The Lesser Arts of Life
(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.)
The Lesser Arts of Life
The Lesser Arts of Life may not seem to some of you worth considering, even for an hour. In these brisk days of the world, amid this high civilization of ours, we are too eager and busy, it may be said, to take note of any form of art that does not either stir our emotions deeply, or strain the attention of the most intellectual part of our minds. Now for this rejection of the lesser arts there may be something to be said, supposing it be done in a certain way and with certain ends in view; nevertheless it seems to me that the lesser arts, when they are rejected, are so treated for no sufficient reason, and to the injury of the community; therefore I feel no shame in standing before you as a professed pleader and advocate for them, as indeed I well may, since it is through them that I am the servant of the public, and earn my living with abundant pleasure.
Then comes the question, What are to be considered the Lesser Arts of Life? I suppose there might be pros and cons argued on that question, but I doubt if the argument would be worth the time and trouble it would cost; nevertheless I want you to agree with me in thinking that these lesser arts are really a part of the greater ones which only a man or two here and there (among cultivated people) will venture to acknowledge that he contemns, whatever the real state of the case may be on that matter. The Greater Arts of Life, what are they? Since people may use the word in very different senses, I will say, without pretending to give a definition, that what I mean by an art is some creation of man which appeals to his emotions and his intellect by means of his senses. All the greater arts appeal directly to that intricate combination of intuitive perceptions, feelings, experience, and memory which is called imagination. All artists, who deal with those arts, have these qualities superabundantly, and have them balanced in such exquisite order that they can use them for purposes of creation. But we must never forget that all men who are not naturally deficient, or who have not been spoiled by defective or perverse education, have imagination in some measure, and also have some of the order which guides it; so that they also are partakers of the greater arts, and the masters of them have not to speak under their breath to half-a-dozen chosen men, but rather their due audience is the whole race of man properly and healthily developed. But as you know, the race of man, even when very moderately civilized, has a great number of wants which have to be satisfied by the organized labor of the community. From father to son, from generation to generation, there has grown up a body of almost mysterious skill, which has exercised itself in making the tools for carrying on the occupation of living; so that a very large part of the audience of the masters of the greater arts have been engaged like them in making things; only the higher men were making things wholly to satisfy men's spiritual wants; the lower, things whose first intention was to satisfy their bodily wants. But though, in theory, all these could be satisfied without any expression of the imagination, any practice of art, yet history tells us what we might well have guessed would be the case, that the thing could not stop there. Men whose hands were skilled in fashioning things could not help thinking the while, and soon found out that their deft fingers could express some part of the tangle of their thoughts, and that this new pleasure hindered not their daily work, for in the very labor that they lived by lay the material in which their thought could be embodied; and thus, though they labored, they labored somewhat for their pleasure and uncompelled, and had conquered the curse of toil, and were men.
Here, then, we have two kinds of art: one of them would exist even if men had no needs but such as are essentially spiritual, and only accidentally material or bodily. The other kind, called into existence by material needs, is bound no less to recognize the aspirations of the soul and receives the impress of its striving towards perfection. If the case be as I have represented it, even the lesser arts are well worthy the attention of reasonable men, and those who despise them must do so either out of ignorance as to what they really are, or because they themselves are in some way or other enemies of civilization, either outlaws from it or corrupters of it.
As to the outlaws from civilization, they are those of whom I began by saying that there are or were people who rejected the arts of life on grounds that we could at least understand, if we could not sympathize with the rejecters. There have been in all ages of civilization men who have acted, or had a tendency to act, on some such principle as the following words represent: The world is full of grievous labor, the poor toiling for the rich, and ever remaining poor; with this we, at least, will have naught to do; we cannot amend it, but we will not be enriched by it, nor be any better than the worst of our fellows. Well, this is what may be called the monk's way of rejecting the arts, whether he be Christian monk, or Buddhist ascetic, or ancient philosopher. I believe he is wrong, but I cannot call him enemy. Sometimes I can't help thinking, Who knows but what the whole world may come to that for a little? the field of art may have to lie fallow a while that the weeds may be known for what they are, and be burnt in the end. I say that I have at least respect for the dwellers in the tub of Diogenes; indeed I don't look upon it as so bad a house after all. With a plane-tree and a clear brook near it, and some chance of daily bread and onions, it will do well enough. I have seen worse houses to let for seven hundred pounds a year. But, mind you, it must be the real thing. The tub of Diogenes lined with padded drab velvet, lighted by gas, polished and cleaned by vicarious labor, and expecting every morning due visits from the milkman, the baker, the butcher, and the fishmonger, that is a cynical dwelling which I cannot praise. If we are to be excused for rejecting the arts, it must be not because we are contented to be less than men, but because we long to be more than men.
For I have said that there are some rejecters of the arts who are corrupters of civilization. Indeed, they do not altogether reject them; they will eat them and drink them and wear them, and use them as lackeys to eke out their grandeur, and as nets to catch money with, but nothing will they learn or care about them. They will push them to the utmost as far as the satisfying of their material needs go, they will increase the labor infinitely that produces material comfort, but they will reach no helping hand to that which makes labor tolerable; and they themselves are but a part of the crowd that toils without an aim; for they themselves labor with tireless energy to multiply the race of man, and then make the multitude unhappy. Therefore let us pity them, that they have been born coarse, violent, unjust, inhuman; let us pity them, yet resist them. For these things they do unwitting indeed, but are none the less oppressors; oppressors of the arts, and therefore of the people, who have a right to the solace which the arts alone can give to the life of simple men. Well, these men are, singly or in combination, the rich and powerful of the world; they rule civilization at present, and if it were not through ignorance that they err, those who see the fault and lament it would indeed have no choice but to reject all civilization with the ascetic; but since they are led astray unwittingly, there is belike a better way to resist their oppression than by mere renunciation. I say that if there were no other way of resisting those oppressors of the people, whom we call in modern slang Philistines, save the monk's or ascetic's way, that is the way all honest men would have to take whose eyes were opened to the evil. But there is another way of resistance, which I shall ask your leave to call the citizen's way, who says: There is a vast deal of labor spent in supplying civilized man with things which he has come to consider needful, and which, as a rule, he will not do without. Much of that labor is grievous and oppressive; but since there is much more of grievous labor in the world than there used to be, it is clear that there is more than there need be, and more than there will be in time to come, if only men of goodwill look to it; what therefore can we do towards furthering that good time and reducing the amount of grievous labor: first, by abstaining from multiplying our material wants unnecessarily, and secondly, by doing our best to introduce the elements of hope and pleasure into all the labor with which we have anything to do?
These, I think, are the principles on which the citizen's resistance to Philistine oppression must be founded: to do with as few things as we can, and as far as we can to see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves; these two seem to me to be the main duties to be fulfilled by those who wish to live a life at once free and refined, serviceable to others, and pleasant to themselves. Now it is clear that if we are to fulfill these duties we must take active interest in the arts of life which supply men's material needs, and know something about them, so that we may be able to distinguish slaves' work from freemen's, and to decide what we may accept and what we must renounce of the wares that are offered to us as necessaries and comforts of life. It is to help you to a small fragment of this necessary knowledge that I am standing before you with this word in my mouth, the Lesser Arts of Life. Of course it is only on a few of these that I have anything to say to you, but of those that I shall speak I believe I know something, either at a workman or a very deeply interested onlooker; wherefore I shall ask your leave to speak quite plainly, and without fear or favor.
