Of the Origins of Ornamental Art

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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 : Wikipedia.org.)


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Of the Origins of Ornamental Art

Perhaps it may at first sight seem to some of you that ornamental art is no very important subject, and that it is no great matter what its origins were: but I hope to show you before I have done that it is a subject of very great importance, and that it is well worth while to consider what its origins were, since it may lead us to finding out what its aims are, or should be; which in its turn may lead us to thinking of matters of the deepest importance.

First of all I must say that though the phrase is generally accepted it is not a good or descriptive one; for all art should be ornamental, and when it is not ornamental, and in the degree in which it is not, it fails of a part of its purpose: however, the phrase is used, and understood to mean a certain kind of art other than pictures or sculptures which tell a definite story and are meant to represent according to some standard or another certain facts of external nature.

What then is this body of art which is something different from what we nowadays call pictures and sculpture?

It is the art of the people: the art produced by the daily labor of all kinds of men for the daily use of all kinds of men: surely therefore we may at the outset suppose that it is of importance to the race of man, since on all sides it surrounds our life and our work.

What is the end and aim of human labor? Is it not first the continuance, and next the elevation of the human race? If therefore it has gone astray at any time from its due aim, and no one surely will be so rash as to say that it never has, it has erred in turning its force to the production of things which are not useful either for the continuance or the elevation of the race of man.

Let us consider then what things human labor produces for the service of the world. Broadly speaking they may be divided into two kinds first those which serve the needs of the body, and second those which serve the needs of the mind: such things as food, raiment, and shelter, and the tools for obtaining these on the one hand, and on the other, poetry, music, the stored-up knowledge of the fashion of the universe which we call science, and of the deeds of men on the earth which we call history, and also the pictured representations of that history however wrought.

These two kinds of productions, between them make up the wealth of the world; the things that are made to satisfy the necessities of a healthy body and a healthy mind.

But furthermore the wealth made for the service of the body can again definitely be divided into those things which perish at once in the using, as food and fuel and the like, and those which are made to last some time and serve our needs day after day or year after year, as raiment and houses and so forth.

Here then you see between the rude arts, whose end is the production of mere food and raw material, and the exalted arts, which should satisfy the cravings of our minds, lies a mass of wealth-producing labor of a special character, which is that side of human labor to which I wish specially to draw you attention tonight; this labor is called in what I should almost venture to name our modern jargon the Industrial Arts.

Now all the things produced by these arts or crafts might be made without any reference to anything but their first obvious use: the house might have been just so many walls and so much roof: so much stone and timber, uncarved, unmoulded, unpainted (except for weather-defense); the cup might have taken the first convenient form it would from the potter's hand; the cloth might have remained undyed, unfigured, and in all this man's bodies would have felt no lack; while their minds would have been free to exercise themselves with music and poetry and pictured images of the past, or with the gathering of the knowledge of what is and what has been.

But men would not have it so; from the very first they have striven to make their household and personal goods beautiful as well as useful; the rudest savage no sooner learns how to make anything than he learns also how to ornament it: before the earliest dawn of history this instinct for ornament existed as clearly as it did in the palmy days of Italian art: as you know implements exist of men who dwelt in Europe ages before any of the races we name now, on which were carved, with no little skill, the forms of the beasts of the forests they wandered in, and in which life must have been so hard and beset with so many dangers that we may well wonder that they had time or courage to think about age: so divine a thing is the spark of human intelligence.

What does all this mean? why did they do it and take all this trouble? Who taught them?

Indeed their teacher is not far to seek: whatever lived or grew about them: nay the mountains, the rocks themselves, the `bones of the earth' as the Northmen called them, had something about them which they must have dimly known for beauty; the things which were useful to them for food and fuel and clothes were ornamented: the day and the night, sunrise and sunset which showed to their dim minds as beings of passions like themselves; the serpent whose lurking malice and swift wrath they feared, and whom they worshiped lest he should slay them: all these had been fashioned fair and lovely by forces of which they knew nothing: and they, the latest-born and maybe the most terrible force of nature, how could they choose but take up the links of the chain and work as nature worked about them: many things she compelled them to, and this also.

This then was the birth of popular or ornamental art, the birth of man's intelligence.

