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Evangelical aesthete: Ruskin and the public provision of art


John Ruskin was appalled by the values and preferences of his fellow citizens and, with evangelical zeal, called for a central authority to engineer individuals with more suitable ethical and aesthetic sensibilities. He refused to delineate the precise mechanics of this central authority in any detail, but he was emphatic that such an authority should produce individuals who could appreciate the qualities that distinguish intrinsically valuable objects and activities from those that are intrinsically worthless, and thereby induce these individuals to achieve richer and more meaningful lives. Ruskin provided the theoretical foundations for this policy objective in the late 1850s and early 1860s by developing an economic model of the consumer in which preferences were made endogenous. He rejected the traditional economic aim of determining the way in which an object’s exchange value gravitates toward its long-term cost of production within a world in which consumer preferences are fixed, and set himself the more ambitious aim of determining the way in which an object’s exchange value gravitates toward a long-term ethically and aesthetically appropriate value through the adjustments in consumer preferences engineered by a paternalistic authority. The associated analysis was surprisingly complex, not to say novel, but unfortunately Ruskin did not have the necessary skills to develop his arguments in a sufficiently systematic manner to persuade his fellow economists of the merits of his theoretical approach; other theoretical models of the consumer that were then being formulated by his more capable contemporaries, some of which are now well known to economists, quickly gained the ascendancy. Ruskin’s more general musings on the nature of the mutable consumer (as opposed to the model itself) nonetheless had an immense influence on educated opinion of Victorian England, especially as these musings seemed to mirror the idea, then being popularized by the New Liberals and Christian Socialists, that the state should expand the choiceset available to consumers and, through this process, enable consumers to attain the true end of their existence, or what Ruskin called their “felicitous fulfilment of function.”



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