John Ruskin and the Ethics of Consumption

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John Ruskin and the Ethics of Consumption. By David M. Craig. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2006. ? + 422 pp. $60.00 (cloth).

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the major figures of Victorian culture, highly influential as an art critic. In major works such as Modern Painters and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, he was able to set forth overarching visions of the nature of art and culture as well as to influence British taste and artistic developments. Ruskin is credited with providing helpful support for the appreciation of the impressionistic art of J. M. VV. Turner, and his artistic ideals, influenced by medieval art and culture, helped to shape die environment for the popularity of the pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements of the late 1800s. Like William Morris, the major figure of medievalism and late Victorian decorative art, Ruskin was also a social critic and was involved with movements to improve the lives of British workers. Ruskin s later writings are more concerned with social issues.

The study by David Craig of Ruskin s "ethics of consumption" is too narrowly titled in some ways, because it will not prepare modern readers for what they will encounter here: the foundational elements of Ruskin's aesthetic theory, the influence of theology, the connection between imagination and religion, and his theories of work, culture, and moral character. But the scope of the book as a treatment of a theory of consumption is also part of the point: contemporary thought has compartmentalized problems, made them overly technical, and left them as the preserves of trained specialists.

The field of economics, for example, has been divided into subspecialties with complex mathematical models and formulas, and has become, like many other academic disciplines, more difficult to master. Non-specialists-for example, moral theologians or the Conference of Catholic Bishops - have been criticized and dismissed for daring to comment on economic issues "beyond their competence."

David Craig states in his introduction that the time is ripe for a reappraisal of what Ruskin can teach us. …