Now we've established that big John Ruskin is worth saving from the dreaded Heritage Vampires, how do we sustain and nourish ourselves on his memory? Ruskin Soup of course!
According to Adam Sutherland, Ruskin was always a man with a plan - and this went as far as having an idea that the working man should always have the recipe for a perfect soup on hand. Cue the ruthless pursuit of a food metaphor by yours truly while Adam cooks. What was Ruskin Soup? Did Ruskin have the ingredients? Could soup - or art for that matter - really sustain and nourish the Ruskinian working woman or man? And how about their fractured and fissured twenty first century counterparts? Can Ruskin's recipes really help us find the way out of the post-postmordern stew were slowly simmering in? All - or more likely none - of these questions will be answered in our culinary homage to the late, great Big John Ruskin (and Keith Floyd).
Charlie Gere wants to do wonderful things to the corps of John Ruskin and, to my surprise, I don't just want to watch, I want to join in!
Charlie, like myself, thinks that the heritage vampires have tried their hardest to reduce Ruskin to nothing more than an anachronistic token of neo-conservative Victorian Chic. In thier eyes, nothing remins of Big JR and his legacy besides a sign-post to a lost past and dreams of medieval craft-based evangelism.
In this interview, shot in the heartland of the academic Ruskinian heritage industry - Charlie outlines his conviction that Big JR may still be able to influence us positively from beyond the grave of museology. Tipping a wink and a nod to Derrida's book 'Spectres of Marx' (in my hazy left-wing mind his finest work), Mr Gere asserts that Big JR haunts us still, like a spectre of the undead, reminding us that ethics is at the heart of any re-assessment of what art actually is and can do.
Big Johnny Ruskin strode the Victorian art world with balls of steel, a heart full of moral invective, keen critical sensibilities, dubious/unconventional/repressed sexuality (delete as appropriate) and a penchant for spotting and supporting young talent. Oh, and don't forget those sideburns. If he were alive today he would probably be a judge on the X-Factor.
Such a flippant view is, hopefully, anathema to supporters of the heritage industry - that specialist sector of the culture, tourism and leisure industry whose job it is to produce a dewy eyed retro market for Past Time franchises, Laura Ashley wallpaper and endless TV regurgitations of period and costume dramas. You are not the guardians of history. You are the producers of a marketable image which is just as crass, tacky and removed from the 'reality' of culture (whatever that might or could be) as Father Christmas and Sonic the Hedgehog (on second thoughts, apologies to Sonic).
This blog intends to help wrestle the memory of John Ruskin away from those who wish to fix him as a definable historical identity - all medieval moralism and anti-technological rant. Instead, it intends to return John Ruskin to the land of the living - as a complex cipher for understanding our current dilemmas with ever changing relationships between art, artists, culture and society.
Lofty stuff I hear you cry!
But manageable if you are prepared to work with me (and indulge me a little) in the production of a meandering text/video blog whose singular intention is to uncover what Ruskin might mean to artists, curators, producers and publics today. So here's looking forward to an amusing and possibly informative culture clash of the old, new, borrowed and often simply made up.
This week the exhibition Can Art Save Us? opened at the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield. The exhibition is part of a series of exhibitions on John Ruskin organised by the Museum, with historic works interspersed with contemporary articulations (as they say in art land) of Ruskin themes. We were asked to make a contribution to the show so turned up with a box of objects from Lawson Park and laid them on a table. (from their collections and designated by Ruskin as the ideal display table for displaying objects and artefacts). The idea is to show attempts of art, design and craft that attempt to have social or political ambitions. The list of objects is:
1. The Water Yeat tea urn and tea pot by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane
2. A Bernard Leach mug
3. A Lakes pottery mug from Truro
4. A Whitefriars glass jug by Geoffrey Baxter
5. A Ruskin Pottery vase
6. A Robert Welch ice bucket
7. A Keswick School of Industrial Arts platter
8. Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope's Lilliput made Titschy Kitschy ornament of Lawson Park
9. A Blue Angel Bunny gift from the Guangzhou Triennial
10. Keith Murray Wedgewood mug
11. Dried food stuffs from Nanling China in Crochet packaging by Kai Oi Jay Yung
12. A Roadshow mug with Mark Titchner graphic
13. A George Cook Ambleside Pottery vase
14. A Ryan Gander version of a Joseph Albers Love Cup
15. An english made Japanese tea bowl
16. A Public Works display shelf from their Egremont Folk Float
17. An Ikea plastic cup
18. The aforementioned table
19. Adam Chodzko's re-upholstered Eric Lyons Tecta chair with Crass logo leather jacket seat pad
20. A Vanson Peter Hayward Chair re-upholstered with Laura Davies' Nanling fabric
21. An engraving of Turners' 'Meeting of the Waters' (from Sheffield Museums)
22. A Bunney drawing of Chamonix (from Sheffield Museums)
To explain this selection you have to view the key on a chipboard copy of the table (beautifully made by the Museum technicians and surely a future design classic) upon which we have hand written a subjective commentary on the exhibits in something approximating the blood red pen of Ruskin. Ruskinians might view this as too irreverent or even silly as one historic curator commented not so long ago, but I think you'll find Big John actually had a sense of humour. I come on surely he must have to appear in Desperate Romantics. Anyway the Guild of St George seemed to love it.
The exhibit forms the end of the show, which, I think I described to a visitor at the opening as a symphony spoilt at the end by a bum note from the Tuba.
Full versions of the texts will be available online soon.
Can Art Save Us? Runs until 31 January 2010 and we will be holding a related event in Sheffield in January, watch this site for details.
John Byrne, head of fine art at Liverpool John Moores University paid us a visit to Lawson Park on Friday to start work in earnest on this very blog and to discuss the range of projects that will evolve into the Force of Culture project, to rethink Ruskin as a prescient force in postmodern and postpostmodern culture.
The next day, with my head full of Ruskin related thoughts, I saw an image in the paper from the Chanel ready-to-wear Spring-Summer show in Paris, in which Karl Largerfeld (crafted I'm sure by his own leather gloved hands) presented his collection in a copy of a barn from Marie Antoinette's ferme ornee at Versailles. Including Lily Allen performing a hoe down, whilst the models got down in the hay. I showed the video - see for yourself at http://www.chanel.com/fashion/7#7-ready-to-wear-spring-summer-2010-show-chanel-fashion-show-14,7 - to our resident Dutch artist/agriculturalist Wapke Feenstra, who commented that a true farmer should surely not view such underfed cattle as attractive.
I have to say I found the image quite spectacular and surely the apogee of all current and accumulated complexities around demodernisation, pastoralism and suburban organic fetishism. This must be what Ruskin intended.
Karl had this to say
"I'm from the country, darling. I hear all this talk about organic farming and the environment, and I'm all for it. But there must be a certain sophistication, so it's not used as an excuse to let things go to seed. We had little pigs that we were going to bring onto the catwalk, but they were so smelly we didn't dare to let them out"
Only a farm boy could try so hard to get away from the mud
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