To recap: Ruskin argues that the "corruption" of Venice's beautiful Gothic architecture, during what he calls the "grotesque renaissance," accords with a more general collapse of social values that is reflected in the worst kind of grotesque. Having already commented on the grotesque as an essential quality of Gothic, he now comes to exploring the difference between the new, heinous grotesquerie and the earlier, more positive kind.
[Everything below is from The Stones of Venice volume three, chapter three, unless otherwise noted.]
Ruskin asks the reader to imagine:
"A head,- huge, inhuman, and monstrous,- leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant: yet let it be endured for that instant; for in that head is embodied the type of the evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline" (XV).
"[This head] evidences of a delight in the contemplation of bestial vice, and the expression of low sarcasm, which is, I believe, the most hopeless state into which the human mind can fall" (XVI).
Here is a pic of the precise head he was describing in Santa Maria Formosa, Venice.
Assuming we accept that this is the bad kind of grotesque, now what?
"It must be our immediate task, and it will be a most interesting one, to distinguish between this base grotesqueness, and that magnificent condition of fantastic imagination, which was above noticed as one of the chief elements of the Northern Gothic mind" (XVI).
By way of illustration he provides the following image:
The head on the right represents an ignoble grotesque, while the one on the left represents a noble grotesque in the fourteenth century Gothic style.
What follows is a pretty famous definition of grotesqueness that is still called upon today in attempts to account for the nature of the grotesque:
"First, then, it seems to me that the grotesque is, in almost all cases, composed of two elements, one ludicrous, the other fearful; that, as one or other of these elements prevails, the grotesque falls into two branches, sportive grotesque and terrible grotesque; but that we cannot legitimately consider it under these two aspects, because there are hardly any examples which do not in some degree combine both elements; there are few grotesques so utterly playful as to be overcast with no shade of fearfulness, and few so fearful as absolutely to exclude all ideas of jest. But although we cannot separate the grotesque itself into two branches, we may easily examine separately the two conditions of mind which it seems to combine; and consider successively what are the kinds of jest, and what the kinds of fearfulness, which may be legitimately expressed in the various walks of art, and how their expressions actually occur in the Gothic and Renaissance schools" (XXIII).
Numerous contemporary discussions maintain the validity of this structure; the grotesque as a combination of the comic and the fearful (or horrific).
In terms of dividing the grotesque into noble and ignoble, I find it very interesting that Ruskin makes this distinction on the basis of "conditions of mind." The intentions and moral fortitude of the individual who produces the 'grotesque' work are what determines what kind of grotesque it will be.
"[The grotesque] is noble or inferior, first, according to the tone of the minds which have produced it, and in proportion to their knowledge, wit, love of truth, and kindness... always delightful so long as it is the work of good and ordinarily intelligent men" (XXXIII).
Alarm bells must ring at the subjectivity built into this argument. How does one define goodness and intelligence? People who share your beliefs are bound to seem cleverer than those who do not. Those who share your own moral viewpoint are bound to seem more 'good' than those who do not.
Ruskin has a clear notion of the kinds of people who create noble and ignoble grotesques and, as might be expected, these ideas reflect his own attitudes and beliefs.
The noble grotesque is created by a simple man, a hard working fellow, perhaps an imperfect craftsman, who nonetheless experiences moments of profound understanding of the world's fearful aspects. He is earnest in his artistic endeavors, which reflect an appreciation and respect for divine power. The noble grotesque thus represents a serious apprehension of evil which cannot help but emerge in the products created by good (pious) men.
In contrast, the ignoble grotesque is created by those decadent, and likely wealthy, individuals who have lost their faith in the divine (possibly from reading too much fiction). These disreputable folks seek out fearful images for entertainment purposes only, to excite their apathetic senses.
"The master of the noble grotesque knows the depth of all at which he seems to mock, and would feel it at another time, or feels it in a certain undercurrent of thought even while he jests with it; but the workman of the ignoble grotesque can feel and understand nothing, and mocks at all things with the laughter of the idiot and the cretin" (XLV).
[Palma il Giovane, Amusements of the Prodigal Son, 1595-1600]
Even if one disagrees (and one sure does) with a distinction based primarily upon presumed religious piety and standards of morality, this assessment offers another famous definition of grotesqueness. It is based upon Ruskin's argument:
"that the mind, under certain phases of excitement, plays with terror, and summons images which, if it were in another temper, would be awful, but of which, either in weariness or in irony, it refrains for the time to acknowledge the true terribleness" (XLV).
The grotesque is understood here as that which enables terrible things to be set out in the open, to be played with in a form of personal and cultural exorcism.
Ruskin discussed this earlier, in the fourth volume of Modern Painters, where he commented that:
"A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or over-leaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character" (97-98).
"All noble grotesques are concentrations of this kind, and the noblest convey truths which nothing else could convey" (99)
For all my suspicion of the biases that work their way through his scholarship, I really like this idea. It also seems to reiterate the grotesque as a primarily visual phenomenon, in the vein of 'a picture is worth a thousand words.'
In this volume of Painters he also addresses the difficulty of sustaining his distinction between noble and ignoble grotesques, specifically of identifying the "conditions of mind" of the creator. He notes that:
"the horror which springs from guilty love of foulness and sin, may be often mistaken for the inevitable horror which a great mind must sometimes feel in the full and penetrative sense of their presence " (104).
It might be tempting to have a chuckle at Ruskin's expense, as we fancy ourselves beyond such moralising value judgements in contemporary analysis. However, studies of the grotesque continue to reflect, explicitly or implicitly, the idea that some grotesques, and some texts, are more valuable sources of analysis than others. The idea that some works display profound and complex meanings, while others are 'just' mass entertainment for the bloodthirsty or ignorant is easily detected. For that reason, and more, Ruskin continues to be a useful resource.
If you actually read all that you deserve some sort of delicious biscuit.
[Update: amazing special offer - part 3 totally free right here]