Now the works of art I have just been alluding to belong to times of whose history they alone give us any glimpse, and we can have but a faint idea of anything that might have gone on between those days and the dawn of history, the dawn of civilization: of that dawn itself we know but little indeed, yet are to a certain extent helped out by the consideration of the various backward peoples of our time, some of whom at least one cannot help thinking might have had a chance of developing gradually into a condition somewhat like our past civilization if it had [not] been their doom to be born into the world at a time when civilization has taken the form which is has now; the commercial form, under which all Society rests on a gigantic system of usury, pitiless and implacable, which is prepared to crush out of existence all peoples and communities that cannot speedily adapt themselves to its laws.

However that may be we can learn something from these survivals, if so they be, from the earlier conditions of the world joined to the few historical hints we have left of that earlier condition, of the dawn of history: the lesson they teach us as to the growth of popular art seems to me to be something like this: the period is that of a state of things when Society has begun, when every man has had to give up some of his individuality for the sake of the advancement of the whole community: in that community division of labor has begun, though there is none of it - or scarcely any - in each occupation: a man has no longer to be his own provider in everything; the strong and young fare afield to hunt or fish, or herd the beasts of the community, or dig and sow and harvest in the strip of communal tillage, while the weak, the women, and the cripples stay at home to labor at the loom or the wheel, or the stithy. So far at least has the division of labor gone. Now, rough as the hunter's life may be, he will have his joys however fierce and rude in his contention with wind and weather, his stealthy watching and final victory over the quarry: and the herdsman and tiller, although he has to take his share of rough torment from storm and frost and sun, yet has his eyes on beautiful things forever, and his ears often delighted by the multitudinous voice of nature as he goes to and fro through the changes of the year, nursing his hope of the harvest which is to be. With all such men, hunters, fishers, herdsmen, and husbandmen, it was well, and still may be, if they are not oppressed, but are allowed to have their due share of the goods which they have toiled to produce.

But how did it fare with their brethren, who sat within doors, paled by the lack of sun, down-hearted from want of air, with no excitement or promise of victory to stir their blood; surrounded by the blunders, the clumsiness, and the squalor of man instead of the order, deftness, and beauty of nature: hard indeed it seems it must be for them to forego all the brisk life and stir while they sit bowed over the loom and every minute's work is like that of every other minute, no change or hope but in finishing the web that they may begin another; or to keep for ever molding the pot of ugly gray or brown clay, no one of which is better or worse than another (unless it be quite spoiled): or to have no aim before them as they begrime themselves in the stithy but to make a knife that will cut like everybody else's knife: it is hard that they should be unwilling martyrs to the comfort of the commonwealth while others were leading a merry life, that they alone should miss the glory of the tales of perils and daring by flood and field, or the shouts [of] laughter that welcome the happy end of the vintage or the harvest. Their case surely must be that they are the slaves of slaves and as they sit at their dull tasks what can they hope for save the night and sleep in which to dream that they have grown strong and warlike, and the masters of such as they are in their waking hours?

Nay it was not so bad as that: whatever burdens folly and tyranny laid upon mankind in those rough times, this burden of dull and wasteful labor, unrelieved by any thought of what might be good in the work itself; unrelieved by any hope of praise for the special excellence of the work, was not laid on the craftsman for many ages, except in the quasi-penal labor which was laid on hostile conquered tribes under the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia; for the most part very different was the tale from the full one I have been telling of: labor found out a solace and a glory for the handicraftsman from the earliest times.

For note, that the goods which the hunter and the husbandman conquered from nature mostly perished in the using, unless they were of the kind that demanded more labor on them to make them useful to man: the hunter despoiled nature of the goods she had already produced; the husbandman helped her or compelled her to yield more than she was willing to yield unhelped or uncompelled; but neither of them created anything and their gettings were consumed in the using, and the fame of them and joy in them died with them: but the craftsman by his labor fashioned something which without him would not have existed at all, and which was destined to last many years, nay for generations even: so that there needed to be no haste nor hurry in his work; he had time to think as he wrought at it, and to what should he entrust his thought for keeping and for communicating to other men rather than to the work which was growing beneath his hands, the thing he was making of whose life he was absolute master: where then was the dullness now? The flowers of the forest might glow in his web and its beast move over it: his imaginings of the tales of the priests and poets might be pictured on the dish or the pot he was fashioning; the sword hilt, the roof beam were no longer dead bronze and wood, but part of his soul made alive forever: and now no day was like another to him: hope was with him when he left his work in the evening that he might mend the day's failure or carry on its success the next day: hope wooed him to his work in the morning and helped him through the day's weariness.