You understand that our ground is that not only is it possible to make the matters needful to our daily life works of art, but that there is something wrong in the civilization that does not do this: if our houses, our clothes, our household furniture and utensils are not works of art, they are either wretched makeshifts or, what is worse, degrading shams of better things. Furthermore, if any of these things make any claim to be considered works of art, they must show obvious traces of the hand of man guided directly by his brain, without more interposition of machines than is absolutely necessary to the nature of the work done. Again, whatsoever art there is in any of these articles of daily use must be evolved in a natural and unforced manner from the material that is dealt with: so that the result will be such as could not be got from any other material; if we break this law we shall make a triviality, a toy, not a work of art. Lastly, love of nature in all its forms must be the ruling spirit of such works of art as we are considering; the brain that guides the hand must be healthy and hopeful, must be keenly alive to the surroundings of our own days, and must be only so much affected by the art of past times as is natural for one who practices an art which is alive, growing, and looking toward the future.
Asking you to keep these principles in mind, I will now, with your leave, pass briefly over the Lesser Arts with which I myself am conversant. Yet, first, I must mention an art which, though it ministers to our material needs, and therefore, according to what I have said as to the division between purely spiritual and partly material arts, should be reckoned among the Lesser Arts, has, to judge by its etymology, not been so reckoned in times past, for it has been called Architecture; nevertheless it does practically come under the condemnation of those who despise the lesser or more material arts; so please allow me to reckon it among them. Now, speaking of the whole world and at all times, it would not be quite correct to say that the other arts could not exist without it; because there both have been and are large and important races of mankind who, properly speaking, have no architecture, who are not house-dwellers, but tent-dwellers, and who, nevertheless, are by no means barren of the arts. For all that it is true that these non-architectural races (let the Chinese stand as a type of them) have no general mastery over the arts, and seem to play with them rather than try to out their souls into them. Clumsy-handed as the European or Aryan workman is (of a goodp period, I mean) as compared with his Turanian fellow, there is a seriousness and meaning about his work that raises it as a piece of art far above the deftness of China and Japan; and it is this very seriousness and depth of feeling which, when brought to bear upon the matters of our daily life, is in fact the soul of architecture, whatever the body may be; so that I shall still say that among ourselves, the men of modern Europe, the existence of the other arts is bound up with that of Architecture. Please do not forget that, whatever else I may say to-day, you must suppose me to assume that we have noble buildings which we have to adorn with our lesser arts: for this art of building is the true democratic art, the child of the man-inhabited earth, the expression of the life of man thereon. I claim for our Society no less a position than this, that in calling on you to reverence the examples of noble building, and to understand and protect the continuity of its history, it is guarding the very springs of all art, of all cultivation.
Now I would not do this noble art such disrespect as to speak of it in detail as only a part of a subject. I would not treat it so even in its narrower sense as the art of building; its wider sense I consider to mean the art of creating a building with all the appliances fit for carrying on a dignified and happy life. The arts I have to speak of in more detail are a part, and comparatively a small part, of Architecture considered in that light; but there is so much to be said even about these, when we have once made up our mind that they are worth our attention at all, that you must understand that my talk to-night will simply be hints to draw your attention to the subjects in question.
I shall try, then, to give you some hints on these arts or crafts: pottery and glass-making; weaving, with its necessary servant dyeing; the craft of printing patterns on cloth and on paper; furniture; and also, with fear and trembling, I will say a word on the art of dress. Some of these are lesser arts with a vengeance; only you see I happen to know something about them practically, and so venture to speak of them.
So let us begin with pottery, the most ancient and universal, as it is perhaps (setting aside house-building) the most important of the lesser arts, and one, too, the consideration of which recommends itself to us from a more or less historical point of view, because, owing to the indestructibility of its surface, it is one of the few domestic arts of which any specimens are left to us of the ancient and classical times. Now all nations, however barbarous, have made pottery, sometimes of shapes obviously graceful, sometimes with a mingling of wild grotesquery amid gracefulness; but none have ever failed to make it on true principles, none have made shapes ugly or base till quite modern times. I should say that the making of ugly pottery was one of the most remarkable inventions of our civilization. All nations with any turn for art have speedily discovered what capabilities for producing beautiful form lie in the making of an earthen pot of the commonest kind, and what opportunities it offers for the reception of swift and unlaborious but rich ornament; and how nothing hinders that ornament from taking the form of representation of history and legend. In favor of this art the classical nations relaxed the artistic severity that insisted otherwhere on perfection of figure-drawing in architectural work; and we may partly guess what an astonishing number of capable and ready draftsmen there must have been in the good times of Greek art from the great mass of first-rate painting on pottery, garnered from the tombs mostly, and still preserved in our museums after all these centuries of violence and neglect.
Side by side with the scientific and accomplished work of the Greeks, and begun much earlier than the earliest of it, was being practiced another form of the art in Egypt and the Euphrates valley; it was less perfect in the highest qualities of design, but was more elaborate in technique, which elaboration no doubt was forced into existence by a craving for variety and depth of color and richness of decoration, which did not press heavily on the peoples of the classical civilization, who, masters of form as they were, troubled themselves but little about the refinements of color. This art has another interest for us in the fact that from it sprang all the great school of pottery which has flourished in the East, apart from the special and peculiar work of China. Though the fictile art of that country is a development of so much later date than what we have just been considering, let us make a note of it here as the third kind of potter's work, which no doubt had its origin in the exploitation of local material joined to the peculiar turn of the Chinese workmanship for finesse of manual skill and for boundless patience.
Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, including our own country, could no more do without a native art of pottery than any other simple peoples; but the work done by them being very rough, and serving for the commonest domestic purposes (always with the exception of certain tile-work), had not the chance of preservation which superstition gave to the Greek pottery, and very little of it is left; that little shows us that our Gothic forefathers shared the pleasure in the potter's wheel and the capabilities of clay for quaint and pleasant form and fanciful invention which has been common to most times and places, and this rough craft even lived on as a village art till almost the days of our grandfathers, turning out worthy work enough, done in a very unconscious and simple fashion on the old and true principles of art, side by side with the whims and inanities which mere fashion had imposed on so-called educated people.
