"But you may answer or think, "Is the liking for outside ornaments — for pictures, or statues, or furniture, or architecture — a moral quality?" Yes, most surely, if a rightly set liking. Taste for any pictures or statues is not a moral quality, but taste for good ones is. I don't mean by "good," clever — or learned — or difficult in the doing. Take a picture by Teniers, of sots quarreling over their dice; it is an entirely clever picture; so clever that nothing of its kind has been done equal to it; but it is also an entirely base and evil picture. It is an expression of delight in the prolonged contemplation of a vile thing, and delight in that is an "unmannered" or "immoral" quality. It is "bad taste" in the profoundest sense — it is the taste of the devils. On the other hand, a picture of Titian's, or a Greek statue, or a Greek coin, or a Turner landscape, expresses delight in the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing. That is an entirely moral quality — it is the taste of the angels. And all delight in fine art, and all love of it, resolve themselves into simple love of that which deserves love. That deserving is the quality which we call "loveliness" — (we ought to have an opposite word, hateliness, to be said of the things which deserve to be hated); and it is not an indifferent nor an optional thing whether we love this or that; but it is just the vital function of all our being. What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character.
As I was thinking over this, in walking up Fleet Street the other day, my eye caught the title of a book standing open in a bookseller's window. It was — On the necessity of the diffusion of taste among all classes. "Ah," I though to myself, "my classifying friend, when you have diffused your taste, where will your classes be? The man who likes what you like, belongs to the same class with you, I think. Inevitably so. You may put him to other work if you choose, but, by the condition you have brought him into, he will dislike the work as much as you would yourself. You get hold of a scavenger or a costermonger, who enjoyed the Newgate Calendar for literature, and "Pop goes the Weasel" for music. You think you can make him like Dante and Beethoven? I wish you joy of your lessons; but if you do, you have made a gentleman of him: — he won't like to go back to his costermongering." — John Ruskin, "Traffic" (The Crown of Wild Olive)
Last modified 1993