Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Perfect Imperfection

On the plane to Manchester I read the recently published Penguin Books paperback, On Art and Life, a reprint of John Ruskin’s famous chapter in The Stones of Venice called The Nature of Gothic. Ruskin was inspired by Wordsworth throughout his life, beginning with childhood visits to the Lake District where Wordsworth lived and wrote. In his attempt to define the characteristics of Gothic architecture, often lapsing into dramatic reveries that reveal his love of landscape and the natural sciences, Ruskin discusses the role of the craftsman.

He writes, “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” Ruskin champions Gothic architecture because of the infinite variety he sees in its ornament, the result of craftsmen who were given the opportunity to think for themselves in the process of making. He embraces the “tardy imagination, torpid capacity of emotion, [and] tottering steps of thought” that necessarily accompany such freedoms of expression given to the worker, encouraging the employer of manual laborers “to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it, whatever faults and errors we are obliged to take with it.”

Although he acknowledges that the modern English mind seeks perfection, Ruskin’s reliance on the Christian belief in the individual value of every soul makes him an advocate for faults, shortcomings, and flaws. “Take them in their feebleness,” he says, “prize and honour them in their imperfection above the best and most perfect manual skill.” In our dealings with “the souls of other men,” Ruskin warns readers “not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat.” He suggests that in reading the ornament of a room, the “perfectnesses” which might be assumed to express the greatness of England can be read instead as signs of slavery.

“It seems a fantastic paradox, but it is nevertheless a most important truth, that no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect.” He continues, “no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” For Ruskin, “to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, [for] all things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed.” With these words Ruskin is speaking out against industrialization insofar as it makes the worker into a machine or an animated tool, whereas the aim of art is to express humanness, and therefore perfect imperfection.


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