Workshop 2: Charlie Gere, Ruskinian experimentalism, or the historical roots of experimental art

Charlie Gere (Department of Media, Film & Cultural Studies, Lancaster University) opened his presentation by describing how the window next to where he writes faces directly towards Ingleborough, one of the famous ‘three peaks’ of the Yorkshire Dales, along with Pen-y-Ghent and Whernside. Concomitantly, he explained how, John Ruskin gave the name ‘Looking Down from Ingleborough’ to the first issue of Fors Clavigera, the series of letters addressed to ‘the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’, which also was intended to support the work of the Guild of St. George, the utopian society Ruskin, then 50 years old, founded at the same time.  

Gere followed by detailing how in the early 1870s, at the time he started writing Fors, Ruskin was also middle aged and had recently been appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University. In 1874 his disgust at the intellectual complacency of the students led him to initiate a project in which a number of undergraduates, including Oscar Wilde and Arnold Toynbee, built a road from the village of North Hinksey to South Hinksey across the swamp between the two.

Like many of Ruskin’s utopian ideas the project failed, at least in practical terms, but it did demonstrate an ideal of public engagement and commitment that was unusual for the times. Gere argued that it may also be seen as a kind of analogue to the writing that Ruskin was experimenting with at the time. Having written a number of vast, all-encompassing self-contained works, including Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, Ruskin felt impelled to write in a different way that was far more open-ended and experimental. In Greek the word for way or path is ‘poros’ and the lack of a path is ‘aporos’. From this comes a word originally used in Greek philosophy, ‘aporia’, meaning a seemingly unsolvable aspect of some philosophical inquiry.

Gere illustrated how Derrida used the term to suggest those points in which there is no obvious pre-programmed way forward, and which therefore require the making of a decision and a commitment beyond the programmatic. Sometimes writing, especially writing of this sort, which is open-ended, feels like the process of walking where there are no paths, and where the way has to be made. The white space of the sheet, even in its virtual, simulacral form on the computer, is like a space that is, as yet, unexplored, and through which we need to make paths, which in turn means making decisions at each point about where to go. Gere stated that there is a similar sense in drawing and painting, where the paper or canvas is like an unexplored territory, which is perhaps why Paul Klee famously described drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’.

Charlie Gere pointed out that Ruskin’s first letter was published only a few years after the first German edition of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was published, and both reflect a profound unease with the conditions of industrial capitalism. Gere argued that difference is that while Marx’s solution was the historically inevitable seizure of the means of production by the proletariat, Ruskin looked back nostalgically to an earlier period of mediaeval communalism, complete with well established hierarchies of authority and obedience. Part of the impetus behind Fors was Ruskin’s return to religion after his earlier abandonment of his parents’ evangelicalism. In its place he forged a highly personal form of Catholicism.

Gere argued that despite Ruskin’s reactionary politics he was a considerable influence on those with other kinds of views in Britain, and elsewhere, including Gandhi and Tolstoy. He was a friend of and influence on William Morris who was in turn instrumental in the beginnings of British socialism, which he helped to found with Eleanor Marx and others. Morris was also one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which, following Ruskin’s ideas, attempted to revive craft practice as a reaction against the machine production of commodities that became increasingly prevalent during the nineteenth century. Along with wallpaper and furniture and other decorative arts, Morris also tried to revive the art of book printing with the foundation of the Kelmscott Press in Hammersmith, which produced extraordinarily beautiful, if highly impractical printed volumes.

Charlie Gere demonstrated how, writing about the relation between Art and Science, Robert Hewison suggests that:

… in the late twentieth century we have become so used to thinking in terms of an absolute division between the arts and the sciences that it is difficult to imagine a time when their relationship was not one of mutual incomprehension and hostility. The division has been built into our education system and embedded in our culture. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century the relationship was far from antithetical. The harmony between art and science was easier to sustain because the scientific culture was in its methodology much closer to that of the painters and poets, in that it was principally one of observation and classification. The early nineteenth century scientist observed and recorded the phenomena of the natural world, like a painter, and like a poet, named them.'

As Hewison points out there was also a similar lack of conflict in the early nineteenth century between science and religion. Indeed, under the auspices of a prevailing natural theology, in which the natural world was seen as evidence of existence and goodness of God, art, science and religion were able not just to coexist but even to reinforce each other.

