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Wrestling with Ruskin

September 24th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

The Victorian essayist and commentator John Ruskin generally is credited with the first economic critique of the arts. Ruskin believed the newly-emerging British market economy, and its methodology of analysis, necessarily would result in a decline of cultural values; in particular, those expressed by aesthetic preferences. The economist Ludwig von Mises pithily summarized Ruskin’s views as follows:

“John Ruskin will be remembered * * * as one of the gravediggers of British freedom, civilization and prosperity. * * * He paid homage to the arts of earlier centuries. * * * It was the writings of Ruskin that popularized the prejudice that capitalism, apart from being a bad economic system, has substituted ugliness for beauty, pettiness for grandeur, trash for art.” Von Mises, L., The Anti-Capitalist Mentality 60 (1972 ed.).

A. Cultural Values

One of Ruskin’s main interests was the process a society goes through when it identifies and establishes cultural values – how they came to be what they are, as opposed to something else; and, how it is we can discern them. He also reached normative conclusions about just what those cultural values should be. But wait, there’s more: he actually believed that everybody should adopt the specific cultural values he identified. Not only were they “intrinsically” more preferable, in and of themselves; but they also corresponded better to a set of “ideal civic virtues.”

B. Political Economy

Ruskin came to his conclusions about cultural values, as part of his analysis of political economy. “Political economy” is concerned with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, and the relationship between this and a form of social organization or government – issues such as taxation and the rights of property, the structure of markets, etc. Thus, for example, a political economist might theorize as to the “value” of an item, which in turn depends upon the “costs” involved to produce it.

C. John Stuart Mill

In Ruskin’s day, one of the foremost political economists was John Stuart Mill. Ruskin cast his work primarily as commentary on, and as a critique of, Mill.

In addition to being a political economist, Mill also was a utilitarian, which (as we all know) is a variety or species of ethical theory. Generally speaking, utilitarianism holds that an action’s rightness or wrongness depends on the “goodness” or “badness” of its consequences. In addition to being an explanation of how we ought to think about ethical problems, utilitarianism also reaches normative conclusions about modes of conduct, such as, “an action is preferable if it results in better consequences for the greatest number of people.”

D. The Inherent “Goodness” of an Action, versus Utilitarianism

Mill’s economic theories are so intertwined with his ethical theories that, for the most part, it is difficult to separate them. Thus, in a significant way, we can interpret Ruskin’s critique of Mill’s views on political economy, also as a critique of Mill’s views about utilitarianism. Since Ruskin believed only certain objects or activities were intrinsically worthy of aesthetic attention, then it stands to reason he also would have believed certain actions were intrinsically good or bad, without reference to impedimentia such as causes or effects.

In other words, Ruskin would have disagreed with any analysis that depends on reference to factors “external” to the analysis itself, such as the utilitarian theorem of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In principle, to determine this, one would have to take a vote (prospectively), or, do a case study (retroactively). Instead, Ruskin simply would refer to the underlying precepts of the theory, itself.

Thus, Ruskin and Mill can be neatly juxtaposed, something like this:

Ruskin: Believed the worthiness of an aesthetic work (or an action) was intrinsic to the nature of the work (or the action), itself.

Mills: Believed the worthiness of an aesthetic work (or an action) only could be determined by referring to extrinsic criteria, such as “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

E. A Problem for Ruskin

In this undertaking, however, Ruskin assumed his particular “take” on cultural values could be extrapolated across, and characterized as representative of, a set of individuals; whereas, in fact, each of such individuals might have a different preference. This not only would be true of the time – those individuals then alive, in colonial England – but especially true if Ruskin intended for his theory to have on-going applicability, for example, in the present day. Ruskin would have believed, for example, that opera music is intrinsically preferable to rap music; and, that individuals who patronize the opera, are in some way more acculturated than those queuing up for Eminem or Judas Priest.

For example, Ruskin was particularly fond of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. His criticism of James Whistler’s ethereal landscape Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in July 1877, resulted in a libel case against him. In a manner similar to the way in which many contemporary critics initially dismissed Andy Warhol, Ruskin accused Whistler of “insolence” for charging “two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler v. Ruskin was heard at the Old Bailey in November 1878. The trial involved many of the major figures of the Victorian art world: William Powell Frith and Edward Burne-Jones testified on Ruskin’s behalf, while Albert Moore and William Michael Rossetti supported Whistler. Although Whistler won the trial, he was awarded only one farthing in damages, a primary cause of his subsequent bankruptcy. In December 1877, Whistler published his account of the trial, the first of his “brown-paper” pamphlets. Whistler, J. M., Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics (1878), reprinted in Whistler, J. M., The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890).