And with all this he was grown to be no longer a slave of slaves, but a master; a man looked upon as better and more useful than the hunter or the tiller of the soil, deserving of plentiful thanks from the community.

And these thanks, the glory for his creations were indeed often his on strange terms, for the type of craftsman was sometimes exalted to the rank of a god swaying the terrible forces of nature; forging the bolts of the world ruler, fashioning the furniture of the house of heaven; building the rampart which was to guard for ages the holy city of the younger Gods against the frost and fire giants of the North: but again and not without some countenance even from these older myths (note the lame and crafty Hephaestus) the type falls to the half-malignant and altogether guileful mountain spirit, conquering rather by cunning than force the huge giant and mighty warrior and still fully possessing the gift of miraculous power and creation.

Of course I do not mean to say that the primary intention was to make these craftsman-gods types of labor; Hephaestus, Thor, and Weland had no doubt a wider and simpler origin than that; but they received the special characteristics of the literary myths from ideas of handicraft and craftsmen that had been long in men's minds.

Such then it seems to me was the first origin of ornament on wares: not merely an attempt to escape from the wearisomeness of labor, but rather an expression of pleasure in the hope and sense of power and usefulness which men felt in the making of things in the childhood of the world.

Now it has been said, and surely with truth, that those men are the best and usefullest who never altogether throw off their childlike qualities even when they are grown old: and that same maxim I would apply to the race of man as well as to the individuals composing it; and if it were good that it should be so in other matters, and that the mirth and simplicity of earlier ages of the world should yet leave some reflection on our leisure, still more I think it is important that it should be preserved in our working time.

Nor indeed did that pleasure of labor fail man for many ages: I admit indeed that for a long time in the ancient world it was limited and indeed oppressed by the sternness of hieratic art; as notably for many centuries in Egypt, where the marvelous naturalism of its earlier days, in some branches at least, fell under the yoke of a stiff though far from ignoble conventionalism: but even in that period we have enough left us outside the more pompous ornamentation of temples and tombs to show that on many sides art was still free, and labor abundantly illuminated by fancy and invention: much the same may be said of that art which was passed on through the whole of the valleys of Tigris and Euphrates and even extended to Cyprus and other of the islands by the people or peoples of Babylonia, and of which happy accident has preserved so many specimens in ruin mounds of Assyria: the pleasure of the artists who wrought the bas-reliefs for Assurbani-pal at Koycinjik is too obvious [in] the shapes of animals at least [for] it to need many words from me here.

The freer peoples who formed what was then the northern and western hem of civilization were as a matter of course less oppressed in their art by hieratic conventionalism, though they were not, nor indeed needed to be, wholly free from it: under the classical peoples of antiquity popular art had to run another danger of slavery, which in truth it did not wholly escape.

In popular art the expression of man's thoughts by his hand does for the most part fall far short of thoughts themselves; and this always the more as the race is nobler and the thought more exalted; in short all the more as the art, as popular art, is more worth having, as there is more hope of continued life and progress in it: I mean that between the rough, speedily-penciled work on a piece of archaic Greek pottery, or the shorthand for a field of flowers of the Persian weaver, or the rough stone-cutting, half-pathetic, half-humorous, of the medieval mason, between these things and the highly finished and, in its way, perfect ingenuity of a piece of Japanese drawing or lacquer, there is a whole world of difference, the real worth being on the side of the clumsier expression of the historic workman.

Now for a long while among the Greek and kindred peoples, art was wholly in the condition of its thought being far greater than its expression, deft and graceful (as among early art) that expression was: then came a period when the technical excellence (of the truest kind) advanced with wonderful speed; the standard of excellence in expression grew very high, and the feeling of a people cultivated very highly within narrow limits began to forbid any attempt at expression of thought which did not approach within the limits prescribed something like perfection: no man must attempt to do anything which he cannot do in such a way that it is almost impossible to pick a hole in its technical qualities: thus art was in the palmy days of the classic times divided strictly into a great expressive art practiced only by those who had mastered the means of expression, and a very limited ornamental art which was but an adjunct to the higher kind and in which there was nothing to express but complete submission to certain limited and well-know rules of proportion: such a state of things among a less gifted people would have gone far towards destroying art altogether; but among the Greeks this aristocracy of art was so numerous as to give us an impression at this distance of time of a great popular art existing among them; and doubtless the rules of art must have been unconsciously so well understood among the population, that what is called now-a-days bad taste did not exist among them at all; a condition of art the easier to be brought about because of the great simplicity of the life they led in which what we now call luxury made no part.

