The Redirection of Cultural Criticism in nineteenth-century Britain: John Ruskin's Art Criticism and Thought of Social Reform
Perhaps the strongest theme in nineteenth-century English literature was criticism of industrial society and the utilitarian and laissez-faire philosophies that went with it. From the Romantic poets at the beginning of the century to the aesthetes of the end, literary artists expressed a revulsion from industrial society, its urban blight, its entrepreneurial class and entrepreneurial values. The underlying themes in the tradition were that the new society left little space for art and imagination, that it fragmented both the cohesiveness of the national community and the human integrity of its members.
Ramond Williams has demonstrated that the imaginative reaction to industrial society and thought in England generated a concept of 'culture' itself. The tradition of 'cultural criticism' originated from this tradition of regarding culture as going against the grain of industrial life and thought. In this tradition artist, or serious writer, or 'genius' was seen as a special kind of person, and often as one who opposed central features of the new society. Their task was to save society from the social sins, the political catastrophes and the moral degradation that industrial life and values carried in their wake. Art, according to Victorian thought, was to be used to redeem society.
However, in late-Victorian life some leading literary people were repelled by the continuing expansion of bourgeois mores and styles, and were bewildered by the fracturing of their old audience and by the rise of a new one with which they had no contact and little sympathy. Literary writers also experienced a loss of confidence because of the rise of natural science and the decline of religion. They lost their assurance that they could reach all the politically-effective members of society. For these reasons, they sensed that literature was no longer as central to English culture as it once had been. And the idea of debasement of taste was their rationalization of the predicament.
The sense of the debasement of taste and all that it presented was the context which reshaped and redirected the tradition of cultural criticism. The pivotal figure in the redirection of the tradition was John Ruskin, himself an eminently Victorian prophet. In Ruskin's work of which the best was produced between 1843(the first volume of Modern Painters) and 1875(the early parts of Fors Clavigera), there is an ideal of the wholeness of human beings and the coherence of society which reached back to both Shelley and Coleridge. He added to the tradition of cultural criticism the notion that art is the product of the whole ethos of society : great art is the product of morally sound society, bad art is the result of a morally corrupt society.
Ruskin thought the hideous ugliness of industrial England reflected the moral ugliness of its makers. And capitalist industrialism delights itself in the defilement and degradation of all the best gifts of its God by its deformed values. Among the worst of its features was the erosion of the full humanity of its workers: by the principle of the division of labour, and by the subordination of men to machines, capitalist industry turned men into machines, capitalist industry turned men into machines.
In his broad declaration, "There is no wealth but life," as in his unceasing stress upon the need of good work for all men, Ruskin has laid down as the foundation-stone of social theory the organic relation between work and life, between production and consumption. J. A. Hobson was deeply smitten by Ruskin's vision of the organic nature of economic society. Hobson, William Morris, and the later tradition of English guild socialism learned from Ruskin that the logical step from aesthetic criticism of English society was more or less extensive social rearrangement.