decorated initial 'I' n the conclusion to Volume I of Modern Painters, John Ruskin stresses the necessity of a modern critic to bridge the gap between the alienated Romantic artist and the viewing public. He affirms the inherently communal nature of art. Even to a detached, nature-obsessed painter, the public is a necessary part of the artistic equation since a painting can mean nothing if it is not seen. (The critic is then required to teach the audience how to "see" in a particular way.) He even concedes that the general public is able to identify "the man of most mind" among the artists of the presently accepted school (175). The critic's role becomes necessary (to both the artist and the masses) when the aesthetic prejudices of pre-existing, outmoded models overcome an artist's larger cultural and social significance.

Ruskin describes the type of criticism demanded by the new landscape painting largely in terms of his own theory and ability. The critic's

principles of judgment are based on a through practical knowledge of art, and on broad general views of what is true and right, without reference to what has been done at one time or another, or in one school or another. Nothing can be more perilous to the cause of art, than the constant ringing in our painters' ears of the names of great predecessors, as their examples or masters. But such references to former excellences are the only refuge and resource of persons endeavoring to be critics without being artists. They cannot tell you whether a thing is right or not; but they can tell you whether it is like something else or not. [175]

Ruskin here promotes the idea of an art critic as an artist, with similar moral, intellectual and cultural responsibilities. The modern critic must have a practiced knowledge of art as a working skill and an allegiance to truth's higher authority, instead of exemplifying the fashionable dilettante who looks fleetingly at Turner's paintings, only to offer "a ribald jest" (176). The modern critic needs to be an artist both in the literal sense (able to create visual art) and in the professional sense (elevating criticism from a reductive judgment call to a fully developed art-form with resounding influence upon society). He has to be well above the general masses in artistic understanding. The expectations for criticism have to grow in order for art to continue to have social meaning. Ruskin writes that the current stance of critics is "perilous to the cause of art." If modern artists refuse to contend with the masses and vice versa, artistic progress in society will be bogged down in ever-degrading derivatives of past styles. To Ruskin, this will cause considerable damage: the larger society will ignore art and will loose its potential to offer truths in a world of increasing darkness and complexity.

Ruskin then closes the volume with an artistic manifesto which champions his own precepts as demonstrated in Turner and also provides a checklist for a future generation of painters. A series of pointed imperatives shows how much fervor he brings to criticism. He begins with this command: "Let then every picture be painted with earnest intention of impressing on the spectator some elevated emotion, and exhibiting to him some one particular, but exalted, beauty" (179). Encapsulated here is the noblest possible relationship between artist and viewer. Lurking behind this scene, as the writer lurks behind the statement, is the critic, who, as Ruskin argues, is integral in forming a reciprocal bond between art and society.


1. What are the characteristics of Ruskin's ideal critic and how do they differ from those of his ideal artist?

2. Is Ruskin arguing for his own legitimacy as a critic, as much as he is arguing for Turner's legitimacy as a painter? Are his polemics self-serving?

3. Is there a hierarchic or symbiotic relationship between artist and critic? Where exactly does the public fit into this relationship; are they merely mindless consumers who have to be guided?

4. How will the natural subjects of Ruskin's preferred painting elicit higher truths about society if the general masses are subsumed in city-living? Might the masses' relationship with such subjects be governed by nostalgia or escapism? Would that be problematic?

Related Material


Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Ed. David Barrie. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Last modified 13 September 2007

6 May 2019