Every one of these forms of art, with many another which I have no time to speak of, was good in itself; the general principles of them may be expressed somewhat as follows. First. Your vessel must be of a convenient shape for its purpose. Second. Its shape must show to the greatest advantage the plastic and easily-worked nature of clay; the lines of its contour must flow easily; but you must be on the look-out to check the weakness and languidness that comes from striving after over-elegance. Third. All the surface must show the hand of the potter, and not be finished with a baser tool. Fourth. Smoothness and high finish of surface, though a quality not to be despised, is to be sought after as a means for gaining some special elegance of ornament, and not as an end for its own sake. Fifth. The commoner the material the rougher the ornament, but by no means the scantier; on the contrary, a pot of fine materials may be more slightly ornamented, both because all the parts of the ornamentation will be minuter, and also because it will in general be considered more carefully. Sixth. As in the making of the pot, so in its surface ornament, the hand of the workman must be always visible in it; it must glorify the necessary tools and necessary pigment: swift and decided execution is necessary to it; whatever delicacy there may be in it must be won in the teeth of the difficulties that will result from this; and because of these difficulties the delicacy will be more exquisite and delightful than in easier arts where, so to say, the execution can wait for more laborious patience. These, I say, seem to me the principles that guided the potter's art in the days when it was progressive: it began to cease to be so in civilized countries somewhat late in that period of blight which was introduced by the so-called Renaissance. Excuse a word or two more of the well-known history in explanation. Our own pottery of Northern Europe, made doubtless without any reference to classical models, was very rude, as I have said; it was fashioned of natural clay, glazed when necessary transparently with salt or lead, and the ornament on it was done with another light-colored clay, sometimes colored further with metallic oxides under the glaze. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the more finished work, which had its origin, as before mentioned, in Egypt and the Euphrates valley, was introduced into Southern Europe through Moorish or rather Arab Spain, and other points of contact between Europe and the East. This ware, known now as Majolica, was of an earthen body covered with opaque white glaze, ornamented with colors formed of oxides, some of which were by a curious process reduced into a metallic state, giving thereby strange and beautiful lustrous colors. This art quickly spread through Italy, and for a short time was practiced there with very great success, but was not much taken up by the nations of Northern Europe, who for the most part went on making the old lead or salt glazed earthenware; the latter, known as Grès de Cologne, still exists as a rough manufacture in the border lands of France and Germany, though I should think it is not destined to live much longer otherwise than as a galvanized modern antique.
When Italy was still turning out fine works in the Majolica wares much of the glory of the Renaissance was yet shining; but the last flicker of that glory had died out by the time that another form of Eastern art invaded our European pottery. Doubtless the folly of the time would have found another instrument for destroying whatever of genuine art was left among our potters if it had not had the work of China ready to hand, but it came to pass that this was the instrument that finally made nonsense of the whole craft among us. True it is that a very great proportion of the Chinese work imported consisted of genuine works of art of their kind, though mostly much inferior to the work of Persia, Damascus, or Granada; but the fact is, it was not the art in it that captivated our forefathers, but its grosser and more material qualities. The whiteness of the paste, the hardness of the glaze, the neatness of the painting, and the consequent delicacy, or luxuriousness rather, of the ware, were the qualities that the eighteenth-century potters strove so hard to imitate. They were indeed valuable qualities in the hands of a Chinaman, deft as he was of execution, fertile of design, fanciful though not imaginative, in short, a born maker of pretty toys: but such daintinesses were of little avail to a good workman of our race; eager, impatient, imaginative, with something of melancholy or moroseness even in his sport, his very jokes two-edged and fierce, he had other work to do, if his employers but knew it, that the making of toys. Well, but in the time we have before us the workman was but thought of as a convenient machine, and this machine, driven by the haphazard whims of the time, produced at Meissen, as Sèvres, at Chelsea, at Derby, and in Staffordshire, a most woeful set of works of art, of which perhaps those of Sèvres were the most repulsively hideous, those of Meissen (at their worst) the most barbarous, and those made in England the stupidest, though it may be the least ugly.
Now this is very briefly the history of the art of pottery down to our own times, when styleless anarchy prevails; a state of things not so hopeless as in the last century, because it shows a certain uneasiness as to whether we are right or wrong, which may be a sign of life. Meanwhile, as to matters of art, the craft which turns out such tons of commercial wares, every piece of which ought to be a work of art, produces almost literally nothing. On this dismal side of things I will not dwell, but will ask you to consider with me what can be done to remedy it; a question which I know exercises much many excellent and public-spirited men who are at the head of pottery works. Well, in the first place, it is clear that the initiative cannot be wholly taken by these men; we, all of us I mean who care about the arts, must help them by asking for the right thing, and making them quite clear what it is we ask for. To my mind it should be something like this, which is but another way of putting those principles of the art which I spoke of before. First. No vessel should be fashioned by being pressed into a mold that can be made by throwing on the wheel, or otherwise by hand. Second. All vessels should be finished on the wheel, not turned on a lathe, as is now the custom. How can you expect to have good workmen when they know that whatever surface their hands may put on the work will be taken off by a machine? Third. It follows, as a corollary to the last point, that we must not demand excessive neatness in pottery, and this more especially in cheap wares. Workmanlike finish is necessary, but finish to be workmanlike must always be in proportion to the kind of work. What we get in pottery at present is mechanical finish, not workmanlike, and is as easy to do as the other is hard: one is a matter of a manager's system, the other comes of constant thought and trouble on the part of the men, who by that time are artists, as we call them. Fourth. As to the surface decoration on pottery, it is clear it must never be printed; for the rest, it would take more than an hour to go even very briefly into the matter of painting on pottery; but one rule we have for a guide, and whatever we do if we abide by it, we are quite sure to go wrong if we reject it: and it is common to all the lesser arts. Think of your material. Don't paint anything on pottery save what can be painted only on pottery; if you do, it is clear that, however good a draftsman you may be, you do not care about that special art. You can't suppose that the Greek wall-painting was anything like their painting on pottery; there is plenty of evidence to show that it was not. Or take another example from the Persian art; it is easy for those conversant with it to tell from an outline tracing of a design whether it was done for pottery-painting or for other work. Fifth. Finally, when you have asked for these qualities from the potters, and even in a very friendly way boycotted them a little till you get them, you will of course be prepared to pay a great deal more for your pottery than you do now, even for the rough work you may have to take. I'm sure that won't hurt you; we shall only have less and break less, and our incomes will still be the same.
Now as to the kindred art of making glass vessels. It is on much the same footing as the potter's craft. Never till our own day has an ugly or stupid glass vessel been made; and no wonder, considering the capabilities of the art. In the hands of a good workman the metal is positively alive, and is, you may say, coaxing him to make something pretty. Nothing but commercial enterprise capturing an unlucky man and setting him down in the glassmaker's chair with his pattern beside him (which I should think must generally have been originally designed by a landscape gardener): nothing but this kind of thing could turn out ugly glasses. This stupidity will never be set right till we give up demanding accurately-gauged glasses made by the gross. I am fully in earnest when I say that if I were setting about getting good glasses made, I would get some good workmen together, tell them the height and capacity of the vessels I wanted, and perhaps some general idea as to kind of shape, and then let them do their best. Then I would sort them out as they came from the annealing arches (what a pleasure that would be!) and I would put a good price on the best ones, for they would be worth it; and I don't believe that the worst would be bad.
