Throughout the whole second half of the nineteenth century “to read [John] Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul.” So the great art historian Kenneth Clark once put it.
Ranking high among the eminent figures of the Victorian age, Ruskin was a man of many passions: poet, artist, critic, teacher, social reformer, and early conservationist. He stood staunchly against the dehumanizing effects of England’s Industrial Revolution, defending the human dignity of the laborer and celebrating the “nobility” of “unrefined” objects manufactured by the skill of humans rather than machines. These man-made objects, he insisted, “bring out the whole mind” and “the finer nature” of the laborer. In contrast was the machine-made product, which asked nothing of the workman’s soul but that he subordinate himself to the laws of the assembly line — hence: ugly, soulless, mass-produced items, and human workers degraded to automatons.
To Ruskin, labor and art need not be polarized as the ethos of the modern factory would have it. Rather, labor should be more than a matter of economy, and art more than a matter of taste. Both should coalesce in expression of the vitality, inventiveness, heart, thought, and spirit of humanity. How’s that for big dreaming?
Actually, given Ruskin’s powers of eloquence, it all amounted to far more than mere fancy. Thanks in no small part to his preachments, the dynamic Arts & Crafts movements emerged in England and America, mini-Renaissances of a kind. And as Kenneth Clark notes,
The influence of Ruskin’s ideas on social reform has been immense. Most of the changes which he advocated — free schools, free libraries, town planning, smokeless zones, green belts — are now taken for granted. … Today his thoughts influence the lives of millions.”
(Among Ruskin’s latter day admirers was Mahatma Ghandi, who professed a huge debt to the Victorian’s influence.)