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Transcript of William Morris' Art, Wealth and Crafts talk
Art, Wealth and Riches are the words I have written at the head of this paper. Some of you may think that the two latter words, wealth and riches, are tautologous. But that is not so. In truth there are no real synonyms in any language... and in the early days of our own language no one would have thought of using the word rich as a synonym for wealthy. He would have understood a wealthy man to mean one who had plentiful livelihood, and a rich man one who had great dominion or power over his fellow men. Alexander the Rich, Alfred the Rich; the adjective would scarcely be used except of a great king or chief, a man pre-eminent above other kings and chiefs. Now, without being a stickler for etymological accuracy, I must say that I think there are cases where modern language has lost power by confusing two words into one meaning, and that this is one of them. I shall ask your leave therefore to use the words wealth and riches somewhat in the way in which our forefathers did, and to understand wealth as signifying the means of living a decent life, and riches the means for exercising dominion over other people. Thus understood the words are widely different; yet if you say that the difference is but one of degree I must needs admit that you are right: - just so it is between the shepherd's dog and the wolf. Their respective views on the subject of mutton differ only in degree.
Anyhow, I think the following question is an important one: Which shall art belong to, wealth or riches? Shall she be the slave of riches, or the friend and helpmate of wealth? Indeed, if I put the question in another form, and ask - Is art to be limited to a narrow class who only care for it in a very languid way, or is it to be the solace and pleasure of the whole people? - the question finally comes to this:
Are we to have art or the pretence of art? It is like enough that to many, or even most of you, the question will seem of no practical importance. To most people the present condition of art does seem in the main to be the only condition it could exist in among cultivated people, and they are (in a languid way, as I said) content with its present aims and tendencies. For myself, I am so discontented with the present conditions of art, and the matter seems to me so serious, that I am forced to try to make other people share my discontent, and am this evening risking the committal of a breach of good manners by standing before you, grievance in hand, on an occasion like this, when everybody present, I feel sure, is full of goodwill both towards the arts and towards the public. My only excuse is my belief in the sincerity of your wish to know any serious views that can be taken of a matter so important. So I will say that the question I have asked - whether art is to be the helpmate of wealth or the slave of riches - is of great practical import, if indeed art is important to the human race, which I suppose no one here will deny.
Now I will ask those who think art is in a normal and healthy condition to explain the meaning of the enthusiasm shown of late years for the foundation and extension of museums, a great part of whose contents is but fragments of the household goods of past ages. Why do cultivated, sober, reasonable people, not lacking in a due sense of the value of money, give large sums for scraps of figured cloth, pieces of roughly made pottery, worm-eaten carving, or battered metal work, and treasure them up in expensive public buildings under the official guardianship of learned experts? Well, we all know that these things are supposed to teach us something; they are educational. The museum at South Kensington, is distinctly an educational establishment. Nor is what they are supposed to teach us mere dead history; these things are studied carefully and laboriously by men who intend making their living by the art of design. Ask any expert of any school of opinion as to art, what he thinks of the desirability of those who are to make designs for the ornamental part of industrial art studying from these remains of past ages, and he will be certain to answer you that such study is indispensable to a designer. So you see this is what it comes to. It is not to the best works of our own time that a student is sent - no master or expert could honestly tell him that would do him good - but to the mere wreckage of a bygone art, things which, when they were new, could be bought for the most part in every shop and market place. Well, need one ask what sort of a figure the wreckage of our ornamental art would cut in a museum of the twenty fourth century?
The plain truth is that people who have studied these matters know that these remnants of the past give tokens of an art which fashioned goods not only better than we do now, but different in kind, and were made in quite other ways than we make such things.
Before we ask why they were so much better, and why they differ in kind and not merely in degree of goodness, I want you to note specially once more that they were common wares, bought and sold in any market. I want you to note that, in spite of the tyranny and violence of the days when they were fashioned, the beauty of which they formed a part surrounded all life; that then, at all events, art was the helpmate of wealth and not the slave of riches. True it is that then as now rich men spent great sums of money in ornament of all kinds, and no doubt the lower classes were wretchedly poor ( as they are now) - nevertheless, the art that rich men got differed only in abundance and splendour of material from what other people could compass. the thing to remember is that then everything which was made by man's hand was more or less beautiful.