Nevertheless you must understand that perfect as their art was it was barbarously and oppressively limited in scope, going step by step indeed with their social conditions the foundation of which was mere chattel slavery: when all is said what a mass of expression of human thought, what a world of beauty that exclusiveness shut out from the light of day. Absolute perfection in art is a vain hope; the day will never come when the hand of man can thoroughly express the best of the thoughts of man. Why then should we deprive ourselves therefore of all the fancy and imagination that lies in the aim of so many men of lesser capacity than that of great masters? Is it not better to say to all who have any genuine gifts however small, `courage! it is enough for a work of art if it show real skill of hand, genuine instinct for beauty, and some touch of originality; cooperation will show you how your smaller gifts may be used along with the greater ones.'

Well the aristocratic exclusiveness of Greek art drew on it a heavy revenge enough: I have spoken of its first period during which the worth of its thought outwent its power of expression, and of its second, when the expression having reached a point approaching perfection, the exuberance of thought in it had to be repressed to satisfy the exclusive fastidiousness of the Greek mind: there remains yet a third period during which capacity of expression having reached its highest point could go no further, and when there was comparatively little to express by this perfected means, and the classical art was become academical and in fact all but dead.

By this time all domination had long passed away from the Greek name, and the Roman tax gatherer ruled the world of civilization; after a while more by the terror of the name of Rome than by any real power in the state: lower and lower fell the art which the Romans adopted from the Greeks, till at last it was redeemed from contempt only by the splendor, massiveness, and honest building of its great architectural and engineering works. In the meanwhile the great change drew near: the Roman landlords had turned all the people of civilization into their agricultural slaves, their hired servants and parasites, and the proletariat of the great cities were fed on their bounty: before the operation was quite complete the state of things so brought about seemed likely to last for ever: for where was the foe to overturn it? But by the time it was complete the foe was at hand ready for its destruction: for the Roman had reckoned without his host: he had subdued all civilization and made it his private slave; and now he found that whatever was respectable and desired the preservation of society would not fight; whereas whatever was against him and the stability of society, the starving slaves, the Christians, the barbarians of the East and the North were valiant and aggressive and were ready at every point to push forward what he considered anarchy and the disruption of the world, but which was at the worst the Medea's cauldron from which a new and vigorous Europe was to be born again: with that new birth of society, and faithfully following every stage of its fruitful death and change, a new art also was born: this art was at first clad in the body of the effete art which it took the place of; but yet was from the first startlingly different from it in soul and intention: as time went on it borrowed elements from the East and the North, and drew them together and molded them into the Greco-Roman mass which was already revivified, and little by little the classical wrappings fell off it, and left clear the strange and beautiful body of Byzantine art, the art of early Europe - of the time when feudality was shaping itself from the chaos of the ruins of old Rome.

From that city of New Rome it spread far and wide varying at first but little except as the materials in which it was wrought influenced it by their fineness or rudeness: in Sicily, Egypt, Spain, Persia it was modified by distinct eastern elements, all of them it seems referable to that art of the East which was carried wide about by the Arabs but was by no means Arab in origin but Persian rather: this influence abode with it and afterwards reacted strongly on the art of central and northern Europe which was born more directly of old or New Rome.

In the extreme North and Northwest of Europe it met with another modifying element in the shape of the Celtic or more probably pre-Celtic art, which existed pure in Ireland, somewhat changed in England and Scandinavia by Teutonic translation: between this art, the representative of primitive ornamentation, and the elaborate fretwork of Eastern art there is a certain sort of relationship; so that it might be doubted whether the complete ornament of the Middle-Ages does not owe some of its forms to this probably pre-Aryan art of Europe: but I think in fact that except in Scandinavia in the modified form above-mentioned its influence on Medieval art was not abiding, the equally elaborate but more logical and measured forms of the East taking its place.

