The Relations of Art to Labour

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


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The Relations of Art to Labour

IN considering this important subject it is necessary to look 371 into the past history of the world, and, however summarily, glance at the tale of the twins. Art and Labor, which tale, indeed, means nothing less than the history of the world.

To pass over the conditions of men as mere savages, one comes across civilized men in history served by labor under three conditions—chattel slavery, serfdom, and wage-earning.

Under the classical peoples society was founded on chattel slavery; agriculture and the industrial arts were carried on for the most part by men who could he bought and sold like beasts; and as a consequence the industrial arts, at least in the heyday of Greek intelligence, were looked down on with contempt, and what of art went with them was kept in the strictest subjection to the intellectual arts, which were the work of free citizens. Art was, indeed, kept from corruption partly by the simplicity of life, which, in a climate not exacting either of elaborate shelter or elaborate living, was the rule amid Greek refinement, where luxury, in our sense of the word, was unknown; and partly, also, by the fact that owing to that simplicity, and the transcendant genius of a race, which you must remember was divided from still simpler conditions of life by no very long lapse of time—owing to the simplicity of life among a vigorous and uncorrupted people, full of natural cleverness and skill of hand, the love for and knowledge of the more intellectual forms of art was common, was rather the rule than the exception. The result was, as to the arts, that while there was abundance of their higher manifestation, in the lesser branches, there was rather, as far as we can judge, an absence of revolting ugliness than a presence of entrancing beauty. Meantime, to the cultivated Greek citizen, there seemed nothing wrong or burdensome in chattel slavery. It was part of the natural order of things, and the greatest minds of the day could see no possibility of its extinction, if one excepts the remarkable passage of Aristotle, where he says, that if the shuttle, for instance, could be made to fly through the shed of itself, one might then he able to do without slaves; as if he had a glimmer of foresight of modern machinery, concerning which and its dealings with art and labor I shall have a word to say presently. Apart from this, I suppose a cultivated free citizen of the time of Pericles, if the question of keeping his fellow-men in subjection to the supposed necessities of a few had been pressed on him, would have found ready answer enough to extinguish any revolutionary ideas, and to strengthen his conviction that the order of things under which he lived was eternal. “Apart from the impossibility of doing away with chattel slavery,” he would say, “which is obviously founded on the moral nature of man—apart from that, a society founded on the equality of freedom would he poor in all the elements of change and interest which make life worth living; such a change would injure art 372 and destroy individuality of character by taking away due stimulus to exertion. At best, in a world where all were free before the law, there would he nothing but a dull level of mediocrity.” So he would have argued, and, I imagine, would have obtained the suffrages of most cultivated men of the present day; who, it appears, do verily think, and not unnaturally, that the cultivated gentleman of Attica or England is such a precious and finished fruit of civilization that he is worth any amount of suffering, injustice, and brutality in the mass of mankind below him; but, also, our Greek gentleman might go on with his argument in favor of chattel slavery in a manner rather embarassing to us of these days of progress and wide spread political rights. “Besides,” he might say, “are you sure that you will better the condition of the slave by freeing him? At present it is the interest of his owner to feed him and keep him in health—nay, in many cases, if the owner he a good-tempered fellow, he will even exert himself to do his best to make his slaves happy for his own pleasure. But I can conceive a state of things under which the greater part of the free citizens may be free indeed, free to starve, and in which the sour faces of overworked and underfed wretches would have no chance of impressing a sense of discomfort on men who, so far from feeling any responsibility for their livelihood, did not even realize their existence. Nay, believe me, you had better trust to the humanizing influence of the philosophical simplicity of the noble and free citizens of our glorious City, which, as you well know, in spite of all the tales of the poets, is the real god that we worship, and which indeed is, in some form or other, immortal.”