In speaking of glass-work, it is a matter of course that I am only thinking of that which is blown and worked by hand; molded and cut glass may have commercial, but cannot have artistic value. As to the material of the glass vessels, that is a very important point. Modern managers have worked very hard to get their glass colorless: it does not seem to me that they have quite succeeded. I should say that their glass was cold and bluish in color; but whether or not, their aim was wrong. A slight tint is an advantage in the metal; so are slight specks and streaks, for these things make the form visible. The modern managers of glassworks have taken enormous pains to get rid of all color in their glass; to get it so that when worked into a vessel it shall not show any slightest speck or streak; in fact, they have toiled to take all character out of the metal, and have succeeded; and this in spite of the universal admiration for the Venice glass of the seventeenth century, which is both specked and streaky, and has visible color in it. This glass of Venice or Murano is most delicate in its form, and was certainly meant quite as much for ornament as use; so you may be sure that if the makers of it had seen any necessity for getting more mechanical perfection in their metal they would have tried for it and got it; but like all true artists they were contented when they had a material that served the purpose of their special craft, and would not weary themselves in seeking after what they did not want. And I feel sure that if they had been making glass for ordinary table use at a low price, and which ran more risks of breakage, as they would have had to fashion their vessels thicker and less daintily they would have been contented with a rougher metal than that which they used. Such a manufacture yet remains to be set on foot, and I very much wish it could be done; only it must be a manufacture; must be done by hand, and not by machine, human or otherwise.
So much, and very briefly, of these two important Lesser Arts, which it must be admitted are useful, even to Diogenes, since the introduction of tea: I have myself at a pinch tried a tin mug for tea, and found it altogether inconvenient, and a horn I found worse still; so, since we must have pottery and glass, and since it is only by an exertion of the cultivated intellect that they can be made ugly, I must needs wish that we might take a little less trouble in that direction: at the same time I quite understand that in this case both the goods would cost the consumers more, even much more, and that the capitalists who risk their money in keeping the manufactories of the goods going would make less money; both which things to my mind would be fruitful in benefits to the community.
The next craft I have to speak of is that of Weaving: not so much of an art as pottery and glass-making, because so much of it must be mechanical, engaged in the making of mere plain cloth; of which side of it all one need say is that we should have as little plain cloth made as we conveniently can, and for that reason should insist on having it made well and solidly, and of good materials; the other side of it, that which deals with figure-weaving, must be subdivided into figure-weaving which is carried out mechanically, and figure-weaving which is altogether a handicraft.
As to the first of these, its interest is limited by the fact that it is mechanical; since the manner of doing it has with some few exceptions varied little for many hundred years: such trivial alterations as the lifting the warp-threads by means of the Jacquard machine, or throwing the shuttle by steam-power, ought not to make much difference in the art of it, though I cannot say that they have not done so. On the other hand, though mechanical, it produces beautiful things, which an artist cannot disregard, and man's ingenuity and love of beauty may be made obvious enough in it; neither do I call the figure-weaver's craft a dull one, if he be set to do things which are worth doing: to watch the web growing day by day almost magically, in anticipation of the time when it is to be taken out and one can see it on the right side in all its well-schemed beauty; to make something beautiful that will last, out of a few threads of silken wool, seems to me a not unpleasant way of earning one's livelihood so long only as one lives and works in a pleasant place, with the workday not too long, and a book or two to be got at.
However, since this is admittedly a mechanical craft, I have not much to say of it, for it is not my business this evening to speak of the designs for its fashioning; this much one may say, that as the designing of woven stuffs fell into degradation in the latter days, the designers got fidgeting after trivial novelties, change for the sake of change; they must needs strive to make their woven flowers look as if they were painted with a brush, or even sometimes as if they were drawn by the engraver's burin. This gave them plenty of trouble, and exercised their ingenuity in the tormenting of their web with spots and stripes and ribs and the rest of it, but quite destroyed the seriousness of the work, and even its raison d'être. As of pottery-painting, so of figure-weaving: do nothing in it but that which only weaving can do, and to this end make your design as elaborate as you please in silhouette, but carry it out simply; you are not drawing lines freely with your shuttle, you are building up a pattern with a fine rectilinear mosaic. If this is kept well in mind by the designer, and he does not try to force his material into no-thoroughfares, he may have abundant pleasure in the making of woven stuffs, and he is perhaps less likely to go wrong (if he has a feeling for color) in this art than in any other. I will say further that he should be careful to get due proportion between his warp and weft: not to starve the first, which is the body of the web so to say, for the sake of the second, which is its clothes; this is done nowadays over much by ingenious designers who are trying to make their web look like non-mechanical stuffs, or who want to get a delusive show of solidity in a poor cloth, which is much to be avoided. A similar fault we are too likely to fall into is of a piece with what is done in all the lesser arts to-day, and which doubtless is much fostered by the ease given to our managers of works by the over-development of machinery: I am thinking of the weaving up of rubbish into apparently delicate and dainty wares. No man with the true instinct of a workman should have anything to do with this: it may not mean commercial dishonesty, though I suspect it sometimes does, but it must mean artistic dishonesty: poor materials in this craft, as in all others, should only be used in coarse work, where they are used without pretense for what they are: this we must agree to at once, or sink all art in commerce (so called) in these crafts.
So much for mechanical figure-weaving. Its raison d'être is that it gives scope to the application of imagination and beauty to any cloth, thick or thin, close or open, costly or cheap. In some way or other you may weave any of these into figures; but when we may limit ourselves to certain heavy, close, and very costly cloths, we no longer need the help of anything that can fairly be called a machine: little more is needed than a frame which will support heavy beams on which we may strain our warp; our work is purely handwork, we may do what we will according to the fineness of our warp. These are the conditions of carpet and tapestry weaving, meaning by carpets the real thing, such as the East has furnished us with from time immemorial, and not the makeshift imitation woven by means of the Jacquard loom, or otherwise mechanically.
As to the art of carpet-weaving, then, one must say that historically it belongs to the East. I do not think it has been proved that any piled carpets were made in Europe during the Middle Ages proper, though some writers have thought that a fabric, called in edicts of the fourteenth century tapis-serie sarracenoise, was in fact piled carpet-work: however, in the seventeenth century they certainly were being made to a certain extent even in these islands: among other examples I have seen some pieces of carpet-work in a Jacobean house in Oxfordshire, which an inventory of about 1620 calls, oddly enough, Irish stitch. But wherever the history of the art may begin among ourselves, I fear it may almost be said to end with the seventeenth century; there are still a few places where hand-wrought carpets are made, but scarcely anything original is done; coarsely copied imitations of the Levantine carpets, and a sort of deduction from the degraded follies of the time of Louis the Fifteenth, traditionally thought to be suitable for the dreary waste of an aristocratic country-house, are nearly all that is turned out at present. Still I do not agree with an opinion which I have heard expressed, that carpets can only be made in the East: such carpets as have been made there for the last hundred years or so, which are chiefly pieces of nearly formless color, could not be made satisfactorily and spontaneously by Western art; but these carpets, delightful as they are, are themselves the product of a failing art: their prototypes are partly those simple but scientifically designed cloths whose patterns are founded on the elaborate pavement mosaics of Byzantine art; and partly they are degradations, traceable by close study, from the elaborate floral art of Persia. The originals of the first kind may be seen accurately figured in many of the pictures of the palmy days of Italian and Flemish art, and, as I have said, they are designed on scientific principles which any good designer can apply to works of our own day without burdening his conscience with the charge of plagiarism. As to the other kind of the Persian floral designs, there are still a few of these in existence, though, as I have never seen any of them figured in old pictures, I doubt if they found their way to Europe much in the Middle Ages. These, beautiful as they are in color, are as far as possible from lacking form in design; they are fertile of imagination, and lovely in drawing; and though imitation of them would carry with it its usual disastrous consequences, they show us the way to set about designing such-like things, and that a carpet can be made which by no means depends for its success on the mere instinct for color, which is the last gift of art to leave certain races. Withal, one thing seems certain, that if we don't set to work making our own carpets it will not be long before we shall find the East fail us: for that last gift, the gift of the sense of harmonious color, is speedily dying out in the East before the conquests of European rifles and money-bags.