However this may be it is certain that the great and in the main homogeneous art of the Middle Ages was both in form and in spirit a simple and direct development of the new-born art which sprang from the corrupt though still beautiful remains of Greco-Roman art; and it is to my mind certain also that it owed the form of that new birth to the incoming of Eastern or Persian ideas and handiwork which acted on it in a way not easy to trace I admit: that mingled art as I have said was still more permeated in some parts by the Eastern element, and in that condition in the 12th century especially was very powerful in fashioning Medieval art into what it presently became: nevertheless I cannot help recognizing a certain fitness about the name Gothic for indicating the work of the Middle Ages, though at first it may seem an absurd misnomer born of the hasty glance the antiquaries of our grandfathers' time took of an art which they despised and were ignorant of. For besides that the Goths were as it were the iron of the spear that slew the Roman Empire, and from the most righteous slaying sprang Gothic Art; there is obvious in it, nay the very soul of it is that spirit of the North which makes us what we are at the best: the wild imagination, the love of nature, the scorn of pedantry, and stilted pompousness; the genuine, unashamed sentiment, and all this tempted by plenteous good humor and a love of homely and familiar things; a courage in short which is not anxious to thrust anything which is human out of sight even in the most solemn times and places: these are the characteristics of Gothic art which pierce to the very heart of all those who are capable of feeling that manly love of man and his fair earthly home which is of all things that which most makes life worth living.

And now understand that that which makes Gothic art all this is its freedom: it was above all things the art of the people; the art of cooperation: no craftsman, who is a real one, is despised in it; there is room for every mind and every hand that belongs to a real man: something to express and some means of expressing it are all that is asked for: all the time this art lasts no handicraft lacks beauty for a moment, nor is anyone set to dull and slavish toil: things grow beautiful under the workman's hands without effort it would seem, and men do not know how to make an ugly thing: nowadays when we light on a piece of the household goods of this period we pay vast sums of money for it and treasure it up in a museum; for it teaches us - us who know everything else, this rough piece of handiwork done by an artisan who thought that the world was like a flat dish and that the sun went round the rim of it.

If this seems strange to you, let me remind you of one kind of work wrought by these craftsmen, which is both more accessible and more impressive than their movable households goods: I mean the buildings which are [our] forefathers' and among some of which it is your rare good fortune to live: a good fortune which I hope will leave its impress in many an hour of sweet, indestructible pleasure on the future lives of every one of you.

Indeed they have had a hard time of it those ancient buildings of England raised once in such hope by the `Famous men and the fathers that begat us': pious and religious people battered and half destroyed them; not understanding that the spirit which raised them was the essence of all religions: those who fought for our liberties blindly looked upon them as the strongholds of slavery and gave over their precious stones, the work of valiant souls and free hands, to the titled thieves who stole the public lands of England: The pedant of the 18th century, anti-poetical, ignorant of history, supposing that no art could exist outside the middle of the classical period, despised them, botched them, degraded them: the pedant of today, self-sufficient, the slave of money, ignorant he also of that real history which is no dead thing, but the living bond of the hopes of the past, the present, and the future, believes that from his study or his office he can re-create past times, and without a word of sympathy or a day of education can get from the machine-driven workman of today work like that of the free craftsmaster of the Middle Ages: he while I speak is still busy in destroying the last remnants of our fathers' handicraft, and maybe he is the last as he is certainly the worst enemy they have had.

Yet even such a storm of folly and greed has swept continually over these glorious works into which was once builded the very soul of England: yet in spite of it all there they stand yet a token of the hope that was, and yet shall be of the freedom and honor of labor. Baer as they have been stripped, wounded and patched up as they have been can we even think of them without being moved at the energy of cooperative art which reared them in a rude age by the hands of a scanty population?

For I say that glorious as they are in themselves they do betoken something more glorious still: for remember they do but represent the kind of building which was used throughout the country: when your chapel rose in its splendor there was not a cottage or a shed even on the way between Windsor and London which did not share in its beauty, humble as it might be. Now think what this means; we are so used to houses being generally ugly that it is difficult to imagine, every house for instance in London or the suburbs more or less beautiful; not a chandler's shop at Hammersmith or Brixton but what was a work of art: there would be education for you: education which no books could give; amusement and happiness, to the builders as well as to the occupiers of such houses that no accumulation of wealth can now give to any rich man among us.

And I must tell you that if we have not this it is because we do not desire it: when we do desire it, and are ready to sacrifice greed and injustice for it we shall have this also as well as justice and goodwill between man and man.

Meanwhile you see I have taken you a long way from that first dawn of popular art: centuries we cannot count lie between the day when the cave-abider scratched his drawing of a mammoth on a mammoth's bone, and the day when the English masons and wood-carvers struck the last stroke before the Reformation at St. George's Chapel yonder. During all those ages whenever we catch a glimpse of the life of the people we find the popular arts progressive on the whole, and seldom failing in their first aim of lightening the toil of man by giving him pleasure in his daily work.

