Photography is an ailment where the afflicted become completely and utterly infatuated by the nuances and intricacies of light. If you were to walk a mile or two with somebody under its spell you would frequently witness them stopping to stare at patterns of light in much the same way that a lunatic stares at the moon (ah, moonlight, a -3ev glow which is akin to a kiss from an angel… er, sorry, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I myself suffer from photography). One of my favourite writers is Charles Bukowski; partly because I share his horrendous experiences of – and subsequent distaste for – wage slavery, but also because we share a familiar childhood memory…
“The first thing I remember is being under something. It was a table, I saw a table leg, I saw the legs of people, and a portion of the table cloth hanging down. It was dark under there, I liked being under there … There was sunlight upon the rug and on the legs of the people. I liked the sunlight. The legs of the people were not interesting, not like the tablecloth which hung down, not like the table leg, not like the sunlight.”
Charles Bukowski, ‘Ham on Rye’
Of course the love of light long predates the mechanical invention of photography, and the capture and manipulation of light is not constrained to the humble photographer. Architects are among the greatest manipulators of light – especially those who are involved with the creation of religious buildings; places which so often walk a fine line between being inspiring and being imposing.
As a designer of over forty workhouses, the prolific architect Sir George Gilbert Scott knew all there was to know about imposition. The authorities of his day saw fit to intimidate the poor and unfortunate for the unforgivable crime of ‘not having enough’ (which for some strange reason seems depressingly familiar). Luckily for the people of Doncaster (and for the travellers who pass by the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station in London) George Gilbert Scott was shown the error of his ways – and subsequently introduced to the Gothic revival movement – by fellow English architect (and designer, and artist, and critic…) Augustus Pugin (although it could be argued that with the Houses of Parliament, Pugin himself had a hand in designing the most nefarious ‘workhouse’ of them all 😉 ).
As a self confessed ‘lover of light’ I am a huge fan of Gothic architecture. In buildings such as St George’s Minster in Doncaster (designed by the aforementioned George Gilbert Scott) the light changes constantly. Minute by minute it dances across stone, wood, plaster, paint and metal to reveal new wonders in each new moment. To know the revelations of light one must also know darkness, and the Gothic revivalists use the play of shadows much like circuses use anticipation-building drum-rolls. We moderns fear the darkness and this is reflected in our everyday architecture. Our places of work and our shopping centres (themselves temples to the new religion) are glaringly bright; as if the very thought of a shadow would stop people spending money (unless you’re in Hollister of course, where the light is kept purposefully dim to hide the spot covered faces of their teenage – and wannabe teenage – clientele). Even our night skies are bleached orange through our irrational desire to chase away the black. Small wonder that our world feels ever less enchanted when the secret things are constantly running out of places to hide. What good will all of that light be when we have surrendered the ability to see? As Edward Abbey famously observed:
“You cannot study the darkness by flooding it with light.”
Anyone who is familiar with the essays I wrote for The Idler magazine (and the piece I wrote for vol. 2 of the Dark Mountain journal) will know that it is not just the architecture of the Gothic revival which interests me, I also have something of a soft-spot for the wider philosophies which accompanied the movement. At its best (when it wasn’t dripping off the corpse-like tongues of myth-building nationalists) the medievalism of the Gothic revival was a call for re-humanising productivity through craftsmanship and guilds (for a great overview of these ideas I suggest you read Tom Hodgkinson’s ‘How to be Free’). It was about putting art at the centre of human activity at a time when it was becoming clear that mass-production would rip the creative spirit out of the common worker simply to maximise profits. John Ruskin, one of the movement’s greatest philosophers, wrote: “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him, you cannot make both.” This is why, despite their grandeur, buildings like St George’s celebrate the hands of men as much as they do the hand of God. Every inch – each stone and each wooden block – is carved in celebration of life and the creative urge of our species.
Sadly Ruskin’s essay on the economy, Unto This Last, remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published in the 1860s. Inspiring both Tolstoy and Ghandi (who translated it into Gujarati under the title of ‘Sarvodaya‘ – “the well being of all”) it argues – in very practical terms – for an economy which is highly sensitive to the natural world, for more creatively rewarding work (which I’m sure would have pleased Bukowski), and for a universal social wage; anticipating- and often going way beyond – both the green movement and the welfare state of the following century. His term “luxury for all, and by the help of all” is far warmer than Marx’s more famous doctrine: “Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen!” (‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’), and although Ruskin himself can be somewhat conservative at times his calls for the equitable distribution – and ethical re-evaluation – of wealth, communal self-sufficiency and individual freedom offer a much more humane political philosophy than the authoritarian ideologies (both left and right) which have reaped so much misery from Ruskin’s time to our own. For Ruskin the keys to human happiness were freedom, knowledge, art, health and compassion:
THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
Ruskin attempted to put these ideals into practice with his coincidentally named Guild of St George. Through the guild he planned to create a network of communities purposefully designed to challenge the profit-hungry economic model and to provide alternatives to mass production and work slavery. The guild is still in existence today as a charitable Education Trust with a collection based in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, but Ruskin’s dream is yet to be fully realised. The good news is that with modern technology, the maker movement, permaculture and the internet it is now easier than ever to build a localised, environmentally sensitive, craft-orientated, human-scaled, community-based economy from the ground up. We’re already experimenting at nearby Church View, so you never know, one day St George’s might be home to a community of minster makers echoing in some small way Ruskin’s dream for the Guild of St George. 😉