All Great Art Is Praise

All Great Art Is Praise February 21, 2017

“The art of man is the expression of his rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which he forms a part.” This is the first thesis of John Ruskin’s “All Great Art Is Praise,” in The Laws of Fesole.

Rationality is essential to the delight. A bird, Ruskin admits, has joy in its song. Yet “a lamb at play, rejoicing in its own life only, is not an artist” because that joy doesn’t involve any recognition of form or law in the creation. “Joy and love are not Arts; nor are they limited to Humanity. But the love-song becomes Art, when, by reason and discipline, the singer has become conscious of the ravishment in its divisions to the lute.”

Ruskin admits too that it is possible to have a disciplined delight in the world without being an artist: “We may indeed express to our friend the rational and disciplined pleasure we have in a landscape, yet not be artists: but it is true, nevertheless, that all art is the skilful expression of such pleasure.” This means that all art is “the praise of something that you love”: “It may be only the praise of a shell or a stone; it may be the praise of a hero; it may be the praise of God: your rank as a living creature is determined by the height and breadth of your love; but, be you small or great, what healthy art is possible to you must be the expression of your true delight in a real thing, better than the art.”

This principle is more important than technical ability or the development of an artistic style: “Only that picture is noble, which is painted in love of the reality. It is a law which embraces the highest scope of Art; it is one also which guides in security the first steps of it. If you desire to draw, that you may represent something that you care for, you will advance swiftly and safely. If you desire to draw, that you may make a beautiful drawing, you will never make one.” The aim must be to praise the thing your attempt to depict in paint, stone, or pencil.

Ruskin describes this as “the guiding principle of all right practical labor, and source of all healthful life energy,” which means that praise-through-art is not limited to the realm of fine art. In all our practical labor, we skillfully praise something we love. All great art is praise because every great life is a life of praise.

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