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Ruskin and Wilde on realism: evolutionary change in idealist aesthetics.


John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde were among the many at Oxford University who adopted Idealism as a philosophical position in the 1870s. Both developed aesthetic theories shaped in part by their philosophies. Each also discussed realism in art and, in different ways, evolutionary theories also influenced their understanding of, and reaction to, that aesthetic movement. Early in his career Ruskin argued that by a detailed rendering of natural forms artists revealed and communicated the spiritual unity of life. While Ruskin's theory never changed, Darwin's use of photography to study human and animal emotions caused Ruskin to reject realistic photographs as images of truth and to opt for a realism which was less detailed and more imaginative. Wilde, influenced by both Darwin's theories and Herbert Spencer's theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, rejected realism as a form of art that simply reproduced contemporary culture and favored harmonious formal creations that reshaped the viewer's/reader's consciousness and aided social reform.


In the middle of the 1870s, when both John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde were presences--though of different sorts--at Oxford University, there were two intellectual controversies that concerned both of these men. One concerned Darwin's theory of human evolution by natural and sexual selection, and the other--a related but narrower controversy--concerned the interpretation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, one of the required texts for the Literae Humaniores program there. (1) Both controversies separated Idealist sheep from Materialist goats, and made for significant theoretical differences in their understanding of art, its origins, and its social functions. Both Ruskin and Wilde were in the Idealist camp, yet Wilde eventually differed from Ruskin in his rejection of realistic art, primarily because they disagreed in their uses of a now-discredited theory of evolution, the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

We know that Ruskin, like his inspiration Carlyle, had always opposed materialism in philosophy and materialist social policies such as utilitarianism, and that earlier in his life that opposition was expressed in more overtly religious language. In Praeterita he described an 1842 epiphany concerning true art, which he explained further in the 1843 and 1846 version of Modern Painters I and II. Briefly, his Christian interpretation stated that only a spiritually-informed perception would allow the artist to see and capture the "vital realism" of the object. Ruskin's epiphany was that true art was thoroughly realistic, that the duty of the artist was not to copy previous styles but rather to faithfully copy, in as detailed a fashion as possible, his subjects, natural or human. He altered his own sketching practices, describing an experience when drawing a tree: "the beautiful lines insisted on being traced.... With wonder increasing every second, I saw that they 'composed' themselves by finer laws than any known of men." (2) He tried to convince artists, most notably John Everett Millais, to paint in this fashion. Millais' practice in his famous portrait of Ruskin was guided by this theory. Ruskin even offered Millais his sketch of the rocks as a model for the realistic style he wanted the painter to adopt. The painter later abandoned this highly realistic style as too tedious and time consuming.

This vitalist theory--that a spiritual reality informs both our perception of the world and the material shape of the world itself--is more than a little transcendental, as a spiritual perception captures the vital essence of an object. But as the evidence of the geologist's rocks slowly ground away Ruskin's Christian faith he did not change his explanations for the creation and appreciation of art.

During the 1870s he used his position at Oxford as Slade Professor of Fine Arts to attack the "materialism of the art for art's sake movement," which conceived of artistic appreciation to be "a mere operation of sense...." (3) He did, however, secularize his terms. He recast his spiritual aesthetic in his lectures and essays in the Idealist philosophy that dominated Oxford at the time, and for some time thereafter. We can see this transformation in Ruskin's interpretation of Aristotle's Ethics. At the time there were two competing interpretations, which suggested different conceptions of art and the artist. Walter Pater's "Conclusion" to The Renaissance (1873) relied upon Alexander Grant's historicist interpretation, which sees energeia, or heightened consciousness, as ethically more important than conduct. This heightened state of consciousness was an end in itself, a source of both pleasure and happiness (Turner, 354). Pater's remark, "A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?" (4) was construed as a materialist and utilitarian argument for aesthetic hedonism, maximizing individual contemplation through enjoyment of sensual experience. (5)

Ruskin, on the other hand, attacked materialism and adopted Aristotle's concept of theoria, which he translated as "contemplation," as the ethical capstone, "the conclusion of all moral philosophy then taught at our universities ..." (MP II, Works IV, 42). This theoretic faculty "is concerned with the moral perception and appreciation of ideas of beauty" (MP II, Works IV, 35), whereas what he calls aesthesis "signifies mere sensual perception of the outward qualities and necessary effects of bodies" (MP II, Works, IV, 42).

Ruskin is famous for his opposition to Darwin's materialist explanation for the development of the aesthetic faculties of animals and humans in The Descent of Man. But at first Ruskin did not think his vitalist theories put him at odds with Darwin or other scientists. Many scientists believed that "life really was something that acted through the medium of matter but was independent of it." (6) And he had a thoroughly scientific explanation for that vital force: the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This theory, popularly associated with Jean Baptiste Lamarck, explained evolutionary change as a result of the biological passing on of the experience or change of an individual. It was a crucial component of Herbert Spencer's evolutionary theory, and Darwin too relied more upon it as he revised and re-issued The Origin of Species.