So he might have argued, elevating the conventional rules of successful tyranny into natural and irrevocable laws; but what followed? The worship of the city found its due expression at last in the growth and domination of Rome, the greatest of cities, whose iron hand crushed out the ceaseless bickerings of ambitious clans and individuals, and cast over the world of civilization the chains of enforced federation under the rule of tax gatherers, dominated at last by the strange superstition of idealized authority under the symbol of the master of the world enthroned in an Italian city. And chattel slavery had still made good its claim to he considered the effect of natural and eternal laws for some time to come, although the condition of the slaves, now mostly working for the profit of the great Roman landowners, was more dangerous to the State than it had been under Greek civilization. The hideous greed of these capitalist landowners, whose slaves were in a worse condition than even the agricultural laborers of England to-day, discounted the fertility of Italy, and at last the change came again, this time a tremendous one. The huge crowd of starving slaves, in whose minds a revolutionary eastern creed was now fast implanting ideas quite foreign to classical civilization, were by no means touched by the religion of city worship, which once had put such irresistible might into the hands of the Roman legionaries. In all directions the slaves recruited the bands of brigands and pirates, whose exploits are the groundwork of the plots of the late classical novels, and formed an element of disorder ready to the hand of any external invader. Thus hunger, the child of monopolist greed, did her work within the empire, while without it another force, probably hunger produced by other causes, was at work, and allied itself to the stir caused by corruption within. For the tribes of the north fell upon the empire, 373 where, as a matter of course, they met with no really organized force to resist them, since the corruption of a gross form of individualism had sapped all public spirit; and so, attacked by slaves, Christians, and barbarians, classicalism fell, and, to the eyes of most historians then and since, chaos took its place, a chaos from which, as people used to think, there grew accidentally the collection of independent states which we call modern Europe; used to think, I say, for it is now clear to thinking people that the change, dreadful as it seemed to the cultivated of that time, bore with it the seeds of order which at once began to germinate.

Now, it is worth while noting for our present purpose of looking into the relations of art to labor, that one of the chief signs of that nascent order, which sprang up at the time of the break up of the Roman Empire, is to be found in the art produced at the period.

The times which followed the complete supremacy of the Roman name, and during which chattel slavery was in full swing, saw only so much change in the condition of art as was involved in increasing luxury and corruption. The more intellectual arts became chiefly imitative of bygone ideas, or at least academical and stationary. The soul of them was feeble, and lacked faith and life, although their body was still fair enough; as to the lesser arts, in them, there was, as far as we can tell from what scanty knowledge we have of them, more tendency to their being occupied with making mere elaborate toys, and for the rest it is inconceivable that they turned out ugly things any more than under the period of Greek art. But the exterior of art changed under the Roman rule, in one respect at least, very much, for under influences whose origin it is very difficult to discover, but which were certainly absent from the art of Greece, they invented architecture, by inventing and habitually using the arch. On the other hand, the ornamental side of their art was so entirely academical and artificial that they failed, as long as the classical period lasted, to produce a style of architecture, properly so-called, which was really harmonious with this great invention. On this side of things they were completely under the domination of the forms of Greek art, which they used merely superstitiously, as one may call it. What is really admirable in the architecture of classical Rome lies in the qualities of its building—in its majestic solidity and massiveness—to gain which no amount of material, care, or labor has been spared. It stands before us to-day, even when we come across it in this out-of-the-way corner of the empire, as the very embodiment of that worship of the city which I have spoken of, and which, without all doubt, was its animating spirit. Here, then, at any rate, was a body for any new art to creep into, and a body which, unlike Greek temple-architecture, could adapt itself to its new soul with ease.