A long lapse of years indeed, while from the time when Sir Tho[ma]s More wrote his eloquent attack on commercialism and land-grabbing till now, the days are few, the time short: but what has happened to popular art in that short while? What has happened to the popular arts I say in those three hundred years of struggle, mostly successful, for religious and political liberty; in those centuries of miraculous progress, during which England has grown from a semi-barbarous island kingdom into a mighty empire, the master of the minds of men as well as of their bodies?

I can tell you in three words what has happened to those arts: they have disappeared.

That is a strange story indeed and you may well doubt its truth, the change is so tremendous: but my whole opinion is this; to have popular art, or the art of the people, it must be made by and for the people, which means as I have said that man's handiwork is universally beautiful to the eye and elevating to the mind. But such art as pretends to be popular nowadays, do the hands and minds of the people fashion it? Do the people use it? Is the people rejoiced with the making and using of it?

So far is this from being the case, that the people does not even know that such art exists or ever has existed; what pretense there is of Decorative Art is little touched by the people's hands, and not at all by their minds: they work at it not knowing what they do; like all other toilers nowadays their work is a grievous burden to them which they would cast off if they could. We cannot help knowing that not another hour's work would be done on the Decorative Arts today if it were not that the workers feared death by starvation if they left their work.

I hope you do not suppose that on these terms of labor you can have an art which has any life in it: if you do you are dreaming and will have [a] rude awakening some day: meantime you well know what vast sums of money rich people will spend to isolate themselves from the tokens of increasing population, from the hovels in short which are being raised with such frightful speed all over civilized countries; and I do not wonder; if I were rich I should do the same myself; I should try to escape from the consequences of the system which had made me rich.

For when it comes to explaining why the labor on which depends the well-being of the arts or in other words the pleasure of life is in its present condition of slavishness I must tell you that since the 15th century a great change has taken place in the social condition of the people at large, which some people ignore, and which more still are contented with as a positive gain, and which they believe has brought the world of civilization into a social state which will endure as long as the world itself.

It would be impossible within the limits of such a lecture as this to show by what gradual means this change took place; to show how the chattel slavery of the classical times melted into the serfdom of the early Feudal period; how from those serfs were gradually developed the burgesses or corporations of the medieval towns, the yeomen and laborers of the fields, and the craftsmen of the guilds, which classes together with the feudal lords formed the society of the later Middle Ages: it will be enough for our present purpose to state that throughout the middle ages although there was a sharp distinction between the feudal lord and his inferior that distinction was rather arbitrary than real; that difficult, and except by means of ecclesiastical preferment almost impossible as it was to pass from one grade of society to another, there was no class which was by virtue of its position refined, and none which was mentally degraded by the same virtue: at the same time although in the later middle ages this hierarchical system had reached the inside of the craft-guilds, and the craftsmen were divided into the privileged masters, with their privileged apprentices, and the journeymen who were unprivileged, there was no division of labor inside the guilds save that which arose from the learning of the craft: every full-instructed workman was master of his whole craft.

Neither outside the guilds was there any violent competition in buying and selling: the greater part of the goods made by the craftsmen were made for home consumption, and only the over-plus of this came into the market: it was necessary therefore for the very existence of the craftsman that he should be skillful, intelligent, and thoughtful; nor was he driven by the exigencies of the competitive market which might demand cheapness from him at the cost of other qualities to forego the leisurely way of working which alone can produce a work of art: the universal spread of art made people good judges of wares and keen marketers moreover and cheap and nasty was in no demand.

Such I say was the condition of the artisan in the middle ages; it may be allowed that he was politically oppressed, superstitious, and ignorant - but he was an artist or free workman, using his brains for the pleasure and the solace of his working hours.

Passing over the gradual process which has changed him from what he was in the 15th century to what he is today let us look at the contrast of his position then and now, and glance at the state of Society which has produced it.

For in these days the system of hierarchical society has given place to a Society founded on what is called (miscalled I think) the system of free contract. License of competition almost complete has taken the place of the attempts to regulate life in accordance with a priori ideas of the duties men owe to one another. The distinctions between the classes [are] merged now into one distinction, that between rich and poor, or gentleman and non-gentleman: there is no insuperable bar to prevent a member of the poor or non-gentleman class rising into the rich or gentleman class: nay the thing is done every day, and in two generations the offspring of the person who has climbed up that ladder between rich and poor may become the equal of the greatest families of the Feudal aristocracy, most of whom, to say the truth have very slender pretentions to representing the families whose titles they bear: moreover there is felt to be no difference in cultivation and refinement between the titled gentry and the rich capitalists or their hangers-on of the professional classes: they are all gentlemen together, even when the latter are scarcely as well-to-do as some of the best-off of the lower classes.