Contrast that with the state of art at present, and then say if my unmannerly discontent is not somewhat justified. So far from everything that is made by man being beautiful, almost all ordinary wares that are made by civilised men today are shabbily and pretentiously ugly; made so (it would almost seem) by perverse intent, rather than by accident, when we consider how pleasant and tempting to the inventive mind and the skilful hand are many of the processes of modern manufacture. Take for example the familiar art of glass-making. I have been in a glass-factory, and seen the workmen in the process of their work bring the molten glass into the most elegant and delicious forms. There were points of the process when, if the vessel they were making had been taken straight to the annealing house, the result would have been something which would have rivalled the choicest pieces of Venetian glass; but that could not be, they had to take their callipers and moulds and reduce the fantastic elegance of the living material to the due marketable ugliness and vulgarity of some shape, designed most likely by a man who did not in the least know or care how glass was made; and the experience is common enough in other arts. I repeat that all manufactured goods are now divided into two classes; one class vulgar and ugly that is for poor people, for the uncultivated: the other class, made for some of the rich, intends to be beautiful, is carefully and elaborately designed, but usually fails of its intent because there is no cooperation in it between the designer and the handicraftsman.
Thus is our wealth injured - our wealth, the means of living a decent life - and no one is the gainer. For while on the one hand the lower classes have no real art of any kind about their houses, and have instead to put up with shabby and ghastly pretences of it - which quite destroy their capacity for appreciating real art when they come across it in museums and picture galleries; so, on the other hand, not all the superfluous money of the rich can buy what they profess to want; the only real art they can have is that which is made by unassisted individual genius, the laborious and painful work of men of rare attainments and special culture, who, cumbered as they are by unromantic life and hideous surroundings - in spite of all - manage now and then to break through the hindrances and produce noble works of art, which only a very few people even pretend to understand or be moved by. This art, rich people can buy and possess sometimes, but necessarily there is little enough of it; and if there were tenfold what there is, I repeat it would not move the people one jot, for they are deadened to all art by the hideousness and squalor that surrounds them.
That, I say, is the condition of art amongst us. Lest you doubt it, or think I exaggerate, see how it fares with that art which is above all others co-operative: the Art of architecture. Now, none know better than I do what a vast amount of talent and knowledge there is amongst first-rate designers of buildings nowadays; and here and there all about the country one sees the buildings they have planned and is rejoiced by them.
Yet little enough does that help us in these days when, if a man leaves England for a few years, he finds when he comes back half a county of bricks and mortar added to London. Can the greatest optimist say that the style of building in that half county has improved meanwhile? Is it not true, on the contrary, that it goes on getting worse, if that is possible, the last house built being always the vulgarest and ugliest. It is a matter of course that almost every new house shall be quite disgraceful and degradingly ugly, and if by chance we come across a new house that shows any signs of thoughtfulness in design and planning we are quite astonished, and want to know who built it, who owns it, who designed it, and everything about it from beginning to end. Whereas in the Middle Ages every house built was more or less beautiful. In that time cottage and cathedral were built in the same style and had the same kind of ornaments about them; size and, in some cases, material were the only differences between the humble and the majestic building. It is not easy to imagine the beauty of a town all of whose houses are beautiful... But what a strange state art must be in when we either won't or can't take any trouble to make our houses fit for reasonable human beings to live in! Cannot, I suppose: for once again, except in the rarest cases, rich men's houses are no better than common ones. Permit me an example of this, I beg you. I have lately seen Bournemouth, the watering place south-west of the New Forest. It is a district (scarcely a town) of rich men's houses. There was every inducement there to make them decent, for the place, with its sandy hills and pine trees, gave really a remarkable site.
It would not have taken so very much to have made it romantic. Well, there stand these rich men's houses among the pine trees and gardens, and not even the pine trees and gardens can make them tolerable. They are (you must pardon me the word) simply backguardly, and while I speak they are going on building them by the mile.
Now why cannot we amend this? Why cannot we have, for instance, simple and beautiful dwellings for cultivated, well-mannered men and women, and not for ignorant, purse-proud digesting machines? You may say because we don't wish for them, and that is true enough; but that only moves the question a step further, and we may ask: why don't we care about art? Why has civilised society in all that relates to the beauty of man's handiwork degenerated from the time of the barbarous, superstitious, un-peaceful Middle Ages?