This new soul of art did not fail to take its advantage amid all the disasters and miseries of the birth-throes of feudal Europe, and found expression in a new art, which we call, and accurately call, Byzantine art. The creed which it served came from the East; the city which was its center, standing between Europe and Asia, dealing in peace and war with the great kingdom of Persia, had plentiful communication with the East; therefore it is not wonderful that Eastern influence is obvious in this body of art; but as my 374 purpose is social, somewhat more than historical or artistic, I must not linger over the entrancing subject of the origins of Gothic art, hut will rather beg you to note that this Byzantine art was very far from being a clumsy blending of the misunderstood elements of the art of classical times—a rude and barbarous resetting of the disjecta membra of Romano-Greek art; a conception of it which may still, perhaps, linger in some people’s minds—but rather that it was a genuine historical development, born indeed, out of the corruption of Romano-Greek art, but a vigorous style, orderly, beautiful, and, above all, alive and growing—not a dead toy, but a living organism working in men’s minds, and by them unconsciously furthered. Now, you see as the dead waste period of the corrupt Roman tax-gathering produced a dead art, so was this living art produced by a social growth in the midst of what seemed to he chaos and ruin. Under the break up of the old Roman society, wrought upon as it was by nations who were called barbarous, hut who bore with them real ethical ideas, however rude, and real social laws, however different from those which it was their mission to destroy, under this breakup, or new birth, chattel slavery fell and yielded to a new condition of labor; and I assert that the Byzantine art, whose tendency, considering the state of things at that time, was certainly towards freedom, was the token and the effect of that new condition of labor, which may be briefly described as serfdom struggling towards freedom by means of cooperation for protection of trade and handicraft. Serfdom is the condition of labor in the early middle ages, as chattel slavery was in classical times. The slave was fed by his master, and kept in just such a condition of comfort as was convenient to his master or owner, who, in very bad periods indeed, as sometimes in the days of the Roman latifundia, was driven by hopes of exorbitant profit to allow him to supplement his short commons by the industry of brigandage, but who in general would find it more profitable to keep him in pretty good condition. The serf, on the contrary, had to perform certain definite services for his feudal lord, so many days’ work in the year generally, and for the rest of the time worked for himself, and fed himself on the portion of land allotted to him. Thus doing, he was living in harmony with the general arrangement of society in the early middle ages, a time in which every man had legal, definite, personal duties to perform to his superior, and could claim certain degrees of help and protection from him.

So was formed the hierarchical feudal system, which was founded on a priori ideas of divine government, and under which every man had his due place, which (theoretically) he could not alter or step out of. Personal duties for all, personal rights for all, according to their divinely-appointed stations—that was the theory of the middle ages as opposed to that of classical times, where the supreme city was lord and ruler, exacting rigid obedience from her children, the citizens, who were served by chattel slaves entirely unrecognized by the State, except as beasts of burden might have been.

Well, it seems natural enough that this hierarchical system of the middle ages should have been looked upon as still more reasonable, necessary, and eternal than that which preceded it. But revolution was in store for it no less than for the other system; for, as the half-starved chattel slave of the Roman latifundia was driven to better himself by brigandage first and then by 375 rebellion, and service with the invaders, so the medieval serf was driven by the compulsion of labor in feeding himself after his corvée was done, into trying to better himself altogether, and to slip his neck out of his lord’s collar and become a free man; which struggle, as is said above, took the form of cooperation in various ways.

Apart from the religious houses—which afforded protection to labor, and even offered it a chance of rising out of its caste on the conditions of definite acceptance of hierarchical government in its fullness—apart from the monasteries, there were other bodies which grew to be powerful and far-reaching; these bodies are called the Guilds.

The tendency of the Germanic tribes towards cooperation and community of life showed itself quite early in the middle ages. In England, even before the Norman conquest, this tendency began to draw the workmen and traders into definite association. The guilds, which were the outcome of this association, were at first mostly of the nature of benefit societies; from that they changed gradually into the Merchant-guilds—associations, that is, for mutual protection in trading; and lastly into the Craft-guilds, or associations for the protection and regulation of handicrafts.