In The Queen of the Air Ruskin assumes and explains how the spirit which makes life possible is created and passed on through the generations. The spirit resided in the heat and motion that animated and informed matter and gave it life through vibrations, which moved through a medium called ether. These vibrations affected all living things and in humans were the physical means not only of perception but also of that aesthetic and moral capacity to see spirit in nature (QA Works XIX, 292, 356, 378). "Perseverance in rightness of human conduct renders, after a certain number of generations, human art possible ..." he wrote. And he ascribes his own "art-gift" as at least partially inherited: "This art-gift of mine could not have been won by any work, or by any conduct: it belongs to me by birth, and came by Athena's will, from the air of English country villages and Scottish hills" (QA, Works XIX, 396). In short, for Ruskin, humans who had sufficient experience, racially inherited moral character and aesthetic sense, could recognize the moral-beauty in nature and recreate it in art works.

Ruskin's commitment to "vital realism" was unchanged, but it is interesting that he describes Turner's painting St. Benedetto, looking towards Fusina as his ideal example of realism. About it he remarked that it lacked "one single accurate detail" but it was still "the likest thing to what it is meant for." (7) Perhaps he shifted away from his earlier emphasis on capturing the details of an object because it would suggest an interest only in material surfaces, and Ruskin was challenging Darwin's materialist explanation of and for beauty.

Indeed, by the 1870s Ruskin entirely rejected the possibility that photography or realistic illustrations in anatomy texts could ever be considered art. In his 1872 Oxford lecture, "The Relation of Natural Science to Art," he claimed the only science essential to understand or produce art was the science of "how to behave." Neither can you understand the difference between dignity and baseness of gesture unless you have "your own dignity of character" (RA, Works xxii, 233). In lectures at Oxford that became the books Proserpina (1875-82) and Love's Meinie (1873) he reaffirms the spiritual-moral theoria, a uniquely human capacity, as a source of art, against Darwin's materialist analysis that animals have an aesthetic sense and that the sense of the beautiful developed because it was useful in sexual selection. In his reaction to materialist theories of the origin and function of the sense of beauty (notably Darwin's) he de-emphasized the importance of realism of detail and emphasized the artist's and perceiver's moral qualities.

Oscar Wilde came to Oxford with a B.A. from Trinity College in 1874. He studied with Ruskin, attended lectures in which Ruskin laid out his aesthetic theory and his opposition to the aesthetic movement. He was certainly familiar with Pater's famous conclusion to The Renaissance and the related controversy over Aristotle's Ethics. His Oxford Notebooks reveal that he outlined and took notes (which he borrowed from Alexander Grant's footnotes) on Books VI and VII of the Ethics and in his Commonplace Book adopts, like Ruskin, the theoria interpretation, identifying contemplation as a good in itself and distinguishing it from aesthetic perception, which he limits to impressions of isolated facts. However, contemplation, he wrote, produced knowledge of universality and necessity, "which are the factors as well as the product of experience" (ON, 16; CB, 191). Furthermore, he directly challenged Pater's materialist assumptions and arguments in his "Conclusion." In an entry of the Commonplace Book entitled "Metaphysics," he countered Pater's renunciation of metaphysics for the pursuit of pure experience (not the fruits of experience ... etc.): "Yet he who sees in colour no mere delightful quality of natural things but a spirit dwelling in things is in a way a metaphysician" (CB, 169). In another, similarly titled entry he wrote, "it is not a question between emploing [sic] metaphysics, or not, but between emploing good or bad metaphysics" (CB, 133).

Wilde also accepted the "hereditary transmission of concepts" as an explanation for the development of mental qualities. In his Commonplace Book, one of many entries on the subject entitled "Heredity" reads, "Religion tells us that the father has eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth shall be set on edge--and the latest word of modem science is that the fact of our ancestors having held peculiar views on the three angles of the triangle is an inheritance from which we cannot escape" (CB, 144). He relied primarily on the writings of Herbert Spencer and W.K. Clifford to explain that the Idealist assertion of universal and a priori ideas could be explained by this theory: "The experience of the race having been substituted for the experience of the individual, necessary truths are admitted to be a-priori to the individual, though a posteriori to the race...." Universality, he concluded "is an extra-logical psychological fact ... a particular statement about the nervous apparatus of thought" (CB, 137). "Innate Ideas have thus returned to the mind, in Kant in transcendental, in Spencer on Biological Grounds" (CB, 61).