I say that the intelligent work which produced real art in the Middle Ages, was human work, not over burdensome or degrading - whereas the unintelligent work which produces the sham art of today is irksome to do, it is inhuman work, burdensome and degrading; so that it is but right and proper that it should turn out nothing but ugly things. And the immediate cause of this degrading labour which oppresses so large a part of our people is the system of the organisation of labour, which is the chief instrument of the great power of modern Europe: competitive commerce.
That system has quite changed the way of working in all matters that can be considered as art, and the change is a very much greater one than people know of or think of. In times past these handicrafts were done on a small, almost a domestic, scale by knots of workmen who mostly belonged to organised guilds, and were taught their work soundly, however limited their education was in other respects. There was little division of labour among them; the grades between master and man were not many; a man knew his work from end to end, and felt responsible for every stage of its progress. Such work was necessarily slow to do and expensive to buy; neither was it always finished to the nail; but it was always intelligent work; there was a man's mind in it always, and abundant tokens of human hopes and fears, the sum of which makes life for all of us.
Now think of any kind of manufacturer which you are conversant with, and note how differently it is done nowadays; almost certainly the workmen are collected in huge factories, in which labour is divided and sub-divided, till a workman is completely helpless in his craft if he finds himself without those above to feed his work, and those below to be fed by it. There is a regular hierarchy of masters over him; foreman, manager, clerk and capitalist, every one of whom is more important than he who does the work. Not only is he not asked to put his individuality into his share of the work, but he is not allowed to. He is but part of a machine, and has but one unvarying set of tasks to do; and when he has once learned these, the more regularly and with the less thought he does them, the more valuable he is.
The work turned out by this system is speedily done, and cheap to buy. No wonder, considering the marvellous perfection of the organisation of labour that turns it out, and the energy with which it is carried through. Also, it has a high degree of finish, and what I should call a shop-counter look, quite peculiar to the wares of this century; but it is of necessity utterly unintelligent, and has no sign of humanity on it - not even so much as to show weariness here and there, which would imply that one part of it was pleasanter to do than another. Whatever art or semblance of art is on it has been doled out with due commercial care, and applied by a machine, human or otherwise, with exactly the same amount of interest in the doing it as went into the non-artistic parts of the work. Again I say that if such work were otherwise than ugly and despicable to look at one's sense of justice would be shocked; for the labour which went to the making of it was thankless and un-pleasurable, little more than a mere oppression on the workmen.
I know that this machine-organised labour is necessary to competitive commerce; that is to say to the present constitution of society; and probably most of you think that speculation on a root and branch change in that is mere idle dreaming. I cannot help it; I can only say that that change must come, or at least be on the way, before art can be made to touch the mass of the people.
Dream or not as we may about the chances of a better kind of life which shall include a fair share of art for most people, it is no dream, but a certainty, that change is going on around us, though whitherward the change is leading us may be a matter of dispute. Most people though, I suppose, will be inclined to think that everything tends to favour the fullest development of competitive commerce and the utmost perfection of the system of labour which it depends upon. I think that is likely enough, and that things will go on quicker and quicker till the last perfection of blind commercial war has been reached; and then? May the change come with as little violence and suffering as may be!
It is the business of all of us to do our best to that end - of preparing for change, and so softening the shock of it; to leave as little as possible that must be destroyed to be destroyed suddenly and by violence of some sort or other. And in no direction, it seems to me, can we do more useful work in forestalling destructive revolution than in being beforehand with it in trying to fill up the gap that separates class from class.
Just think of the significance of one fact; that here in England in the nineteenth century, among all the shouts of progress that have been raised for many years, the greater number of people are doomed by the accident of their birth to misplace their aitches - that there are two languages talked in England: gentleman's English and workman's English.
I say that this is barbarous and dangerous; and it goes step by step with the lack of art which the same classes are forced into; it is a token, in short, of that vulgarity, to use a hateful word, which was not in existence before modern times and the blossoming of competitive commerce.
