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From William Morris
by Michael Lane
Numbers are pages from On Art and Socialism (1947), a collection of Morris's writings edited by none other than Orage's old collaborator and the discoverer of Douglas, Holbrook Jackson.
No doubt many of you, like me, [have wandered] through the galleries of the admirable museum of South Kensington, and, like me, have been filled with wonder and gratitude at the beauty which has been born from the brain of man. Now, consider, I pray you, what these wonderful works are. . . . Well, these things are just the common household goods of those past days (48). When a man turned the wheel, or threw the shuttle, or hammered the iron, he was expected to make something more than a water-pot, a cloth, or a knife: he was expected to make a work of art also; . . . this is what I have called Architecture: the turning of necessary articles of daily use into works of art (266).
I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of all the externals of our life. For I must ask you to believe that every one of the things that goes to make up the surroundings among which we live must be either beautiful or ugly, [either a] burden to the maker of it to make, or a pleasure (132f.). The true secret of happiness lies in the taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life, in elevating them by art (93).
In times past these handicrafts were done on a small, almost a domestic scale by knots of workmen who mostly belonged to organized gilds, 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 (121).
It was this system, which had not learned the lesson that man is made for commerce, but supposed in its simplicity that commerce was made for man, which produced the art of the Middle Ages, wherein the harmonious co-operation of free intelligence was carried to the furthest point which has yet been attained, and which alone of all art can claim to be called Free. The effect of this freedom, and the widespread or rather universal sense of beauty to which it gave birth, became obvious enough in the outburst of the expression of splendid and copious genius which marks the Italian Renaissance (142).
The unit of the art [is] this house, this church, this town-hall, built and ornamented by the harmonious efforts of a free people; by no possibility could one man do it, however gifted he might be: . . something of his genius must be in the other members of the great body that raises the complete work: millions on millions of strokes of hammer and chisel, of the gouge, of the brush, of the shuttle, are embodied in that work of art, and in every one of them is either intelligence to help the master, or stupidity to foil him hopelessly (233).
Now think of any kind of manufacture which you are conversant with, and note how differently it is done nowadays (121). There is no sympathy between the designer and the man who carries out the design (163). Almost certainly the workmen are collected in huge factories, in which labour is divided and subdivided. . . . 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 organization of labour that turns it out, and the energy with which it is carried through. Also, it has a certain high finish, and what I should call 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 (121f.).
[As for] ornament, you must pay specially for it, and the workman is compelled to produce ornament, as he is to produce other wares. He is compelled to pretend happiness in his work, so that the beauty produced by man's hand, which was once a solace in his labour, has now become an extra burden to him, and ornament is now but one of the follies of useless toil, and perhaps not the least irksome of its fetters (188). You want a ewer and basin, say: you go into a shop and buy one. . . . Well, you look at several, and one interests you about as much as anotherthat is, not at all; and at last in mere weariness you say, "Well, that will do"; and you have your crockery with a scrawl of fern leaves and convolvulus over it which is its "ornament." The said ornament gives you no pleasure, still less any idea; it only gives you an impression (a mighty dull one) of bedroom. The ewer also has some perverse stupidity about its handle which also says bedroom, and adds respectable. . . . That ornament, that special form which the ineptitude of the fern scrawl and the idiocy of the handle has taken, has sold so many dozen or gross more of that toilet set than of others, and that is what it is put there for, not to amuse you; you know it is not art, but you don't know that it is trade finish. . . . If, as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue, so this degraded piece of trade finish is the homage which commerce pays to art (238). 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 into the making of it was thankless and unpleasurable (122)
Some few months ago I read in a paper the report of a speech made to the assembled workpeople of a famous firm. . . . Towards the end of it I came across a sentence, which set me a-thinking so hard, that I forgot all that had gone before. . . . I turned the intrusive sentence over again in my mind: "No man would work unless he hoped by working to earn leisure": and I saw that this was another way of putting it: first, all the work of the world is done against the grain: second, what a man does in his "leisure" is not work. . . . So to explain this puzzle, I fell to thinking of the one life of which I knew somethingmy own to witand out tumbled the bottom of the theory. For I tried to think what would happen to me if I were forbidden ordinary daily work; and I knew that I should die of despair and weariness, unless I could straightway take to something else which I could make my daily work; . . . and as for my leisure: well I had to confess that part of it I do indeed spend as a dog doesin contemplation, let us say; and like it well enough: but part of it also I spend in work: which work gives me just as much pleasure as my bread-earning work (263f.).
Art is man's expression of his joy in labour (139). Our epoch has invented machines which would have appeared wild dreams to the men of past ages, and of those machines we have as yet made no use. . . . In a true society these miracles of ingenuity would be for the first time used for minimizing the amount of time spent in unattractive labour (191). If we were to were to wake up some morning now, under our present system, and find it "easy to live," that system would force us to set to work at once and make it hard to live; we should call that "developing our resources," or some such fine name. The multiplication of labour has become a necessity for us, and as long as that goes on no ingenuity in the invention of machines will be of any real use to us (183).