Art and Labour, Version 3

By William Morris

Entry 8346


From: holdoffhunger [id: 1]


Revolt Library Anarchism Art and Labour, Version 3

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(1834 - 1896)

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he helped win acceptance of socialism in fin de siècle Great Britain. (From:

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Art and Labour, Version 3

Mr. William Morris lectured before the members of the Guild of Lithographic Artists, at their Technical Schools, 35, Clerkenwell Road, London, on "Art and Labor."

He said that it was right and necessary that all men should have work to do. That work must be useful to others, pleasant to those who have the doing of it, and of a nature that shall be neither overburdensome nor wearisome. Let this fact be once acknowledged, and the whole face of society as at present constituted would be changed. Let them consider for a moment what a revolution such a change would mean. Let them take a walk down any of their principal streets and look at the things exposed for sale in the shop windows; the articles there displayed were for the most part such as nobody wanted. He would have them think of the fact of lives spent by men employed in the making of those unnecessary articles, the fearful drudgery and hardships that they were enduring, not in producing work that was either pleasant to themselves or useful to other people, but simply spending their time in piling up huge profits for the capitalists. Instead of luxury being a hot bed for art, it acted in a manner exactly the opposite, breeding effeminacy on the one hand and corruption on the other. The new birth of art would be delayed until this luxury was done away with. Again,

Fashion was a Strange Monster,

born of the vacancy of the lives of the idle rich. There was this difference between fashion and true art, that, whereas fashion was of necessity short-lived (as soon as the gloss had worn off, it was obviously useless), art, be it ever so humble, lived for ever through the soul that was put into it. It would be a difficult matter for the powerful middle classes (how powerful those whom he was addressing knew full well, or they would not be in their present position) to break the bonds of custom and fashion, but it could be done through the help of labor; for, strange to say, the middle classes were only powerful in the grooves and through the forces of the monster which they themselves had created. Helpless and powerless to cast off the fetters which they had forged, bored to death with their idleness and uselessness, they came to the workers for their help to rid themselves of this tyranny of commerce. The workers, by raising the standard of life where it was lowest, were putting a spoke in the

Wheel of Competitive Commerce.

The doctrine that labor was a real tangible blessing to all was a doctrine very difficult for the working man to admit, so different had his experience of labor been. It was impossible for the workman to take pleasure in his work to-day, when, instead of workmanly and artistic finishes, only trade finish was required. Let them look at the middle ages — at the position of the workman then. It would be admitted by nearly everyone that the productions of those days were far more artistic than were those of to-day. The workman bestowed more pains on his work, putting it into some of the aspirations of his mind and soul ─ he was not worried by monetary cares, he was better fed, better clothed, and better housed than were the workmen of today. Since those middle ages what has Europe gained? Freedom of thought, political freedom, and perhaps respect for the lives of civilized beings. But consider all that they had lost. What they had gained on the one hand they had spilled with the other. It was impossible for them to believe that men's nature had changed for the worse during the short 300 years that had passed since those ages. They would one day win back art. In their ability to see the miserable bargain which had been made — art given in exchange for so-called light and freedom — lay their hope.

The Cause of Art was the Cause of Labor.

A similar revolution was now going on in Europe (although of a very different character) to that which happened in ancient Rome. when, dying of a corrupt and effete civilization, the Goths and Huns and the Vandals swept down upon them from their northern homes, carrying with them, as does the mountain torrent carry gold in its rush, contempt of death, hatred of lies. honorable love of women, and infusing new life and new blood in a worn-out civilization. The barbarians to-day were the working classes — the disinherited. Already they were coming to the front combining, formulating demands, filled with the spirit of divine discontent. The new birth of art would be brought about noiselessly. gradually, without violent changes. Terrible would have been the condition. not only of the workers, but of the middle classes, were it not for the germs of this new life, which they already saw springing up around them, the outward signs of which were trade unionism, socialism, and cooperation.


Art and Labor (as reported by The Newcastle Daily Chronicle)


  1. Monday 26th February, 1894, to the Guild of Lithographic Artists in Clerkenwell, London


Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Thursday, 4 March, 1894, p.8

The talk was also reported, in a more argumentative and less literal fashion, in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 28/2/1894 and in Freeman's Journal of the same date.

This is aparently a third version of the talk Art and Labor, first given 10 years previously. Morris's own notes for the new talk have not been preserved.

Transcription and HTML

Graham Seaman, July 2020.

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