Professor Emeritus of Sociology Jim Spates delivered a lecture on the 19th century British art and social critic, John Ruskin, at the annual Roycroft Arts & Crafts Conference in East Aurora, N.Y., on Saturday, Oct. 4.
His illustrated lecture used many pictures from a just completed trip to Venice, including a famous phrase of Ruskin’s, was called: “‘This Paradise of Cities’: John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, and the Birth of the Arts & Crafts Movement.” The talk focused on Ruskin’s arguments in “The Stones of Venice” (1851-3) that, particularly during its Gothic era, the floating city on the Adriatic created not only the most beautiful city the world had yet seen but left us a model of how we might create such lovely places in the future.
Ruskin argued that the world’s greatest architecture was always characterized by copious “hand-work,” work done by individual workers who were allowed to pour the entirety of their skill and creativity into the parts of buildings for which they had been given responsibility. It was (and continues to be) this personal element which makes buildings live. At its peak, Venice exhibited, almost everywhere, this artistic creativity of its workers.
He also showed that, later, when, during the Renaissance, such creativity was stifled, Venice “died,” quickly becoming a shadow of its former beautiful self, sacrificing not merely its status as the greatest single architectural achievement of history, but its cultural, political, and economic dominance as well. Such arguments became the basis for Ruskin’s scathing critiques in later writings of the mechanized building practices of his own rapidly industrializing society. This contention, that “hand-work,” whether in stone, wood, fabric, glass, or any other natural material, was the only work worth doing if a society was to become both great and humane, became the foundation of what we now call the Arts & Crafts Movement after it was picked up, championed, and expanded by, particularly, William Morris in the U.K., and later by Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft Community in the U.S. in 1895.
Located in East Aurora, the Roycroft Campus Corporation seeks to inspire visitors to experience the creativity and personal empowerment which results when one works with one’s hands in the creation of anything. It offers regular artisan classes, lectures, interactive events and social gatherings to further promote and preserve the historic Roycroft Campus and the ideals of the Arts & Crafts Movement.
Spates — who at last year’s Roycroft Conference delivered the Keynote Address on Ruskin’s “The Seven Lamps of Architecture,” emphasizing in that talk the continuing relevance of these principles to building greatly in the 21st century — helped to organize this year’s lecture conference with the Roycroft staff.
“We decided to make a major effort in this year’s gathering to inform those who attend about the history of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe, the UK, and America,” said Spates. “As a result, all the other presenters (with the exception myself and Dr. Joe Weber, who is particularly devoted to printing using the techniques pioneered by Morris in England and Hubbard at Roycroft), are important Ruskin folk from England whom I invited to speak.”
More information on other conference presenters, can be found here.
Spates joined the HWS faculty in 1971 after earning his Ph.D. in sociology from Boston University and his B.A. in anthropology and sociology from Colby College. In addition to his 43 years of teaching at Hobart and William Smith (he retired at the end of the last academic year) has been four-time visiting professor of sociology at the Institute for Shipboard Education at the University of Pittsburgh. On campus, he twice served as chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, the Urban Studies Program and various committees. His scholarship has focused on the quality of social life and city life, the 1960s counterculture, the sociologies of cities, values and human nature and, more recently, on the life and work of Ruskin. Regarding this latter interest, Spates is the author of a number of books about Ruskin, including “Availing Toward Life: A Summary of the Social Thought of John Ruskin” (presently in draft) and “The Imperfect Round: Helen Gill Viljoen’s ‘Life of Ruskin'” (Long View, 2005). He has authored numerous journal articles on Ruskin and has presented this work locally, nationally, and internationally. His most recent book, “Why Ruskin?” is about to be published by Pallas Athene in London. Recently, he has given lectures at The Hillside Club in Berkeley, California on the basic ideas contained in Ruskin’s masterpiece of social criticism, “Unto this Last.” As another aspect of his effort to communicate his belief in the abiding importance of Ruskin’s thought for our modern era, he has recently started a Ruskin website, www.whyruskin.wordpress.com.