But where does Ruskin get the idea that “Turner is good” and “Whistler is bad;” and how does he elevate this concept to the status of something approaching an ethical precept? If this sounds kind of screwy to you, it does to me, too, which is the main reason why I’m writing this note.

F. Unto This Last

Ruskin’s main work on political economy is entitled Unto This Last – a collection of essays, published in 1862. Unto This Last is, itself, an enigmatic title. Does he envision a sequence, or a shelf of books, and mean this is the last book that should be read? Does he mean the content of the book is something that needs to stick around for a long time, until society reaches some undefined (perhaps, indefinable) objective? Or, is it more like an expression of relief upon reaching a destination, i.e., something like, “Unto This, at Last!”

G. The Nature of “Ruskinian Analysis”

As expressed by the von Mises quote, Ruskin thought the very concept of politically economy, and its resulting analytical framework, reduced human endeavor to a “covetous machine,” concerned solely with the acquisition of wealth, but with no interest in its sources or applications. He disagreed both with the logical structure of the inquiry – the nature of the questions Mill posed; together with his premises and conclusions. In this respect, Ruskin’s critique can be characterized not only as semantic in nature, but also syntactical or meta-linguistic. Not only is he in disagreement with the underlying propositional content, but also the logical mechanism or procedures of the system itself, that one might use in order to deduce higher-order conclusions.

Reading Ruskin today is a curious exercise, as he writes in the stilted prose so common to writers of that era. Most of the time, it is difficult to discern exactly what he’s talking about; and, after you think you understand it, it’s hard to get into the right frame of mind, in order to put it into context. His style of argument is first to show potential inconsistencies within what he interprets as Mill’s definition or statement of principle, or to attempt to illustrate potentially anomalous cases. Typically these go off on a tangent, and are based on a confusing or incorrect interpretation of what Mill was trying to say, to begin with, thereby trapping the reader in a kind of logical cul-de-sac. Then, he proceeds to the exposition of his main point, which invariably involves appeal to a metaphysical notion that may have been well-understood then, but that is virtually impenetrable now.

H. Parsing Unto This Last

The most important essay in Unto This Last is Essay IV, entitled, “Ad Valorem.” Because I want to try to get to the bottom of what Ruskin could possibly be thinking, I am going to outline in some detail each of the propositions Ruskin advocates in “Ad Valorem.” In doing so, I have set aside peripheral ideas, instead structuring his argument as a series of inferences and conclusions. I have tried to interpret Ruskin expansively, so as to give his position as much credence and expositive force as fairly can be derived from the text. He’s not an idiot, though he does have some curious notions. It therefore is my intention to give Ruskin the “benefit of the doubt,” to the fullest extent possible.

So far as I can discern it, then, Ruskin’s critique of the enterprise of political economy goes something like this (all page references are to Unto This Last):

1. The term “value” means “value in exchange” (or “exchange value”), 38.

2. A thing is economically useful, or an object has exchange value, if it “leads to life,” 40.

3. Cultural concerns such as aesthetics are proxies for “life,” 43. Thus, exchange value is inextricably linked to the positive attributes of a well-ordered society.

4. There is a sense in which the economic utility of an object (using the definition at point 2) is intrinsic to the object itself, “independent of opinion and of quantity,” 40. Thus, for example, a plow has greater exchange value than a bayonet, 37.

5. “Wealth” consists of the accumulation of things or objects with exchange value. To be “wealthy” is to “possess” a “large stock of useful articles” that can be used in exchange, 40.

6. But, since articles can be used both for “good” and “bad” purposes, it also is necessary for the article to be appropriately applied. A person is not really “wealthy,” then, unless he can deploy resources for beneficial purposes, 41.

7. The subject of political economy is “wealth,” 38.

8. The enterprise of political economy therefore is inherently contradictory, in one with the requisite mind-set to accumulate “wealth” (using the definition at point 6) typically would be disinterested in accumulating objects with material value. Conversely, the possession of a large number of such objects might have a tendency to undermine the disposition or character of such a person, 42.

9. The “price” of an item is a measure of its exchange value, 42.

10. Any exchange transaction is a closed-loop system, in that there is a finite amount of “profit” to be made. To the extent one transactor profits, the other experiences a diminution of wealth, 42.

11. An exchange results in “profit” if one party is comparatively advantaged to the detriment of the other. Comparative advantage in turn depends on exploiting the ignorance or incapacity of one’s transacting counterpart, 43.

