A Joy For Ever/Note 3

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A Joy For Ever by John Ruskin
Note 3

Note 3rd, p. 27.—"Trial Schools."

132. It may be seriously questioned by the reader how much of painting talent we really lose on our present system,[1] and how much we should gain by the proposed trial schools. For it might be thought that, as matters stand at present, we have more painters than we ought to have, having so many bad ones, and that all youths who had true painters' genius forced their way out of obscurity.

This is not so. It is difficult to analyse the characters of mind which cause youths to mistake their vocation, and to endeavour to become artists, when they have no true artist's gift. But the fact is, that multitudes of young men do this, and that by far the greater number of living artists are men who have mistaken their vocation. The peculiar circumstances of modern life, which exhibit art in almost every form to the sight of the youths in our great cities, have a natural tendency to fill their imaginations with borrowed ideas, and their minds with imperfect science; the mere dislike of mechanical employments, either felt to be irksome, or believed to be degrading, urges numbers of young men to become painters, in the same temper in which they would enlist or go to sea; others, the sons of engravers or artists, taught the business of the art by their parents, and having no gift for it themselves, follow it as the means of livelihood, in an ignoble patience; or, if ambitious, seek to attract regard, or distance rivalry, by fantastic, meretricious, or unprecedented applications of their mechanical skill; while finally, many men, earnest in feeling, and conscientious in principle, mistake their desire to be useful for a love of art, and their quickness of emotion for its capacity, and pass their lives in painting moral and instructive pictures, which might almost justify us in thinking nobody could be a painter but a rogue. On the other hand, I believe that much of the best artistical intellect is daily lost in other avocations. Generally, the temper which would make an admirable artist is humble and observant, capable of taking much interest in little things, and of entertaining itself pleasantly in the dullest circumstances. Suppose, added to these characters, a steady conscientiousness which seeks to do its duty wherever it may be placed, and the power, denied to few artistical minds, of ingenious invention in almost any practical department of human skill, and it can hardly be doubted that the very humility and conscientiousness which would have perfected the painter, have in many instances prevented his becoming one; and that in the quiet life of our steady craftsmen—sagacious manufacturers, and uncomplaining clerks—there may frequently be concealed more genius than ever is raised to the direction of our public works, or to be the mark of our public praises.

133. It is indeed probable, that intense disposition for art will conquer the most formidable obstacles, if the surrounding circumstances are such as at all to present the idea of such conquest to the mind; but we have no ground for concluding that Giotto would ever have been more than a shepherd, if Cimabue had not by chance found him drawing; or that among the shepherds of the Apennines there were no other Giottos, undiscovered by Cimabue. We are too much in the habit of considering happy accidents as what are called 'special Providences'; and thinking that when any great work needs to be done, the man who is to do it will certainly be pointed out by Providence, be he shepherd or seaboy; and prepared for his work by all kinds of minor providences, in the best possible way. Whereas all the analogies of God's operations in other matters prove the contrary of this; we find that "of thousand seeds, He often brings but one to bear," often not one; and the one seed which He appoints to bear is allowed to bear crude or perfect fruit according to the dealings of the husbandman with it. And there cannot be a doubt in the mind of any person accustomed to take broad and logical views of the world's history, that its events are ruled by Providence in precisely the same manner as its harvests; that the seeds of good and evil are broadcast among men, just as the seeds of thistles and fruits are; and that according to the force of our industry, and wisdom of our husbandry, the ground will bring forth to us figs or thistles. So that when it seems needed that a certain work should be done for the world, and no man is there to do it, we have no right to say that God did not wish it to be done; and therefore sent no men able to do it. The probability (if I wrote my own convictions, I should say certainty) is, that He sent many men, hundreds of men, able to do it; and that we have rejected them, or crushed them; by our previous folly of conduct or of institution, we have rendered it impossible to distinguish, or impossible to reach them; and when the need for them comes, and we suffer for the want of them, it is not that God refuses to send us deliverers, and specially appoints all our consequent sufferings; but that He has sent, and we have refused, the deliverers; and the pain is then wrought out by His eternal law, as surely as famine is wrought out by eternal law for a nation which will neither plough nor sow. No less are we in error in supposing, as we so frequently do, that if a man be found, he is sure to be in all respects fitted for the work to be done, as the key is to the lock: and that every accident which happened in the forging him, only adapted him more truly to the wards. It is pitiful to hear historians beguiling themselves and their readers, by tracing in the early history of great men the minor circumstances which fitted them for the work they did, without ever taking notice of the other circumstances which as assuredly unfitted them for it; so concluding that miraculous interposition prepared them in all points for everything, and that they did all that could have been desired or hoped for from them; whereas the certainty of the matter is that, throughout their lives, they were thwarted and corrupted by some things as certainly as they were helped and disciplined by others; and that, in the kindliest and most reverent view which can justly be taken of them, they were but poor mistaken creatures, struggling with a world more profoundly mistaken than they;—assuredly sinned against or sinning in thousands of ways, and bringing out at last a maimed result—not what they might or ought to have done, but all that could be done against the world's resistance, and in spite of their own sorrowful falsehood to themselves.

134. And this being so, it is the practical duty of a wise nation, first to withdraw, as far as may be, its youth from destructive influences;—then to try its material as far as possible, and to lose the use of none that is good. I do not mean by "withdrawing from destructive influences" the keeping of youths out of trials; but the keeping them out of the way of things purely and absolutely mischievous. I do not mean that we should shade our green corn in all heat, and shelter it in all frost, but only that we should dyke out the inundation from it, and drive the fowls away from it. Let your youth labour and suffer; but do not let it starve, nor steal, nor blaspheme.