Permit me an example. I was talking to a lady friend of mine the other day who was puzzled as to what to do with her growing son, and we discussed the possibility of his taking to one of the crafts, trades as we call them now: say cabinet making. Now neither of us was much encumbered with social prejudices, both of us had a wholesome horror of increasing the army of London clerks, yet we were obliged to admit that unless the lad were of strong character and could take the step with his eyes open and face the consequences on his own account, the thing could not be done; it would be making him either a sort of sloppy amateur or an involuntary martyr to principle. Now, why in the name of patience should a carpenter be a worse gentleman than a lawyer? His craft is a much more useful one, much harder to learn, and at the very worst, even in these days, much pleasanter; and yet, you see, we gentlemen and ladies durst not set our sons to it, unless we have found them to be enthusiasts or philosophers who can accept all consequences and despise the opinion of the world; in which case they will lie under the ban of that terrible adjective, eccentric.
But there was another side to this conversation. I bethink me that amongst other things this lady said to me: 'You know, I wouldn't mind a lad being a cabinetmaker if he only made "Art" furniture.' Well, there you see! she naturally, as a matter of course, admitted what I have told you this evening is a fact, that even in a craft so intimately connected with fine art as cabinet making there could be two classes of goods, one the common one, quite without art; the other exceptional and having a sort of artificial art, so to say, tacked on to it. And these crafts are so mechanical as they are now carried on, that they don't exercise the intellectual part of a man; no, scarcely at all. and you see, supposing a young man to enter the cabinet maker's craft, for instance (one of the least mechanical, even at present): when he had attained to more than average skill in it, his next ambition would be to better himself, as the phrase goes; that is, either to take to some other occupation thought more gentlemanly, or to become, not a master cabinet maker, but a capitalist employer of cabinet makers. Thus the crafts lose their best men because they have not in themselves due reward for excellence. Beyond a certain point you cannot go, and that point is not set high enough. Understand, by reward I don't mean only money wages, but social position, leisure, and above all, the self-respect which comes of our having the opportunity of doing remarkable and individual work, useful to one's fellows to possess, and pleasant for oneself to do; work which at least deserves thanks, whether it gets them or not.
Now, mind you, I know well enough that it is the custom of people when they speak in public to talk largely of the dignity of labour and the esteem in which they hold the working classes, and I suppose while they are speaking they believe what they say; but will their respect for the dignity of labour bear the test I have been speaking of? to wit, will they, can they, being of the upper or middle-classes, put their sons to this kind of labour? Do they think that, so doing, they will give their children a good prospect in life? It does not take long to answer that question, and I repeat that I consider it a test question; therefore I say that the crafts are distinctly marked as forming part of a lower class, and that this stupidity is the result of the reckless pursuit of riches, which is the main aim of competitive commerce. The crafts really are degraded and I believe this degradation of craftsmanship to be necessary to the perfection and progress of competitive commerce - the degradation of craftsmanship, or, in other words, the extinction of art. That is such a heavy accusation to bring against the system, that, crazy as you may think me, I am bound to declare myself in open rebellion against it: against, I admit it, the mightiest power which the world has ever seen. Mighty, indeed, yet mainly to destroy, and therefore I believe short-lived; since all things which are destructive bear their own destruction with them.
And now I want to get back before I finish to my first three words, Art, Wealth, and Riches. I can conceive that many people would be like to say to me: You declare yourself in rebellion against the very system which creates wealth for the world. It is just that which I deny; it is the destruction of wealth of which I accuse competitive commerce. I say that wealth - or the material means for living a decent life - is created in spite of that system, not because of it. To my mind real wealth is of two kinds; the first kind, food, raiment, shelter and the like; the second, matters of art and knowledge; that is, things good and necessary for the body, and things good and necessary for the mind. Many other things than these is competitive commerce busy about - some of them directly injurious to the life of man, some merely encumbrances to its honourable progress - meanwhile the first of these two kinds of real wealth competitive commerce largely wastes, the second she largely destroys.
She wastes the first by unjust and ill managed distribution of the power of acquiring wealth, which we call shortly money; by urging people to the reckless multiplication of their kind, and by gathering population into unmanageable aggregations to satisfy her ruthless greed, without the least thought of their welfare.