As to the other manufacture of unmechanically woven cloth, the art of tapestry-weaving, it was, while it flourished, not only an art of Europe, but even of Northern Europe. Still more than carpet-weaving, it must be spoken of in the past tense. If you are curious on the subject of its technique you may see that going on as in its earlier, or let us say real, life at the Gobelins at Paris; but it is a melancholy sight: the workmen are as handy at it as only Frenchmen can be at such work, and their skill is traditional too, I have heard; for they are the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of tapestry-weavers. Well, their ingenuity is put to the greatest pains for the least results: it would be a mild word to say that what they make is worthless; it is more than that; it has a corrupting and deadening influence upon all the Lesser Arts of France, since it is always put forward as the very standard and crown of all that those arts can do at the best: a more idiotic waste of human labor and skill it is impossible to conceive. There is another branch of the same stupidity, differing slightly in technique, as Beauvais; and the little town of Aubusson in mid-France has a decaying commercial industry of the like rubbish. I am sorry to have to say that an attempt to set the art going which has been made, doubtless with the best intentions, under the Royal patronage at Windsor, within the last few years, has most unluckily gone on the lines of the work of the Gobelins, and, if it does not change its system utterly, is doomed to artistic failure, whatever its commercial success may be.
Well, this is all I have to say about the poor remains of the art of tapestry-weaving: and yet what a noble art it was once! To turn our chamber walls into the green woods of the leafy month of June, populous of bird and beast; or a summer garden with man and maid playing round a fountain, or a solemn procession of the mythical warriors and heroes of old; that surely was worth the trouble of doing, and the money that had to be paid for it: that was no languid acquiescence in an upholsterer's fashion. How well I remember as a boy my first acquaintance with a room hung with faded greenery at Queen Elizabeth's Lodge, by Chingford Hatch, in Epping Forest (I wonder what has become of it now), and the impression of romance that it made upon me; a feeling that always comes back on me when I read, as I often do, Sir Walter Scott's Antiquary, and come to the description of the green room at Monkbarns, among which the novelist has with such exquisite cunning of art embedded the fresh and glittering verses of the summer poet Chaucer; yes, that was more than upholstery, believe me.
Nor must you forget that when the art was at its best, while on the one side it was almost a domestic art, and all sorts of naïve fancies were embodied in it, it took the place in Northern Europe of the fresco painting of Italy; among the existing easel pictures of the Flemish school of the fifteenth century there are no designs which are equal in conception and breadth of treatment to those which were worked out in tapestry, and I believe that some of the very best Northern artists spent the greater part of their time in designing for this art. Roger van der Weyden of the Cologne school is named as having done much in this way: under the gallery of the great hall of Hampton Court hangs a piece which I suppose is by him, and which at any rate is, taking it altogether, the finest piece I have seen. There is quite a school of tapestry in the place, by the way; the withdrawing-room or solar at the end of the hall is hung with tapestries but little inferior to the first mentioned, and perhaps a little later, but unluckily, unlike it, much obscured by the dirt of centuries (they are not faded, only dirty), while the main walls of the great hall itself are hung with work of a later date, say about 1580. You may test your taste by comparing these later works (very fine of their kind) with the earlier, and see which you like best. I will not try to influence you on this matter, but will only say that the borders of this later tapestry are admirably skillful pieces of execution.
Perhaps you will think I have said too much about an art that has practically perished; but as there is nothing whatever to prevent us from reviving it if we please, since the technique of it is easy to the last degree, so also it seems to me that in the better days of art the exaltation of certain parts of a craft into the region of the higher arts was both a necessary consequence of the excellence of the craft as a whole, and in return kept up that excellence to its due pitch by example. The magnificent woven pictures of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were the natural result of the pleasure and skill that were exercised in the art of weaving in every village and homestead, at the same time that they were encouragement to the humbler brother of the craft to persevere in doing his best.
I have now to speak of a craft which I daresay some of you will think a lesser art indeed, but which nevertheless we cannot help considering if we are to trouble ourselves at all about the art of weaving. This is the dyer's craft: of which I must say that no craft has been so oppressed by the philistinism of false commerce, or by the ignorance of the public as to their real wants; which oppression is of very late date, and belongs almost wholly to our own days. I should very much like to be able to tell you the whole story of this ancient craft, but time fails me to give you more than the very barest outline of it. The ancient Egyptians knew well the niceties of the art. I myself have dyed wool red by the selfsame process that the Mosaic dyers used; and from the remotest times the whole art was thoroughly understood in India. If to-day I want for my own use some of the red dye above alluded to, I must send to Argolis or Acarnania for it; and Pliny would have been quite at home in the dye-house of Tintoretto's father or master. No change at all befell the art either in the East or the North tell after the discovery of America; this gave the dyers one new material in itself good, and one that was doubtful or bad. The good one was the new insect dye, cochineal, which at first was used only for dyeing crimson or bluish red, and for this use cast into the shade the older red insect dye above alluded to, called by the classical peoples coccus, and by the Arabs Al-kermes. The bad new material was log-wood, so fugitive a dye as to be quite worthless as a color by itself (as it was at first used), and to my mind of very little use otherwise. No other new dye-stuff of importance was found in America, although the discoverers came across such abundance of red-dyeing wood growing there that a huge country of South America has thence taken its name of Brazil. The next change happened about 1630, when a German discovered accidentally how to dye scarlet with cochineal on a tin basis, thereby putting the old dye, kermes, almost wholly out of commerce. Next, in the last years of the eighteenth century, a worthless blue was invented (which I don't name to avoid confusion in this brief sketch). About the same time a rather valuable yellow dye (quercitron bark) was introduced from America. Next, in 1810, chemical science, which by this time had got fairly on its legs, began to busy itself about the dyer's craft, and discovered how to dye with Prussian blue, a color which, as a pigment, had been discovered about eighty years before. This discovery was rather harmful than otherwise to my mind, but was certainly an important one, since before that time there was but one dyeing drug that could give a blue color capable of standing even a week of diffused daylight, indigo to wit, whether it was produced from tropical or sub-tropical plants, or from our Northern plant, woad.