In all these guilds the real object was for the individual to shake off the domination and protection of the feudal lord, and to substitute for that the authority and mutual protection of the members of the guild; to free labor from the power of individual members of the feudal hierarchy, and to supplant their authority by that of corporations, which should be themselves recognized as portions of that hierarchy, out of which the medieval mind could scarcely step. Of course, all this took a long time, and was by no means carried out without some very rough work; the Merchant-guilds, in particular, resisting the changes which brought the Craft-guilds into power tooth and nail, especially in Germany. In the process of the struggle the Merchant-guilds for the most part became the corporations of the towns, and the Craft-guilds took their place fully as to the organization of labor, and also at last shared largely in municipal government. By the beginning of the fourteenth century these latter were fully established, and were the masters of all handicrafts. All craftsmen were forced to belong to the guild of the craft they followed. For a time, only too short a time, their constitution was thoroughly democratic; every man apprenticed to a craft was bound, if he could satisfy the due standard of excellence, to become a master in his turn. There were no mere journeymen. This condition of things, however, did not last long, for as the towns grew, and the serf field-laborers became free, they began to crowd into the Craft-guilds, and the masters, who at first were simple complete workmen helped by their apprentices, or incomplete workmen, began to be small capitalists and employers of labor*, to the extent of being privileged members of the guild; and besides, their privileged apprentices employed journeymen, who, though forced to affiliation to the guild, were unprivileged, and would not in the ordinary course of events become masters. This must be looked upon as the first appearance of the so-called free workman, the wage-earner, in modern Europe. And this beginning of the proletariat was at the time felt as a trouble, and some attempt was made by the journeymen to form guilds of their own beneath the Craft-guilds, as those latter had done beneath the Merchant-guilds. In this revolt against privilege they were 376 unsuccessful, and the Craft-guilds went on getting more and more aristocratic, although the power of their privileged members over the journeymen was checked by laws made in favor of the latter.

The labor of the Middle-ages, therefore, was carried on amid a struggle—partly conscious, partly unconscious—for freedom from the arbitrary rule of aristocratic privilege, which at first crushed almost all workers down into the condition of serfs. Before glancing at the results of that struggle, let us consider the relations of art to labor during this period of the fully-developed Middle-ages.

Examination of such facts as are within our reach, which have to do with the economic condition of England during that period, show us that, however rude the general conditions of life were, the struggle for livelihood among the workers was far less hard and eager than it is under our present system of capital and wages. The earnings, both of common laborers and artisans, were, in regard to the price of necessaries at the time, much higher than they are now. Life for the working classes was easier, though general life was rougher than in these days—that is to say, there was more approach to equality of condition, in spite of the arbitrary distinctions of noble, gentle, churl, and villein. Well, as the distribution of wealth in general was more equal than it is now, so was that of art in particular.

It has been noted by those who have studied the history of labor in the middle ages that the remuneration of those who superintended labor—builders, architects, and so forth—was very little higher than that of the men who were under them. Nor were those who were doing what is considered more intellectual work—artists, in short-paid higher than ordinary craftsmen. Moreover, there was very little competition in the market, and next to no middleman’s work. The workman had but one master—the public. He had full control over his time, his material, and his tools—of his work, in short—that is, he was a free workman, an artist. It was this condition of labor which produced the art of the middle ages, and nothing else could have produced it. The theories of religious enthusiasm, and the like, as the motive power for that art, are, I suppose, pretty much extinct by this time; indeed, such a theory could hardly stand before the first glance at the hideous splendor of some foreign Jesuit church, where religious enthusiasm was at its height, with artistic results that make a sensitive man shudder even to think of. In fact, the more the question is studied, both through the existing remains of medieval art and through the records left us of the condition of the people at the time, the clearer it is seen that it is no exaggeration to say that during the middle ages nothing that was made was otherwise than beautiful; that beauty formed as essential a part of man’s handiwork then as it does of nature’s handiwork always. And further, that this essential beauty of handiwork was, among a vigorous and healthy people, the inevitable result of the workman working freely, and for no master; having, as I have said before, full control over his material, tools, and time.

On these terms art, or the pleasure of life, was shared by the whole people. No one could he ignorant of the simple arts of life, and general interest was taken in their production; so that the standard of excellence in wares was kept up and pushed forward at once by the intellectual and the material interests of the people at large. The distinction between artist and non-artist did not 377 exist; it was only a question of the difference of mental gifts between one man and another. Such as those gifts were, no one was debarred from the means of expressing them in art by some means or another.

This was the position of art in the feudal period, brought about by a life of labor which was a struggle for freedom from the restraint of privilege. That struggle ended in victory. How and with what results to labor and art?

