This is in a footnote in John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Vol. III (1856):
…it is a literal wrong or sin in any person to encumber us with inferior work. I have no patience with apologies made by young pseudo-poets, ‘that they believe there is some good in what they have written: that they hope to do better in time,’ etc. Some good! If there is not all good, there is no good. If they ever hope to do better, why do they trouble us now? Let them rather courageously burn all they have done, and wait for the better days…All inferior poetry is an injury to the good, inasmuch as it takes away the freshness of rhymes, blunders upon and gives a wretched commonality to good thoughts; and, in general, adds to the weight of human weariness in a most woeful and culpable manner. There are few thoughts likely to come across ordinary men, which have not already been expressed by greater men in the best possible way; and it is a wiser, more generous, more noble thing to remember and point out the perfect words, than to invent poorer ones (71).
This anti-hack manifesto, a litany of extreme aesthetic elitism, gives me such a warm feeling inside. Ruskin brilliantly applies his Toryism to the arts. Toryism argues the evils of democracy, the glories of Monarchy, and the necessary deferment in all matters to an elite few who can be trusted. Finding the few honest men, and putting them in power quickly are the two key occupations of government. As an old school Tory, Ruskin accepts Kings as God’s chosen instruments. As a corollary, Ruskin appoints Kings in the arts -- the natural, inevitable best who should inspire a crushing awe from all dabblers and dilettantes. If you aren’t one of the best, have the good sense to shut up and hope maybe you can recognize the best when it hits your dumbo ears. Until then, don’t force us into a sense of humor about the arts. Art is serious. Don’t “trouble” me with almost good work. Don’t dabble. Almost good equals worthless bad. Ruskin’s use of “sin” shows art elevated to religion. Inferiority is immoral. Dabblers proceed despite knowledge of their inferiority because they lack respect for art. They lack a properly developed aesthetic conscience. All hacks stand up!
But, to echo advice of one of my smartest college professors, know both sides. We find a specific expression of the other side in Percy Shelley's prose preface to his poem Prometheus Unbound:
Whatever talents a person might have to amuse and instruct
others, be they ever so inconsiderable, he is yet bound to
exert them: if his attempt be ineffectual, let the punishment
of an unaccomplished purpose have been sufficient...
Don't criticize! Though Shelley's view is colored by the example of Keats, whom Shelley thought was quickened to his early death (25) by unduly harsh criticism, there is hard logic here -- people criticize themselves! They know when they have failed. Any further criticism is overkill, and serves no purpose but to exert emotional damage on the writer. An anarchist, Shelley sees no need for "protectors" of the arts like tory Ruskin, who certainly would answer Shelley that no, people do not know when they have failed. They need to be told. The quality of an art work is so subjective, a writer can easily fool himself as to his skill. If an incompetent monarch tries his hand at verse, the false adulation of his subjects could likely convince him he has the touch of genius. An imagination is easily swayed, the ego wants to misinterpret. One must understand the subjectivity of the arts. Because of this subjectivity a Protectorate becomes necessary.
We have the integrated concepts brought to us by Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, the aesthetics, of the critic as artist or the artist as critic. What we are looking at here is critic versus artist, an illustration of the expected psychological differences. Critic Ruskin's anti-hack manifesto is an argument for the necessity of a strong criticism that demands the highest, and that therefore must disdain anything but the very best. Poet Shelley is in touch with the emotional turmoil criticism can cause. Words can kill. Criticism must understand artists criticize themselves already, and many over time have to admit the ineffectuality of their work, and that is punishment enough.