Now these novelties, the sum of which amounts to very little, are all that make any difference between the practice of dyeing under Rameses the Great and under Queen Victoria, till about twenty years ago; about that time a series of the most wonderful discoveries were made by the chemists; discoveries which did the utmost credit to their skill, patience, and capacity for scientific research, and which, from a so-called commercial point of view, have been of the greatest importance; for they have, as the phrase goes, revolutionized the art of dyeing. The dye-stuffs discovered by the indefatigable genius of scientific chemists, which every one has heard of under the name of aniline colors, and which are the product of coal-tar, are brighter and stronger in color than the old dyes, cheaper (much cheaper) in price, and, which is of course of the last importance to the dyer, infinitely easier to use. No wonder, therefore, that they have almost altogether supplanted the older dyes, except in a few cases: surely the invention seems a splendid one!
Well, it is only marred by one fact, that being an invention for the benefit of an art whose very existence depends upon its producing beauty, it is on the road, and far advanced on it, towards destroying all beauty in the art. The fact is, that every one of these colors is hideous in itself, whereas all the old dyes are in themselves beautiful colors; only extreme perversity could make an ugly color out of them. Under these circumstances it must, I suppose, be considered a negative virtue in the new dyes that they are as fugitive as the older ones are stable; but even on that head I will ask you to note one thing that condemns them finally, that whereas the old dyes when fading, as all colors will do more or less, simply gradually changed into paler tints of the same color, and were not unpleasant to look on, the fading of the new dyes is a change into all kinds of abominable and livid hues. I mention this because otherwise it might be thought that a man with an artistic eye for color might so blend the hideous but bright aniline colors as to produce at least something tolerable; indeed, this is not unfrequently attempted to-day, but with small success, partly from the reason above mentioned, partly because the hues so produced by "messing about," as I should call it, have none of the quality or the character which the simpler drug gives naturally: all artists will understand what I mean by this. In short, that is what it comes to, that it would be better for us, if we cannot revive the now almost lost art of dyeing, to content ourselves with weaving our cloths of the natural color of the fiber, or to buy them colored by less civilized people than ourselves.
Now, really, even if you think the art of dyeing as contemptible as Pliny did, you must admit that this is a curious state of things, and worth while considering, even by a philosopher. It is most true that the chemists of our day have made discoveries almost past belief for their wonder; they have given us a set of colors which has made a new thing of the dyer's craft; commercial enterprise has eagerly seized on the gift, and yet, unless all art is to disappear from our woven stuffs, we must turn round and utterly and simply reject it. We must relegate these new dyes to a museum of scientific curiosities, and for our practice go back, if not to the days of the Pharaohs, yet at least to those of Tintoret. I say I invite you to consider this, because it is a type of the oppression under which the lesser arts are suffering at the present day.
The art of dyeing leads me naturally to the humble but useful art of printing on cloth: really a very ancient art, since it is not essential to it that the pattern should be printed; it may be painted by hand. Now, the painting of cloth with real dyes was practiced from the very earliest days in India; and, since the Egyptians of Pliny's time knew the art well, it is most probable that in that little-changing land it was very old also. Indeed many of the minute and elaborate patterns on the dresses of Egyptian imagery impress me strongly as representing what would naturally be the work of dye-painted linen. As to the craft among ourselves, it has, as a matter of course, suffered grievously from the degradation of dyeing, and this not only from the worsening of the tints both in beauty and durability, but from a more intricate cause. I have said that the older dyes were much more difficult to use than the modern ones. the processes for getting a many-colored pattern on to a piece of cotton, even so short a while back as when I was a boy, were many and difficult. As a rule, this is done in fewer hours now than it was in days then. You may think this is a desirable change, but, except on the score of cheapness, I can't agree with you. The natural and healthy difficulties of the old processes, all connected as they were with the endeavor to make the color stable, drove any designer who had anything in him to making his pattern peculiarly suitable to the whole art, and gave a character to it, that character which you so easily recognize in Indian palampores, or in the faded curtains of our grandmothers' time, which still, in spite of many a summer's sun and many and many a strenuous washing, retain at least their reds and blues. In spite of the rudeness of the extravagance of these things, we are always attracted towards them, and the chief reason is, that we feel at once that there is something about the designs natural to the craft, that they can be done only by the practice of it, a quality which, I must once more repeat, is a necessity for all the designs of the lesser arts. But in the comparatively easy way in which these cloths are printed to-day, there are no special difficulties to stimulate the designer to invention; he can get any design done on his cloth; the printer will make no objection, so long at the pattern is the right size for his roller, and has only the due number of colors. The result of all this is ornament on the cotton, which might just as well have been printed or drawn on paper, and in spite of any grace or cleverness in the design, it is found to look poor and tame and wiry. That you will see clearly enough when some one has had a fancy to imitate some of the generous and fertile patterns that were once specially designed for the older cloths. It all comes to nothing; it is dull, hard, unsympathetic. No; there is nothing for it but the trouble and the simplicity of the earlier craft, if you are to have any beauty in cloth-printing at all. And if not, why should we trouble to have a pattern of any sort on our cotton cloths? I for one am dead against it, unless the pattern is really beautiful; it is so very worthless if it is not.
As I have been speaking about printing on cotton cloths, I suppose I am bound to say something also on the quite modern and very humble, but, as things go, useful art of printing patterns on paper for wall-hangings. But really there is not much to be said about it, unless we were considering the arrangement and formation of its patterns; because it is so very free from those difficulties the meeting and conquering of which give character to the more intricate crafts. I think the real way to deal successfully with designing for paper-hangings is to accept their mechanical nature frankly, to avoid falling into the trap of trying to make your paper look as if it were painted by hand. Here is the place, if anywhere, for dots and lines and hatchings: mechanical enrichment is of the first necessity in it. After that you may be as intricate and elaborate in your pattern as you please; nay, the more and the more mysteriously you interweave your sprays and stems the better for your purpose, as the whole thing has to be pasted flat on a wall, and the cost of all this intricacy will but come out of your own brain and hand. For the rest, the fact that in this art we are so little helped by beautiful and varying material imposes on us the necessity for being specially thoughtful in our designs; every one of them must have a distinct idea in it; some beautiful piece of nature must have pressed itself on our notice so forcibly that we are quite full of it, and can, by submitting ourselves to the rules of art, express our pleasure to others, and give them some of the keen delight that we ourselves have felt. If we cannot do this in some measure our paper-design will not be worth much; it will be but a makeshift expedient for covering a wall with something or other; and if we really care about art we shall not put up with something or other, but shall choose honest whitewash instead, on which sun and shadow play so pleasantly, if only our room be well planned and well shaped, and look kindly on us. A great If, indeed; which lands me at once into my next division of the lesser arts, which for want of a better word I will call house-furnishing: I say it lands me there, because if only our houses were built as they should be, we should want such a little furniture, and be so happy in that scantiness. Even as it is, we should at all events take as our maxim the less the better: excess of furniture destroys the repose of a lazy man, and is in the way of an industrious one; and besides, if we really care for art we shall always feel inclined to save on superfluities, that we may have a wherewithal to spend on works of art.