On the other hand there is the great class of working men, among whom there is certainly great diversity as regards their wages, some of them as aforesaid earning as much as or more than when they are at work the poorer gentlemen; but whatever their grades may be as regards their money fortune they are all non-gentlemen, and do differ really and not conventionally from the class of gentlemen: their education, their leisure, their refinement, their religion is weighed in a different balance from [that] of the gentleman, nay they do not even speak the same dialect of the mother-tongue as he does: they are in all respects the lower classes, really and not conventionally I say, so that a working man is not fit company for a gentleman, or a gentleman for a working man.

Now this class division of the 19th century as opposed to that of the 14th was brought about by the gradual development of the system of commerce which is now complete or nearly so; the system as I said of unlimited license of competition which supplanted the medieval system under which life was regulated by a conception of the duties men owed to each other and to the unseen powers.

I will not tonight give you any direct opinion as to the operation on other sides of life of these two systems, but I am compelled by my subject to state to you that the effect of this change on popular or decorative art has been to destroy it.

This gulf between the rich and poor which is in fact a gulf between civilized and uncivilized people living in the same state and under laws nominally the same, this is the gulf which has swallowed up the popular arts; the art which raised our ancient buildings here and elsewhere, and under which every man's intelligence, were it great or small, was used and subordinated at once for the creation of a great work of art: whereas now it is accepted as a fact that whatever intelligence one of the non-gentleman class may possess is not and cannot be exercised during his working hours: in order to win that privilege he must raise himself out of his own class and become a gentleman.

Now the essence or soul of popular art is the due and worthy delight of each worker in his own handiwork, a delight which he feels he can communicate to other people, as it has been communicated to him by the thoughts of many generations of men under the name of Tradition.

If any of you care about art in any form I am sure you will allow that this reciprocal pleasure of communication is always present at the birth of a work of art: when you have been listening for instance to a beautiful piece of music could you possibly suppose that it was an irksome task to invent the sounds which were filling your whole soul with satisfaction or when you have been reading some beautiful passage of poetry, could you suppose that the strong and melodious words which were elevating your souls and opening new worlds to you, had been given forth from the writer's brain in a dull and pleasureless mood? Surely it is impossible that it should be so.

Yet remember, the artist's, the musician's, the poet's work is not easy, it is real labor enough unless he is a pretender: there are traps and pitfalls on the right hand and on the left into which his hope of creating a work of art may fall, and against which even the best man has to be laboriously on his guard: I say he is a workman or no artist: and on those grounds I claim some share of the divine pleasure of creation which accompanies it for all handicraftsmen, believing firmly that the making-good of this claim is a necessity for the world, if civilization is to be anything else than a name. For first, unless this claim is allowed and acted on, unless it is insisted upon as a necessary part of the organization of Society, it must be the rule that all things made by man for the use of his daily life will be ugly and base, will show wherever they are placed as mere blots on the beautiful face of the world.

And 2nd it will surely be but right and just that they should be ugly and base, for so done they will be but tokens of the enduring sorrow and slavery of the great mass of mankind: for all people not dishonest must work, and in one way or other their working hours must be the most important part of their loves: if therefore they have due hope, pleasure, and honor in their daily work their lives will on the whole be happy, if they lack that hope pleasure and honor their lives will be unhappy. It would therefore be unjust that art should come from the unhappy lives of the most of men: or in other words that the great mass of people should toil miserably for the pleasure of a few dishonest people.

Fortunately, you see, as far as the arts go that cannot be; it is a question of art and the happiness of the worker, or lack of art and his unhappiness.

In these days, then, in which man has obtained so much domination over the forces of nature, in which so much of what passes for wealth produced, in which Society taken as a whole either is or could be so rich: in these days what are the conditions of life for the working classes, that is to say for most men which would produce beauty and happiness for the world?

1st no honest or industrious man must be under fear of poverty: the sordid troubles which this fear produces destroy imagination and intelligence, or turn them into other channels than the hope of giving pleasure to the world: every man therefore must be certain of earning a due livelihood, by which word I understand all things necessary for his mind as well as his body.

