THE twentieth century has obscured several things that appeared obvious to Victorians. In Ruskin's day it seemed axiomatic that paintings, sculptures and poems should interest people because the subject or idea expressed had some relevance to their lives. But the praise of art for art's sake rather than for the Lord's or society's or man's substituted, at the end of the century, the importance of plastic for moral qualities. Sentiments, ideas, facts were banned from the proper appreciation of art and for a long time critics have been trying to conceal their inevitable moral, ethical, religious or literary convictions. It has thus become irrelevant or vulgar or dull to comment upon the significance of anything so obvious as what an artist paints.
The revolution in criticism occurred, not because Ruskin overstated the social or humanistic values in art, but because the popular Victorian values were so limited. It was subject matter rather than the manner of artistic expression which Victorian taste had restricted and made dull. Ruskin himself went far beyond his public in his understanding of the manifold appeal of fine art; he was enough interested in the plastic and formal aspects of painting to write two large volumes concerning them. But he believed that technique and form were not significant for themselves; he tried to demonstrate the