Simplicity is the one thing needful in furnishing, of that I am certain; I mean first as to quantity, and secondly as to kind and manner of design. The arrangement of our houses ought surely to express the kind of life we lead, or desire to lead; and to my mind, if there is anything to be said in favor of that to-day somewhat well-abused English middle class, it is that, amid all the narrowness that is more or less justly charged against it, it has a kind of orderly intelligence which is not without some value. Such as it is, such its houses ought to be if it takes any pains about them, as I think it should: they should look like part of the life of decent citizens prepared to give good commonplace reasons for what they do. For us to set to work to imitate the minor vices of the Borgias, or the degraded and nightmare whims of the blasé and bankrupt French aristocracy of Louis the Fifteenth's time, seems to me merely ridiculous. So I say our furniture should be good citizen's furniture, solid and well made in workmanship, and in design should have nothing about it that is not easily defensible, no monstrosities or extravagances, not even of beauty, lest we weary of it. As to matters of construction, it should not have to depend on the special skill of a very picked workman, or the super-excellence of his glue, but be made on the proper principles of the art of joinery: also I think that, except for very movable things like chairs, it should not be so very light as to be nearly imponderable; it should be made of timber rather than walking-sticks. Moreover, I must needs think of furniture as of two kinds: one part of it being chairs, dining and working tables, and the like, the necessary work-a-day furniture in short, which should be of course both well made and well proportioned, but simple to the last degree; nay, if it were rough I should like it the better, not the worse; with work-a-day furniture like this we should among other blessings avoid the terror which now too often goes with the tolerably regularly recurring accidents of the week.
But besides this kind of furniture, there is the other kind of what I should call state-furniture, which I think is proper even for a citizen; I mean sideboards, cabinets, and the like, which we have quite as much for beauty's sake as for use; we need not spare ornament on these, but may make them as elegant and elaborate as we can with carving, inlaying, or painting; these are the blossoms of the art of furniture, as picture tapestry is of the art of weaving: but these also should not be scattered about the house at haphazard [intervals], but should be used architecturally to dignify important chambers and important places in them. And once more, whatever you have in your rooms think first of the walls, for they are that which makes your house and home; and if you don't make some sacrifice in their favor, you will find your chambers have a kind of makeshift, lodging-house look about them, however rich and handsome your movables may be.
The last of the Lesser Arts I have to speak of I come to with some trepidation; but it is so important to one half of the race of civilized mankind, the male half, that I will venture. Indeed I speak of the art of dress with the more terror because civilization has settled for us males that art shall have no place in our clothes, and that we must in this matter occupy the unamiable position of critics of our betters. Rebel as I am, I bow to that decision, though I find it difficult to admit that a chimney-pot hat or a tail-coat is the embodiment of wisdom in clothes-philosophy; and sometimes in my more skeptical moments I puzzle myself in thinking why, when I am indoors, I should wear two coats, one with a back and no front, and the other with a front and no back. However, I have not near enough courage even to suggest a rebellion against these stern sartorial laws; and after all one can slip into and out of the queer things with great ease, and that being the case, it is far more important to me what other people wear than what I wear: so that I ask leave to be an irresponsible critic for a few moments.
Now I have lived through at least two periods of feminine dress, without counting the present one, which I perceive with some terror is trembling on the verge of change: yes, with terror, because for a good many years past, in spit of a few extravagances, the dress of ladies in England has been highly satisfactory, and very consolatory for the mishaps that have befallen the lesser arts otherwise. Under these circumstances, both for the sake of the hope and the warning that may lie in it, I will venture to call to your memory what has befallen the art of dress in modern times.
The days of Louis the Fifteenth draw across our path a kind of enchanted wood of abominations into which we need not venture: out of those horrors costume escaped into a style that was really graceful and simple in the years that came just before the French Revolution. What this costume really was you can see as clearly as anywhere in the engravings designed by the quaint and fertile book-illustrator, the Pole Chodowiecki, whose works were much imitated by our Stothard. Then came a period when dress was influenced by the affectation of imitating the art and manners of the classical times, which produced under the First Napoleon a costume characterized by somewhat of an exaggeration of slim gracefulness among other extravagances; for which affectations a dire revenge was lying in wait, the result of which, after a doubtful time between the dates of the Battle of Waterloo and the accession of Queen Victoria, was a style which one may call that of grim modern respectability: into the middle of that period I was born, and well I remember its horrors. If you can get at an "Illustrated London News" of about the time of the Queen's visit to Louis Philippe, look at the costumes in it; they will give you cause for serious reflection: or for an earlier example (I think) take up your "Oliver Twist," with George Cruikshank's illustrations, and contemplate the effigy there figured of that insipid person Miss Rose Maylie. *
Well, that was the first period I have seen; on this period gradually crept another, which, at its height at least, could not be accused of over-much love of respectability: this period was that of [the] crinoline. The woodcuts of John Leech give you admirable illustrations of all the stages of this period. It conquered something from its predecessor in that on the whole it allowed women to arrange their hair naturally and gracefully; but in everything else mere blatant vulgarity was apparently what it aimed at. I have good hopes that one may say that the degradation of costume reached its lowest depth in this costume of the Second Empire. ** This is the second period of costume that I have seen, and its end brings us to the beginning of things as they are; when woman's dress is or may be on the whole graceful and sensible (please note that I say it may be); for the most hopeful sign of the present period is its freedom: in the two previous periods there was no freedom. In that of grim respectability a lady was positively under well-understood penalties not allowed to dress gracefully, she could not do it; under the reign of [the] crinoline, if she had dressed simply and beautifully, like a lady, in short, she would have been hooted in the streets; but nowadays, and for years past, a lady may dress quite simply and beautifully, and yet not be noticed as having anything peculiar or theatrical in her costume. Extravagances of fashion have not been lacking to us, but no one has been compelled to adopt them; every one might dress herself in the way which her own good sense told her suited her best. Now this, ladies, is the first and greatest necessity of rational and beautiful costume, that you should keep your liberty of choice; so I beg you to battle stoutly for it, or we shall all tumble into exploded follies again. Then next, your only chance of keeping that liberty is, to resist the imposition on costume of unnatural monstrosities. Garments should veil the human form, and neither caricature it, nor obliterate its lines: the body should be draped, and neither sewn up in a sack, nor stuck in the middle of a box: drapery, properly managed, is not a dead thing, but a living one, expressive of the endless beauty of motion; and if this be lost, half the pleasure of the eyes in common life is lost. You must specially bear this in mind, because the fashionable milliner has chiefly one end in view, how to hide and degrade the human body in the most expensive manner. She or he would see no beauty in the Venus of Milo; she or he looks upon you as scaffolds on which to hang a bundle of cheap rags, which can be sold dear under the name of a dress. Now, ladies, if you do not resist this to the bitter end, costume is ruined again, and all we males are rendered inexpressibly unhappy. So I beg of you fervently, do not allow yourselves to be upholstered like armchairs, but drape yourselves like women. Lastly, and this is really part of the same counsel, resist change for the sake of change; this is the very bane of all the arts. I say resist this stupidity, and the care of dress, duly subordinated to other duties, is a serious duty to you; but if you do not resist it, the care of dress becomes a frivolous waste of time. It follows, from the admission of this advice, that you should insist on having materials for your dresses that are excellent of their kind, and beautiful of their kind, and that when you have a dress of even moderately costly materials you won't be in a hurry to see the end of it. This is a thing too which will help us weavers, body and soul, and in a due and natural way: not like the too good-natured way of my Lady Bective, who wants you to wear stiff alpaca, so that the Bradford capitalists may not have to change their machinery. I can't agree to that; if they will weave ugly cloth let them take the consequences.