2nd all men must have due leisure: rest for body and mind; time for following according to their bent other occupations than the mere bread-winning one even if it be pleasant: and if their bread-winning work is of such a rough nature as of necessity to lack art or expression of pleasure in it, the daily hours of such labor must be very short.

3rd it follows from this last remark that all work in which art, or pleasure, is impossible should be done without as far as may be, that it should be looked on as a nuisance to be abated, a sickness of Society; as far as possible it should be done by machines: and machines should never be used for doing work in which men can take pleasure: whereas at present, as we all know too well, men do the work of machines, and machines of men - both disastrously.

4th those who are to produce beauty must live amid beauty: their homes and surroundings must be clean, orderly, and in a word beautiful: this should be no hard matter to accomplish since the whole world is beautiful save where man has made it ugly.

5th all men should be educated, and have their due share in the stored-up knowledge of the world, so vastly greater now than in the days of art, but so much more unequally shared. All men I say should be educated not down to their `station in life' as people call it, that is according to the amount of money their parents may have, but according to their capacity.

6th when all these claims are allowed and acted on the last claim I make for labor will come of itself: that is, that there should be an end of class distinctions: that is to say that all crafts should be honorable and honored, and that every man should be able to rise to eminence and fame by the exercise of his own craft, the work he understands best; whereas at present he can only rise to eminence by deserting his craft, by taking an undue share of the wealth of the world as wages for doing lighter work than his fellows; by becoming a capitalist as the phrase goes.

I will now sum up these conditions briefly: 1st extinction of poverty; 2nd leisure; 3rd avoidance of wasteful work; 4th care of the beauty of the earth; 5th education according to capacity, and 6th abolition of class distinctions, real, mind you, not formal.

To my mind these are the conditions of life for working men, or really for all men, under which we can have in these days once more popular art, or a happy life for most men. Is it worth while to strive to bring about this happy life? If it be, can we say that the price to be paid for it can be too high, whatever it may be?

You will have understood if you have followed my statement of the due conditions of labor than in my belief that price is the reconstruction of Society; for no mere palliatives of the evils of the present system will bring about those conditions. Furthermore I admit that such a great change would involve the sacrifice from many of us of things now much cherished: yet as I believe that those who uphold the present conditions of labor on the grounds of self-interest do so rather from stupidity than malice, so I think that their loss, or punishment, if you will, will be rather imaginary [than] real when the change comes: I think what we shall chiefly have to sacrifice will be the encumbrances, the troubles, the sorrows even which we now cherish as part of our wealth.

As to the means by which the Reconstruction is to be brought about, I must for more than one reason say nothing of them tonight; save this: that you yourselves in one way or other will as time goes on have offered to you opportunities of helping forward or of hindering that reconstruction; times when you will have to choose between the right hand and the left, and to range yourselves for or against the progress of the race of man: such chances are solemn times in the history of every man and it behooves us when we meet them to choose not influenced by our apparent self-interest but by our real sense of right and wrong: you may think that but a truism; yet I must tell you that in such matters it is the commonest thing to be said to anyone who thinks he ought to join some movement for the bettering of his fellows, `what will you do if this change happens': to my mind it is manhood and not rashness to answer such an objection by saying, what shall I do? Why have my fair share like my fellows.

I believe the time is at hand when each one of us of the well-to-do and rich classes will have to choose whether he will strive to have the great mass of men his equals and friends, or to keep them down as his slaves: when that time comes may we all remember this, that wretched and shameful as is the condition of a slave, there is one condition more wretched and shameful still - that of [a] slave-holder.

Bibliographical Note


Of the Origins of Ornamental Art


1. 21 December 1884 read out by an unnamed speaker at a meeting sponsored by the Hammersmith Branch of the SDF at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith

2. 27 September 1886 before the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League at Kelmscott House

3. 1st January 1887 at a meeting sponsored by the Hammersmith Branch of the SL at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith

4. 30th October 1887 at a meeting sponsored by the Nottingham Socialist Club at the Secular Hall, Nottingham

5. 1st January 1888 at a meeting sponsored by The Hammersmith Branch of the SL at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith

6. 2nd November 1889 at a meeting sponsored by the Glasgow Branch of the SL and the Edinburgh Branch of the SLLL at the Albert Hall, Edinburgh

7. 20th October 1890 at a meeting sponsored by the `Commonweal' Branch of the SL at the Atheneum Hall, Tottenham Court Road, London under the title of Art for the People


27 September 1886 portions published by The Manchester Guardian (p. 6)

From : Marxists.org


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