in Venice. If order for the evaluation of architecture to be universal, "of all the world and of all time," Ruskin needs to articulate some criteria, a "plumb-line" according to which we can pronounce whether a building is perpendicular. He calls them Virtues and they are three. Architecture must 1. Act well, 2. Speak well, and 3. Look well. The first virtue refers to the buildings structural integrity and economy that can be rationally evaluated. Interestingly enough, it aligns perfectly with Viollet-le-Duck structural rationalism, one of Ruskin's French foils. The second virtue is about the communicative message that the building contains that can only be evaluated by fully understanding the expectations, assumption and world-view of the civilization that produced it. In other words, the second virtue defines the job of the Panofskian positivist art history, the discipline of reconstructing historical intentions. Ruskin flat out rejects this as an evaluative principle. In a rather postmodern turn, Ruskin argues that it is impossible to enter the subjectivity of the original builder or user. The social historian might as well give up before starting. If the first virtue can be assessed technocratically and the the second virtue is inaccessible, Ruskin makes the third virtue as the most important plumb-line, which is a pure unmitigated enjoyment by the viewer. A good building can, thus, be aesthetically evaluated purely by the pleasure it give the viewer and requires no historical referentiality.

Ruskin, of course, has something a lot more specific in mind for his most important evaluative principle of aesthetic pleasure. At surface value, Ruskin's notion of beauty is steeped in Christian theology, "the right thing to be liked is God's work, which He made for our delight and contentment in this world. And all noble ornamentation is the expression of man's delight in God's work." For Ruskin, art is a human inquiry into genesis. The craftsman creates and in the process shares in the contemplation of universal creation. Once we remove the theological language, however, we find an even more profound conception of aesthetics. Ruskin's ecology implies that beauty resides in the natural landscape (whether created by God or not). Nature teaches us the fundamentals of aesthetic experience. Here Ruskin depends on Enlightenment aesthetic theory, such as Edmund Burke's contrast of the sublime and the beautiful, where aesthetic principals are rooted in natural principles. But this makes sense even without explicit Enlightenment theories, cognitive development depends on the ordering of natural elements (light, space, duration, extent, series, number, infinity, etc.) Thus, we do not need artifacts for beauty. It is not constructed by culture, but perceived or oriented through natural experience.

If beauty resides in the state of nature, then the architects job is to articulate the inherent difficulty of shaping nature (Genesis in capital letter) into an object (genesis in small letter). A good work of architecture exhibits the process of production, the process of making, the process of genesis. Aesthetic beauty is not the copying of conventions, but the articulation of struggle. This performative overcoming of nature becomes the basis of expressing our relationship with nature. Ruskin says it a lot better than me:

"I wish the reader to note this especially; we take pleasure, or should take pleasure, in architectural construction altogether as the manifestation of an admirable human intelligence; it is not the strength, not the size, not the finish of the work which we are to venerate : rocks are always stronger, mountains always larger, all natural objects more finished ; but it is the intelligence and resolution of man in overcoming physical difficulty which are to be the source of our pleasure and subject of our praise."

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States