Thereafter, Charlie Gere referred to the work of Peter Fuller, who pointed out in his book Theoria, that this natural theology came increasingly untenable as the nineteenth century wore on, and developments such as Darwin’s theory of natural selection seemed to bring such religious thinking into doubt. Following, Gere quoted Jonathan Smith who suggests that ‘[L]ike Darwin and so many other Victorians Ruskin was a patient, careful, amazingly keen-sighted observer of the natural world. The sections of Modern Painters devoted to depictions of light and colour, trees, water, atmospheric effects, and mountains often read more like disquisitions on optics, botany, meteorology, and geology than on art’ (Smith, p 26).

Following, Charlie Gere  made a connection to John Constable who a little earlier also asserted a new vision of painting, writing in 1836 that ‘painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, should not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments’. Gere argued that such thinking led to a ‘new and fundamentally modern pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous, unexpected forms’. He stated that it is the syntax of an art devoted to the singular and contingent rather than the universal and stable.

Charlie Gere argued that though Ruskin may seem old-fashioned and irrelevant to modern concerns about art, he keeps returning, and indeed it could be argued that his ideas are more relevant than ever before. The art critic Matthew Collings, given the opportunity to present a contemporary response to Kenneth Clark’s famous television series ‘Civilisation’, chose to devote one of only four episodes of his series ‘This is Civilisation’ to Ruskin. Gere stated that it is clear that for Collings, Ruskin’s ideas are as relevant for our current predicaments as they were for the Victorian age in which he first formulated them.

Subsequently, Charlie Gere referred to Ruskin’s ‘experimental’ garden, describing gothic experimentalism as one based on craft not science. Gere outlined how Ruskin’s gothic builder, whose love of variety and for beauty for its own sake was evidence of his freedom, as compared to the ‘enslaved’ worker, endeavouring to produce regular perfection.

Gere followed in explaining that, in the context of a capitalism increasingly dominated by information technology, Hardt and Negri distinguish between two forms of the ‘immaterial labor of analytical and symbolic tasks’: on one hand ‘routine symbolic tasks’, and ‘creative and intelligent manipulation’ on the other. They claim that, inasmuch as such labour necessarily involves cooperation prior to its subsumption by capital, it seems to ‘provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism’. Hardt and Negri have been widely criticised for the naivety of this statement. What nevertheless might be claimed, Gere argued, is that immaterial labour does offer a new model of experimental craft production as opposed to the dehumanising mass production of industrial capitalism.

Subsequently, Gere made a connection to Ruskin and the Guild of St George as a model for experimental communities, describing Ruskin as a founder of utopian communities created on his 30 acre plot near Sheffield. Gere illustrated how this was a principle influence on the whole series of community experiments (i.e. three places in the US founded on Ruskinian model).  He also referred to the communes of 1960s in terms of social experimentalism.


Finally, Charlie Gere presented an example of ‘Grizedale Arts’ of which Adam Sutherland is a director. He referred to the project in terms of  experiments with communities, landscape and farming. Gere emphasised the importance of rethinking Ruskin in the contemporary context as an experimental figure, relating to complexity of an alternative model of the experimental as a continuous existence of social and cultural experiment not aligned to science directly. Gere also referred to some new ways of distributing the art - Grizedale becoming the place of art – in the framework of experiments with media as art in relation to social, cultural, local and rural.



Following discussion, focused around three main themes: continuity, politics of communal building and experience as an alternative to experiment.

Firstly, debate considered the issue of continuity in terms of Ruskin’s work. References were made to Bohman in terms of politics as separate from making, and theories calling for the end of aesthetics. This problematic was analysed with a conclusion that instead of genealogy, where history impacts on the problematisation of the relation of the arts and sciences, affiliation of some different sort if required.

Secondly, politics of communal building and post-fordist themes were discussed with a reference to experimental forms of community. It was acknowledged that, organized since 1970s, theorizing micro-temporality of the event is crucial for understanding the events in the post-fordist societies. At this point a further problem was raised:  in the midst of the celebrations of Hardt and Negri, creativity, multitude and  virtuosity, improvisation is seen as a good thing.  Here, it was agreed that within these kinds of modes of the event, difference is at the core of post-fordist capitalism: we are supposed to be experimental but reproducing, therefore we need to pursue experimentation with ourselves.

Thirdly, experience was positioned as an alternative to experiment. It was argued that in the framework of social experiments, people who consider alternative ways do not make formal tests of them. Here, reference was made to Adam Sutherland’s work, who, as a director of Grizedale Arts, has developed a complex way for the organisation to work, exploiting art as a social tool and developing artist practice. In Sutherland’s work the importance of cognate experience, being intuitive and letting go of scientific notions is emphasized. It was explained that Grizedale Arts has a genuine knock-on effect on the communities, which are not just guinea pigs subjected to the external experiment, but participate and mediate its progress and results – experimenting with and through their experiences.