12. A “just” exchange would not exhibit these characteristics. Rather, there either would be advantage on both sides of the exchange, or advantage on one side but no disadvantage on the other. The definition of “profit” (at point 11) also is derisory to cultural values, such as aesthetics, 43.

13. The “price” of an item must be determined by the nature of the labor given by the person desiring it, in order to obtain possession of it, 44.

14. “Labor” in turn consists of two dimensions or aspects: “quality,” which is invariable; and “quantity,” which is the amount that must be given for other things, 43. [By “quality,” Ruskin seems to mean the subjective apprehension of the laborer with respect to his work, i.e. labor considered qua labor, from the perspective of the actor. A back-room executive, for example, regards his labor as every bit as laborful, or partaking of labor-like activity, as someone on the shop floor.]

15. Labor is “good” if it applies “intellect and feeling” to regulate a physical force. Labor is “bad” if it is “heartless, inexperienced or senseless.” “Bad” labor is not susceptible to valuation, 44. [By “good,” Ruskin means something like, the laborer authentically and honestly performs the labor.]

16. Labor may be divided into two categories – “positive” and “negative.” “Positive” labor is that which “produces life,” e.g., raising children. “Negative” labor is that which “produces death,” , murder, 45.

17. “Capital” is the capacity to achieve a transformative economic result, e.g., using a plow to dig a furrow, 45. It does not consist simply in the ownership or possession of the predicate element (in this example, the plow).

18. “Wealth” in turn depends upon the existence of capital, i.e., this transformational capacity, 46. The plow has no utility, in and of itself.

19. “Production” means the acquisition of capital (as defined at point 17). The key metric is not the acquisition of things, but rather, their distribution and consumption, 46.

20. To the extent the discipline of political economy is concerned with acquisition, not distribution, it rests on mistaken premises. For the emphasis should be on the latter, i.e., the deployment of wealth to beneficial ends – “how much life it produces” (i.e., how much it advances the society’s culture), 48. Furthermore, focusing on exchange transactions to the exclusion of other factors, such as what one uses one’s wealth for, is misleading.

21. Wealth thus consists in “life” (i.e., the fulfillment or realization of the society’s culture), 46. Merely acquiring wealth without deploying it for useful purposes is “comfortless” and to do so is “selfish” and “fruitless” – a species of “avaricious fraud, 48.

22. A rich person is one who deploys wealth for the “widest helpful influence.” A nation is “wealthy” if its labor is deployed towards obtaining and distributing “means of life,” i.e., cultural values such as aesthetics. A rich country is one populated by “noble” (i.e., virtuous) and happy people. A political economy based solely on self-interest, on the other hand, is inherently destructive, 46.

23. Political economy, and in particular, a capitalist political economy as outlined by Mills, therefore devalues culture, 50.

I. Analysis

Clearly there are a number of problems with Ruskin’s argument, thus set forth. His concept that things or objects have innate vitality – hearkening back to Locke’s notion of “primary” and “secondary” qualities [Locke, J., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 168 et seq. (1894)] – is highly dubious. His notions of “leads to life” and, for that matter, “life” in general, are unexplained premises, not derived conclusions. His definition of “wealth” similarly is teleological. His concept of “labor” simply is non-sensical.

Furthermore, while he thought he was criticizing Mill, unfortunately, Ruskin did not advance anything in the way of a counter-proposal. What he might have said is something like “there are circumstances under which the consequences of moral choices might outweigh the effects of economic ones” (such as devoting a factory to the production of spoons rather than bayonets), but this type of statement is nowhere to be found.

In a significant way, then, Ruskin misses the point. One does not question the validity of a theory simply by rejecting it; rather, it is incumbent upon the critic to propose an alternative one, with better fit to the facts. Mill, and other political economists of his day, were not proposing a merely theoretical hypothesis, which one could reject on the grounds one would prefer to contemplate gothic architecture (another of Ruskin’s favorites). Rather, they were attempting to describe and analyze the real-world phenomena they observed.

Furthermore, we end up in the unpleasant spot where, contrary to his earlier implicit promises, Ruskin has not provided us with any criteria to differentiate the “good,” from the “bad.”

J. Something of Interest

This notwithstanding, there are a couple of interesting points about Ruskin’s analysis, metaphysical flummery notwithstanding. First, there is nothing that would prevent his critique from applying equally to a socialist or Marxist analysis of political economy, rather than a capitalist one (as embodied by Mill). Although such an economy obviously would result in a different distributive consequence, the same reasoning and principles regarding the effect of political economy as a discipline and methodology still would pertain.

