David Cohen

I’ve been suffering Ruskin-mania all year, so this morning’s press view at the Tate Gallery was kill-or-cure. It’s the centenary of the great Victorian art critic and polymath’s death, and there are all kinds of events going on around Britain and America. In New York, on the anniversary of the day of his death, I put together an evening at the National Arts Club: Lots of artists and critics and scholars read their favorite passages of his legendary purple prose and nutty condemnations of the ills of modern industry, while we sipped sherry donated by the very company his father co-founded, Domecq. My New York roommate, the sculptor John Dann, made a bust of Ruskin from various photographs and self-portraits, which presided over the Ruskiniad, and is now perched on top of a bookcase in our loft.

The Tate show is wild and wonderful. It is as visually and intellectually all over the place as Ruskin’s own genius. The first room pitches Turners next to Pre-Raphaelites, which is like putting de Kooning next to Andrew Wyeth—that is to say, romantic abstract expressionism next to tight, almost anal, hyperrealism. Thing is, Ruskin was able to champion both Turner and the Pre-Raphs at a time when both the old man and the new boys were reviled by the critics of the day. By the end of his career, it was Ruskin’s turn to be the reviler, as he lashed out furiously at Whistler, whom he accused of flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.

Thinking about Ruskin, the way his mind took in everything from geology to botany to old masters and new art, and how he could synthesize it all into schemes at once profoundly philosophical and intensely (ultimately insanely) personal, throws one’s own critical practice into a pretty perspective of inconsequence. Without getting pretentious or self-important about it, the disparate goings-on of my London trip, and this “Diary” I am keeping of it, do inevitably provoke some self-questioning. 

Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and won a derisory farthing in damages. But you could say he also won the 20th century, as it has been far more an era of his kind of aestheticism than of Ruskin’s moral vision of art. Here I am in the early 21st century, inspired by the energy and purpose and drive of Ruskin, but an heir of Whistler’s (who I think, incidentally, is crap when you look at him after Turner) in as much as I am an aesthete, driven essentially by pleasurable sensations. I try to examine my own responses, categorize and test them against my own and other’s verdicts, fine-tuning taste to be something bigger and better than little spasms of reaction, but there is no way I can claim to be looking for the grand, divine purposes in art and nature that the old sage Ruskin was after.

The coincidence of Chardin and the Courtauld reunion the other day brings to a head a kind of existential dilemma that keeps cropping up in my career. There is a basic difference between being a historian of art and a critic, blurred though it is nowadays since the explosion of theory for theory’s sake in the academy. I trained academically, and make frequent forays back into scholarship, writing catalogue essays for museum exhibits or giving papers at (yawn) academic conventions. But my real work is in the art world, and in popular journalism. I write for art lovers, not sociologists manqués, which is what the profession of art historian has largely become. There shouldn’t really be a fundamental difference between writing about the contemporary scene and about a French old master from three centuries ago, but I must confess I tend to keep my inner thoughts about someone like Chardin to myself, my own private pleasure, so to speak, while eagerly seeking places to write about living artists. Why is this? It must come down to a certain anxiety about criticism versus art history. I guess the kind of writing I do about current art tends to be ultra-up-to-the-minute art-history writing. Whatever my subjective responses, I want to know, and tell, about the connections of one artist with another, historical and contemporary; with the issues in art today; with the Zeitgeist. With Chardin, though, it is all subjective response for me. I leave it to others to wade through the awfully boring Denis Diderot (Chardin’s Ruskin), to theorize about the sense of absorption of his sitters, say, and how this relates to the emerging self-consciousness of the Enlightenment era.  Yes, yes, fascinating stuff, but this isn’t what is going on in the pit of my stomach when I look at an incredible picture like A Cellar Boy Cleaning a Large Jug. Although the self-absorption of the young man is striking and evident and crucial to the pictorial subject, it is my own absorption in the gorgeously felt roundness of the jugs and bottles that makes the work so timeless, and my appreciation of it as so in-this-moment. As a writer, I’m almost more interested in understanding the nature of my own response than the greatness of what I am responding to.

Talking of jugs, a gallery on Bond Street (Thomas Gibson) has artfully placed a perfect 1953 Giorgio Morandi still life in its window. These jars jumped out at me like Chardin’s cheeky little girl with a badminton racquet, as I’m sure they are intended to do for a richer visitor making his or her way home from the Royal Academy.