As for the second kind of wealth - mental wealth - competitive commerce destroys it in many ways; but the two ways which most concern our subject to-night are these: first, the reckless destruction of the natural beauty of the earth, which compels the great mass of the population, in this country at least, to live amidst ugliness and squalor so revolting and disgusting that we could not bear it unless habit had made us used to it. But the second way by which competitive commerce destroys our mental wealth is yet worse: it is by the turning of almost all handicraftsmen into machines; that is to say, compelling them to work which is unintelligent and un-human, a mere weariness to be borne for the greater part of the day; thus robbing men of the gain and victory which long ages of toil and thought have won from stern hard nature and necessity: man's pleasure and triumph in his daily work.
I tell you it is not wealth which our civilisation has created, but riches, with its necessary companion poverty; for riches cannot exist without poverty, or in other words slavery. All rich men must have some one to do their dirty work, from the collecting of their unjust rents to the sifting of their ash heaps. Under the dominion of riches we are masters and slaves instead of fellow-workmen as we should be. If competitive commerce creates wealth, then should England surely be the wealthiest country in the world, as I suppose some people think it is - and it is certainly the richest; but what shabbiness is this rich country driven into?
I belong, for instance to a harmless little society - the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings - whose object is to preserve for the public now living and to come the wealth which England still possesses in historical and beautiful buildings; and I could give you a long and dismal list of buildings which England, with all her riches, has not been able to save from commercial greed in some form or another. Why, to this day in England (in England only, I believe, amongst civilized countries) there is no law to prevent a madman or an ignoramus from pulling down a house which he chooses to call his private property, though it may be one of the treasures of the land for art and history
Or again, of how many acres of common land has riches robbed the country, even in this century? a treasure irreplaceable, inestimable, in these days of teeming population. How often have railway companies been allowed for the benefit of the few to rob the public of treasures of beauty that can never be replaced; but riches has no bowels except for riches. Or you in the North of England, what have you done with Lancashire? It does not seem to be above ground. I think you must have been poor indeed to have been compelled to bury it. Were not the brown moors and the meadows, the clear streams and the sunny skies wealth? Riches has made a strange home for you.
Some of you, indeed, can sneak away from it sometimes to Wales, to Scotland, to Italy; some, but very few. I am sorry for you; and for myself too, for that matter, for down by the Thames-side there we are getting rid of the earth as fast as we can also; most of Middlesex, most of Surrey, and huge cantles of Essex and Kent are buried mountains deep under fantastic folly or hideous squalor; and no one has the courage to say: "Let us seek a remedy while any of our wealth in this kind is left us."
Or, lastly, if all these things may seem light matters to some of you, grievously heavy as they really are, no one can think lightly of those terrible stories we have been hearing lately of the housing of poor people in London; indeed no country which can bear to sit quiet under such grievances has any right to be called wealthy. Yet you know very well that it will be long indeed before any party or any Government will have the courage to face the subject, dangerous as they must needs know it is to shut their eyes to it.
And what is to amend these grievances? You must not press me too close on that point. I believe I am in such a very small minority on these matters that it is enough for me if I find here and there some one who admits the grievances; for my business her is to spread discontent. I do not think this is an unimportant office; for, as discontent spreads, the yearning for bettering the state of things spreads with it, and the longing of many people, when it has grown deep and strong, melts away resistance to change in a sure, steady, unaccountable manner.
Yet I will, with your leave, tell the chief things which I really want to see changed, in case I have not spoken plainly enough hitherto, and lest I should seem to have nothing to bid you to but destruction.
I want, then, all persons to be educated according to their capacity, not according to the amount of money which their parents happen to have.
I want all persons to have manners and breeding according to their innate goodness and kindness, and not according to the amount of money which their parents happen to have. As a consequence of these two things I want to be able to talk to any of my countrymen in his own tongue freely, and feeling sure that he will be able to understand my thoughts according to his innate capacity.
And I also want to be able to sit at table with a person of any occupation without a feeling of awkwardness and constraint being present between us.
I want no one to have any money except as due wages for work done; and, since I feel sure that those who do the most useful work will neither ask nor get the highest wages, I believe that this change will destroy that worship of a man for the sake of his money, which everybody admits is degrading, but which very few indeed can help sharing in.