Second, and more importantly, Ruskin’s formulation of a “just exchange” (at our point 12) is a precursor definition of Pareto optimality, not formally articulated in economic literature until years later. Broadly speaking, an outcome is Pareto optimal when no one can be made better off without making someone else worse off. This is a distinctly non-utilitarian perspective – utilitarians believe in the greatest good for the greatest number. Generally speaking, they are concerned with collective welfare-maximizing alternatives, not individual ones.

This is the main reason why I think it is erroneous to characterize Ruskin as a socialist, as he often is. If he was a socialist, he would be more congenial towards utilitarianism – but he isn’t. Rather, he believes a “just exchange” is one in which there either is advantage on both sides of the exchange, or advantage on one side but no disadvantage on the other.

K. Ruskin and Rawls

In this respect, I think Ruskin’s views are similar to those of John Rawls. Rawls asks us to envision a hypothetical “original position” where “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like,” Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice 12 (1971). Under such circumstances, “it hardly seems likely that persons who view themselves as equals * * * would agree to a principle which may require lesser life prospects for some simply for the sake of a greater sum of advantages enjoyed by others,” ibid. 14. Rather, rational and disinterested actors in such a situation would conclude that “social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society,” ibid. 14 – which, as a point of the theory, could be you.

Rawls’ re-formulation of the issue also fortifies my belief that Ruskin is less pro-socialist than may appear. While he tip-toes around the issue, Rawls makes clear that one of the more significant advantages of a market system is that “given the requisite background institutions, it is consistent with equal liberties and fair equality of opportunity,” ibid. 274. He might just as well have said it is more likely to result in a “just exchange,” using Ruskin’s definitions for those terms.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to harmonize Ruskin’s views on ethics with his views on aesthetics. A Ruskin-Pareto-Rawlsian principle (of imagining the situation of the least advantaged member of a group) does not translate into objects having “inherent utility,” or certain artistic works being “intrinsically more preferable.” In a way, almost the opposite seems true; if the emphasis is on the fate of the least-advantaged member, then it might follow that such person should have the freedom to make personal aesthetic choices, rather than have them presented by, or somehow manifest in, the work itself. Keep in mind Ruskin’s premise that a thing is economically useful, or an object has exchange value, if it “leads to life,” “life” in this instance being a kind of short-hand for cultural values such as aesthetics (Step 2 and Step 3, supra). “Wealth” itself consists in “life,” i.e. the deployment of things or objects with exchange value (Step 5, supra) towards beneficial ends (Steps 20 – 23, supra).

But this is a form of circular reasoning, as both the definiens and the definiendum depend upon the notion of “life,” i.e., cultural value. Rather than positing “leading to life” as the primary characteristic of an object with “exchange value,” Ruskin simply should say everybody is free to attribute whatever properties they want to an object. It then would be logically consistent to conclude the object’s exchange value ought to be measured by the extent to which the actor is successful in deploying it for beneficial ends, and that “wealth” is a measurement of that actor’s success in so doing.

L. The “Lowest Common Aesthetic Denominator”

Significantly, Rawls does not offer a theory of aesthetics. If he did, it seems unlikely he would adopt Ruskin’s position that there exist certain classes or individual instances of works that are intrinsically preferable. Rather, I think Rawls would be – and Ruskin ought to be – sympathetic to the notion of what we might call a “lowest common aesthetic denominator” (“LCAD”). Rawls believes social and economic inequalities are “just” only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular, for the least advantaged members of society. This formulation invites us to imagine a set of social and economic (“SEQ”) that are distributed over the individuals (“I”) comprising a given social group (“SG”), i.e.

{SEQ1, …, SEQn} ∈ I1


{I1, …, In} ∈ SG1.

It follows that SG1’s LCAD with respect to SEQ is

LCAD(SG1) = I1 ∩ In = {SEQ | SEQ ∈ I1, …, SEQ ∈ In}.

Is this ∩ the perspective of the “least advantaged” I of SG? Not necessarily, because clearly some I’s attract SEQ’s that are less welfare-maximizing than LCAD. However, this is not the only criterion. Rather, the second prong of Rawl’s test is that LCAD simultaneously must result in compensating benefits for everyone. In other words, because it is ∩, it necessarily must comprise those SEQ’s that are shared by all of the I’s over SG. It is not that far of an inferential leap to substitute “aesthetic preference” (“AP”) for SEQ. Simple economics will advise us the more I’s you have in any given SG, the harder it is for SG to supply utility to each I, because the highest possible utility for each I is LCAD. And, this has important implications for the entire notion of “aesthetic preferences.”