So Wilde held the same ideas as Ruskin regarding the qualities necessary to produce and appreciate art and to the biological transmission of those qualities. He even agreed with the sage about the social importance of art. But he did not seem bothered, as Ruskin was, by Darwin's explanation for the development of the aesthetic sense in animals and humans. In Intentions (1891), Wilde's collection of critical essays and dialogues, he claimed that two great critics, Darwin and Renan, made the century a turning point in history. (8) He praised Darwin's "sweet reasonableness" as a crucial element of the critical temper that in dialectical relation with the creative impulse, is the force that improves society. In "The Critic as Artist" Gilbert asserts that "AEesthetics are higher than ethics.... AEsthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civilization, what, in the sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. AEsthetics, like sexual selection, make life wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change" (CW, 1058). Notice Wilde has split off aesthetics from ethics, but still asserts that it provides "new forms" as well as progress and change. It is, in a word, the source for the progress of conscious civilization.

As he explained in "The Decay of Lying," Nature is "simple instinct as opposed to self-conscious culture" and "work produced under this influence is always old-fashioned, antiquated and out of date" (CW, 977-78). And, echoing Ruskin, Cyril explains that

Nature is our creation.... Things are because we see them and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. (CW, 986) In this last sentence we can hear Ruskin's famous remark about "right seeing": "To see clearly is poetry, prophesy and religion,--all in one" (MP III Works V, 333).



For human beings the aesthetic capacity is created by Mind (theoria) operating in both creative and critical modes and passed on biologically through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. "The imagination is the result of heredity. It is simply concentrated race-experience" (CW, 1041). Cultural and social progress, which can only mean, for Wilde, the development of Mind, will occur when harmony and form, what Wilde called style, dominates creativity: this is Mind shaping nature. Realism, on the other hand, is the writer simply copying nature and society, and in so doing, recreating a cultural environment rather than improving it. Progress required the rejection of realism. The sin of the writer was to simply copy his subject from life. Maupassant, Zola, George Eliot, and Paul Bourget, Wilde dismissed as mere imitators. But about Balzac, he said, "he was a most remarkable combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit.... The difference between such a book as M. Zola's L'Assommoir and Balzac's Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality.... Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it" (CW, 976).

Wilde's argument against realism, and for style, is ultimately about the long-term improvement of society. To improve the environment with imaginative, unrealistic art is to enrich the society of the future through biologically inherited experience, and so to increase the existence of Mind in the world. "Nature has good intentions, of course, but as Aristotle said, she cannot carry them out." Because life is unselfconscious, it is dominated by an "imitative instinct" (CW, 970, 992). Progress occurs only when life is shaped by creative, non-mimetic art (i.e., art that is not itself dominated by the imitative instinct).

While both Ruskin and Wilde believed the aesthetic capacity was passed on through the inheritance of acquired characteristics, their views on realism differed. Ruskin at first embraced "vital realism," which required the grasping of the detailed form of natural objects. And perhaps because he held to the same theory, he eventually rejected the kind of simple copying that medical illustrations or photography accomplished. Wilde's rejection of realism was based on an evolutionary cultural theory. He believed that a society could only progress by creating an environment more and more dominated by the creations of mind, of non-mimetic art and criticism in all forms. Such an environment would then, through the inheritance of acquired characteristics, increase the aesthetic faculties of later generations. Realism in art did nothing more than reproduce or imitate the unfinished and rather sad reality of nature and human nature.

University of Pittsburgh


(1) Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (Yale UP, 1981), 323-24. Hereafter cited in the text as Turner. Much of the research on Wilde's early education and its influence on his published work was a joint project I shared with my colleague Philip E. Smith II. It is also informs part of this essay.

(2) Quoted in Timothy Hilton, The Pre-Raphaelites (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), 15.

(3) John Ruskin, Modern Painters II, The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderbum, 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1903-07), IV, 35-36. Hereafter cited in the text as MP. References to other Ruskin works in the text are as follows: Queen of the Air (QA); "The Relation of Natural Science to Art" (RA).

(4) Walter Pater, "Conclusion," The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Broadview Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 5, ed. Joseph Black, et al. (Canada, 2006), 609.

(5) Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making, ed. Philip E. Smith II and Michael S. Helfand (Oxford UP, 1989), 14. Hereafter cited in the text as ON. In this volume as well, Wilde's Commonplace Book is cited in the text as CB.

(6) Gerald L. Geison, "The Protoplasmic Theory of Life and the Vitalist Mechanist Debate," Isis 60 (1969), 284.

(7) Ruskin described this Turner painting, also called "Approach to Venice," in a catalogue. See Works, XIII, 164-65.

(8) Oscar Wilde, Complete Works, 2nd edition, ed. J.B. Foreman (London: Collins, 1966), 1058. Hereafter cited in the text as CW.
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Title Annotation:John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde
Author:Helfand, Michael
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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