But one good thing breeds another; and most assuredly a steadiness in fashion, when a good fashion has been attained, and a love of beautiful things for other own sakes and not because they are novelties, is both human, reasonable, and civilized, and will help the makers of wares, both master and man, and give them also time to think of beautiful things, and thus to raise their lives to a higher level.
This I have named a certain number of the lesser arts, which I must ask you to take as representing the whole mass of them. Now all these arts, since they at all events make a show of life, one may suppose civilization considers desirable, if not necessary; but if they are to go on existing and to occupy in one way or other the lives of millions of men, it seems to me that their life should be read, that the necessity for them should be felt by those that allow them to be carried on; for surely wasted labor is a heavy burden for the world to bear.
I have said that, on the other hand, I am ready to accept the conclusion that these arts are vain and should not be carried on at all; that we should do nothing that we can help doing beyond what is barely necessary to keep ourselves alive, that we may contemplate the mystery of life, and be ready to accept the mystery of death. Yes, that might be agreed to, if the world would; but, you see, it will not: man's life is too complex, too unmanageable at the hands of any unit of the race for such a conclusion to be come to except by a very few, better, or it may be worse, than their fellows; and even they will be driven to it by noting the contrast between their aspirations and the busy and inconsistent lives of other men. I mean, if most men lived reasonably, and with justice to their fellows, no men would be drawn towards asceticism. No, the lesser arts of life must be practiced, that is clear. It only remains therefore for us to determine whether they shall but minister to our material needs, receiving no help and no stimulus from the cravings of our souls, or whether they shall really form part of our lives material and spiritual, and be so helpful and natural, that even the sternest philosopher may look upon them kindly and feel helped by them.
Is it possible that civilization can determine to brutalize the crafts of life by cutting them off from the intellectual part of us? Surely not in the long run; and yet I know that the progress of the race from barbarism to civilization has hitherto had a tendency to make our lives more and more complex; to make us more dependent one upon the other, and to destroy individuality, which is the breath of life to art. But swiftly and without check as this tendency has grown, I know I cannot be alone in doubting if it has been an unmixed good to us, or in believing that a change will come, perhaps after some great disaster has chilled us into pausing, and so given us time for reflection: anyhow, in some way or other, I believe the day is not so far distant when the best of men will set to work trying to simplify life on a new basis; when the organization of labor will mean something else than the struggle of the strong to use each one to his best advantage the necessities and miseries of the weak.
Meanwhile I believe that it will speed the coming of that day if we do but look at art open-eyed and with all sincerity; I want an end of believing that we believe in art-bogeys; I want the democracy of the arts established: I want every one to think for himself about them, and not to take things for granted from hearsay; every man to do what he thinks right, not in anarchical fashion, but feeling that he is responsible to his fellows for what he feels, thinks, and has determined. In these lesser arts every one should say: I have such or such an ornamental matter, not because I am told to like it, but because I like it myself, and I will have nothing that I don't like, nothing; and I can give you my reasons for rejecting this, and accepting that, and am ready to abide by them, and to take the consequences of my being right or wrong. Of course such independence must spring from knowledge, not from ignorance, and you may be sure that this kind of independence would be far from destroying the respect due to the higher intellects that busy themselves with the arts. On the contrary, it would make that respect the stronger, since those who had themselves got to think seriously about the arts would understand the better what difficulties beset the greatest men in their struggles to express what is in them. Anyhow, if this intelligent, sympathetic, and serious independence of thought about the arts does not become general among cultivated men (and all men ought to be cultivated), it is a matter of course that the practice of the arts must fall into the hands of a degraded and despised class, degraded and despised at least as far as its daily work goes - that is to say, the greater part of its waking hours.
Surely this is a serious danger to our political and social advancement, to our cultivation, to our civilization in short; surely we can none of us be content to accept the responsibility of creating such a class of pariahs, or to sit quiet under the burden of its existence, if it exist at present, as indeed it does. Therefore I ask you to apply the remedy of refusing to be ignorant and nose-led about the arts; I ask you to learn what you want and to ask for it; in which case you will both get it and will breed intelligent and worthy citizens for the common weal; defenders of society, friends for yourselves.
Is not this worth doing? It will add to the troubles of life? Maybe; I will not say nay. Yet consider after all that the life of a man is more troublous than that of a swine, and the life of a freeman than the life of a slave; and take your choice accordingly. Moreover, if I am right in these matters, your trouble will be shifted, not increased: we shall take pains indeed concerning things which we care about, hard and bitter pains, maybe, yet with an end in view; but the confused, aimless, and for ever unrewarded pains which we now so plentifully take about things we do not care about, we shall sweep all that away, and so shall win calmer rest and more strenuous, less entangled work.
What other blessings are there in life save these two, fearless rest and hopeful work? Troublous as life is, it has surely given to each one of us here some times and seasons when, surrounded by simple and beautiful things, we have really felt at rest; when the earth and all its plenteous growth, and the tokens of the varied life of men, and the very sky and waste of air above us, have seemed all to conspire together to make us calm and happy, not slothful but restful. Still oftener belike it has given us those other times, when at last, after many a struggle with incongruous hindrances, our own chosen work has lain before us disentangled from all encumbrances and unrealities, and we have felt that nothing could withhold us, not even ourselves, from doing the work we were born to do, and that we were men and worthy of life. Such rest, and such work, I earnestly wish for myself and for you, and for all men: to have space and freedom to gain such rest and such work is the end of politics; to learn how best to gain it is the end of education; to learn its inmost meaning is the end of religion.
* I do not mean any disrespect to Dickens, of whom I am a humble worshiper. back
** Indeed I hope so; but since this Lecture was delivered, unhappy tokens are multiplying that fine ladies are determined to try whether ugliness may not be more attractive than beauty. back
The Lesser Arts of Life (1882).
1. 21st january 1882 before the Birmingham and Midlands Institute in Birmingham, with the title Some of the Minor Arts of Life
Published in the collection Lectures on Art delivered in support for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings London, Macmillan and Co., 1882, pages 174-232.
From : Marxists.org
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