135. It is not, of course, in my power here to enter into details of schemes of education; and it will be long before the results of experiments now in progress will give data for the solution of the most difficult questions connected with the subject, of which the principal one is the mode in which the chance of advancement in life is to be extended to all, and yet made compatible with contentment in the pursuit of lower avocations by those whose abilities do not qualify them for the higher. But the general principle of trial schools lies at the root of the matter—of schools, that is to say, in which the knowledge offered and discipline enforced shall be all a part of a great assay of the human soul, and in which the one shall be increased, the other directed, as the tried heart and brain will best bear, and no otherwise. One thing, however, I must say, that in this trial I believe all emulation to be a false motive, and all giving of prizes a false means. All that you can depend upon in a boy, as significative of true power, likely to issue in good fruit, is his will to work for the work's sake, not his desire to surpass his school-fellows; and the aim of the teaching you give him ought to be, to prove to him and strengthen in him his own separate gift, not to puff him into swollen rivalry with those who are everlastingly greater than he: still less ought you to hang favours and ribands about the neck of the creature who is the greatest, to make the rest envy him. Try to make them love him and follow him, not struggle with him.

136. There must, of course, be examination to ascertain and attest both progress and relative capacity; but our aim should be to make the students rather look upon it as a means of ascertaining their own true positions and powers in the world, than as an arena in which to carry away a present victory. I have not, perhaps, in the course of the lecture, insisted enough on the nature of relative capacity and individual character, as the roots of all real value in Art. We are too much in the habit, in these days, of acting as if Art worth a price in the market were a commodity which people could be generally taught to produce, and as if the education of the artist, not his capacity, gave the sterling value to his work. No impression can possibly be more absurd or false. Whatever people can teach each other to do, they will estimate, and ought to estimate, only as common industry; nothing will ever fetch a high price but precisely that which cannot be taught, and which nobody can do but the man from whom it is purchased. No state of society, nor stage of knowledge, ever does away with the natural pre-eminence of one man over another; and it is that pre-eminence, and that only, which will give work high value in the market, or which ought to do so. It is a bad sign of the judgment, and bad omen for the progress, of a nation, if it supposes itself to possess many artists of equal merit. Noble art is nothing less than the expression of a great soul; and great souls are not common things. If ever we confound their work with that of others, it is not through liberality, but through blindness.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. It will be observed that, in the lecture, it is assumed that works of art are national treasures; and that it is desirable to withdraw all the hands capable of painting or carving from other employments, in order that they may produce this kind of wealth. I do not, in assuming this, mean that works of art add to the monetary resources of a nation, or form part of its wealth, in the vulgar sense. The result of the sale of a picture in the country itself is merely that a certain sum of money is transferred from the hands of B, the purchaser, to those of A, the producer; the sum ultimately to be distributed remaining the same, only A ultimately spending it instead of B, while the labour of A has been in the meantime withdrawn from productive channels; he has painted a picture which nobody can live upon, or live in, when he might have grown corn or built houses: when the sale therefore is effected in the country itself, it does not add to, but diminishes, the monetary resources of the country, except only so far as it may appear probable, on other grounds, that A is likely to spend the sum he receives for his picture more rationally and usefully than B would have spent it. If, indeed, the picture, or other work of art, be sold in foreign countries, either the money or the useful products of the foreign country being imported in exchange for it, such sale adds to the monetary resources of the selling, and diminishes those of the purchasing nation. But sound political economy, strange as it may at first appear to say so, has nothing whatever to do with separations between national interests. Political economy means the management of the affairs of citizens; and it either regards exclusively the administration of the affairs of one nation, or the administration of the affairs of the world considered as one nation. So when a transaction between individuals which enriches A impoverishes B in precisely the same degree, the sound economist considers it an unproductive transaction between the individuals; and if a trade between two nations which enriches one, impoverishes the other in the same degree, the sound economist considers it an unproductive trade between the nations. It is not a general question of political economy, but only a particular question of local expediency, whether an article, in itself valueless, may bear a value of exchange in transactions with some other nation. The economist considers only the actual value of the thing done or produced; and if he sees a quantity of labour spent, for instance, by the Swiss, in producing woodwork for sale to the English, he at once sets the commercial impoverishment of the English purchaser against the commercial enrichment of the Swiss seller; and considers the whole transaction productive only as far as the woodwork itself is a real addition to the wealth of the world. For the arrangement of the laws of a nation so as to procure the greatest advantages to itself, and leave the smallest advantages to other nations, is not a part of the science of political economy, but merely a broad application of the science of fraud. Considered thus in the abstract, pictures are not an addition to the monetary wealth of the world, except in the amount of pleasure or instruction to be got out of them day by day: but there is a certain protective effect on wealth exercised by works of high art which must always be included in the estimate of their value. Generally speaking, persons who decorate their houses with pictures will not spend so much money in papers, carpets, curtains, or other expensive and perishable luxuries as they would otherwise. Works of good art, like books, exercise a conservative effect on the rooms they are kept in; and the wall of the library or picture gallery remains undisturbed, when those of other rooms are repapered or re-panelled. Of course this effect is still more definite when the picture is on the walls themselves, either on canvas stretched into fixed shapes on their panels, or in fresco; involving, of course, the preservation of the building from all unnecessary and capricious alteration. And, generally speaking, the occupation of a large number of hands in painting or sculpture in any nation may be considered as tending to check the disposition to indulge in perishable luxury. I do not, however, in my assumption that works of art are treasures, take much into consideration this collateral monetary result. I consider them treasures, merely as permanent means of pleasure and instruction; and having at other times tried to show the several ways in which they can please and teach, assume here that they are thus useful, and that it is desirable to make as many painters as we can.