What are the differences and similarities in how John Ruskin and Asher Lev see art?

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Asher's Hasidic family and social circle are strictly religious. With a strict religious code of life, every decision and act is required to be in line with adherence to religious doctrine. If Asher is to be an artist, his art must celebrate God and the Jewish religion. Anything otherwise is seen by the Hasidic community as antithetical to their beliefs, loyalty to God, and religion. Therefore, Asher must deal with the conflict between religious culture and artistic freedom. In the end, Asher leaves this religious community. However, he has not abandoned it completely. His works, Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II can be interpreted as an homage but also a challenge to his parents and community. The works can also be seen as a combination of his experience and upbringing framed within his new artistic and cultural experiences. Despite the attempt at blending his culture with his artistic vision, in the end, he has chosen artistic freedom. He does this knowing that the art community might accept him while also knowing that his parents and Hasidic community will likely not understand. 

Asher designed these two works with style and content in mind - in order to illustrate a truth as he saw it. This is similar to Ruskin's idea that the artist must state/paint a vital truth. In the second volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin states his theory of vital beauty as "the appearance of felicitous fulfillment of function in living things." That is to say that appearance of a painting should illustrate its theme and potential function via the artist's intent and ideally the effect on its audience. This was Asher's intent but he also knew that, aside from the artistic community, his work would not bring happiness (felicity) to his parents. In this case, his work had the intent of Ruskin's theory of beauty with the artworld but not the same felicitous effect on his Hasidic community. 

In Ruskin's theories on art, his earlier writings tended to have more religious undertones but overall, his connection with virtue and art were more a conflation of morality and art than particular religious belief and art. Ruskin became increasingly interested in economics and the social issues involved with economics. Asher seems more concerned with his individual truth as an artist in connection with his family/society. Ruskin maintained that art had an inherent connection with society and therefore had potential value for society. Asher presumably came to believe this, although initially he neglected his cultural heritage in favor of his artistic aesthetic.

In the end, Asher wanted to be accepted by both the art community and the Hasidic community. Ruskin, similarly, believed that great art epitomized a society or epoch and that society should support the arts. Asher wanted this support as well. This is a significant similarity. Maybe the biggest difference between Ruskin and Asher is that Ruskin insisted on the art-social connection; Asher was willing to break from his social traditions in seeking a new identity as an artist. However, this is also a similarity with Ruskin: Asher did acknowledge that social tradition in the crucifixion works. So, in a way, Asher tried to be individually free but also socially conscious. (This is something Ruskin would have agreed with given his encouragement to abandon conventions when necessary.)