I want those who do the rough work of the world, sailors, miners, ploughmen, and the like, to be treated with consideration and respect, to be paid abundant money-wages, and to have plenty of leisure.
I want modern science, which I believe to be capable of overcoming all material difficulties, to turn from such preposterous follies as the invention of anthracine colours and monster cannon to the invention of machines for performing such labour as is revolting and destructive of self-respect to the men who now have to do it by hand.
I want handicraftsmen proper, that is, those who make wares, to be in such a position that they may be able to refuse to make foolish and useless wares, or to make the cheap and nasty wares which are the mainstay of competitive commerce, and indeed slave-wares, made by and for slaves. And in order that the workmen may be in this position, I want division of labour restricted within reasonable limits, and men taught to think over their work and take pleasure in it.
I also want the wasteful system of middlemen restricted, so that workmen may be brought into contact with the public, who will thus learn something about their work, and so be able to give them due reward of praise for excellence.
Furthermore, I want the workmen to share the good fortunes of the business which they uphold, in due proportion to their skill and industry, as they must in any case share its bad fortunes. To which end it would be necessary that those who organise their labour should be paid no more than due wages for their work, and should be chosen for their skill and intelligence, and not because they happen to be the sons of money-bags.
Also I want this - and if men were living under the conditions I have just claimed for them, I should get it - that these islands which make the land we love should no longer be treated as here a cinder-heap, and there a game-preserve, but as the fair green garden of Northern Europe, which no man under any pretence should be allowed to befoul or disfigure.
Under all these conditions I should certainly get the last want accomplished which I am now going to name. I want all the works of man's hand to be beautiful, rising in fair and honourable gradation from the simplest household goods to the stately public building - adorned with the handiwork of the greatest masters of expression which that real new birth and the dayspring of hope come back will bring forth for us.
These are the foundations of my Utopia, a city in which riches and poverty will have been conquered by wealth; and however crazy you may think my aspirations for it, one thing at least I am sure of, that henceforward it will be no use looking for popular art except in such an Utopia, or at least on the road thither; a road which, in my belief, leads to peace and civilisation, as the road away from it leads to discontent, corruption, tyranny and confusion. Yet it may be we are more nearly on the road to it than many people think; and however that may be, I am cheered somewhat by thinking that the very small minority to which I belong is being helped by every one who is of goodwill in social matters.
Everyone who is pushing forward education helps us; for education - which seems such a small power to classes which have been used to some share of it for generations - when it reaches those who have grievances which they ought not to bear spreads deep discontent among them, and teaches them what to do to make their discontent fruitful.
Every one who is striving to extinguish poverty is helping us; for one of the greatest causes of the dearth of popular art and the oppression of joyless labour is the necessity that is imposed on modern civilisation for making miserable wares for miserable people, for the slaves of competitive commerce. All who assert public rights against private greed are helping us; every foil given to common-stealers, or railway-Philistines, or smoke nuisance-breeders, is a victory scored to us.
Every one who tries to keep alive traditions of art by gathering together relics of the art of bygone times, still more if he is so lucky as to be able to lead people by his own works - to look through the city smoke and squalor to fair scenes of unspoiled nature or deeds of past history - is helping us. Every one who tries to bridge the gap between the classes, by helping the opening of museums and galleries and gardens and other pleasures which can be shared by all, is helping us.
Every one who tries to stir up intelligence in their work in workmen, and more especially every one who gives them hope in their work and a sense of self-respect and responsibility to the public in it, by such means as industrial partnerships and the like, is helping the cause most thoroughly.
These, and such as these, are our helpers, and give us a kind of hope that the time may come when our views and aspirations will no longer be considered rebellious, and when competitive commerce will be lying in the same grave with chattel slavery, with serfdom, and with feudalism. Or rather, certainly the change will come, however long we shall have been dead by then; how, then, can we prevent its coming with violence and injustice that will breed other grievances in time, to be met by fresh discontent? Once again, how good it were to destroy all that must be destroyed gradually and with a good grace!
Here in England we have a fair house full of many good things, but cumbered also with pestilential rubbish. What duty can be more pressing than to carry out the rubbish piecemeal and burn it outside, lest some day there be no way of getting rid of it but by burning it up inside with the goods and house and all?