We have seen that in the fifteenth century the distinctively free wage-earning class, or proletariat, was coming into existence in the form of the journeymen of the crafts-masters; but their position was, of course, by no means that of the present factory hand. Their wages were high, and indeed wages rose in the fifteenth century; and as to their work, they were on an equality with their masters—organizers of labor, as we quaintly call people who do nothing but stand and look on at labor, being unknown in that time, and division of labor in the workshop having scarcely begun. But in the first half of the sixteenth century the body of men available for journeymen grew greatly and suddenly. Commerce was spreading all over Europe, and tending ever westwards. In this country the bonds of feudal personal service had been much shaken by the wholesale slaughter of gentlemen in the Wars of the Roses, and the impoverished landlords saw before them a chance of recovering a position by throwing themselves into the market of new-born commerce. Then began in England the great change, and whereas, hitherto, men had produced wares for a livelihood, and for the supply of the wants of their neighbors, they now began to produce them for profit, and for a gambling-market. The first step in this change was taken towards the land. The landowners, as I have said, saw their advantage, and turned all their energies to the raising of wool as a marketable commodity. The impulse towards commerce was irresistible, although, under Henry VII., legislation tried to check the expropriation of the yeomen from the land. Force and fraud, applied without scruple, soon did their work, and England from being a country of tillage, interspersed with common land for the pasturage of the people’s live-stock, became a great grazing country, raising sheep for sale of wool to the foreign market.

Two representative men have left in their writings full tokens of how bitterly this spoliation was felt. Sir Thomas More, one of the most high-minded and cultivated gentlemen of his period, an enthusiastic Catholic, a martyr for his honesty to that cause, was one. Hugh Latimer, a yeoman’s son, the very type of rough English honesty, an enthusiastic Protestant, and a martyr to his honesty in that cause, was the other. Both say the same thing, and in words which no one who has read them can ever forget give us a terrible picture of the results of commercial greed in their days. It is no idle word to say that such men never die; and now, once more in our days, it seems as though the ax of More and the fagot of Latimer were still at work producing fruit which [not] even they—no, not even More himself—had conceived in their minds.

But meantime commerce went merrily on her destructive way. The direct spoliation of the people above mentioned was followed by their indirect spoliation in the form of the seizure of the lands of the religious houses, under the pretext that they no longer performed the public function for which they were held, and 378 therefore should no longer perform any public function at all. This fresh robbery of the people, apart from the hideous brutality with which it was carried out, had immediate results, woeful enough; but the point on which it touches our subject is that it added to the army of [l]ackalls cast loose on the world (and of whom More and Latimer speak), in consequence of the discovery of the landlords that they could farm for a profit, and that men were less profitable animals to keep than sheep.

So you see, between one thing and another, there was created a vast body of people who had no property except their own bodies, which, in consequence, they were bound to sell to anyone who would buy them on the terms of keeping them alive to work. Thus was established the class of free laborers of whom our Athenian friend was afraid, not without reason; men who were free—to starve. This was the material ready for the use of the plague of profit-mongering (politely called commerce), then newly let loose on the world. At first the market was hard to adjust, and the “material” somewhat intractable—so much so that by Mr. Fronde’s pious hero, Henry VIII. (whom we may call one of the greatest scoundrels that ever disgraced the name of Englishman), and by others, it was hanged out of the way by the thousand.

However, things shook down again at last. A poor-law, which, unlike the existing one, was humane and reasonable, was enacted to fill the place of the almsgiving of the monasteries; and things grew a little easier in relation to labor, and so was established the new order of things founded on commerce, and its dawning gospel of supply and demand.

Thus had the struggles of labor, to set itself free from feudal arbitrariness, succeeded in a sense ; feudalism had got its death blow, and commerce was taking the empty place in its old throne. The workman had entered into his kingdom, then? All was straightforward justice and good life for him henceforward? Strange to say, not at all. On the contrary, he had been shoved down a step or two, and was, in fact, worse off than his predecessor, the serf, had been. He had labored, and other men had entered into his labor. For out of all those elements of freed villein, corporate trader, privileged guild-craftsman, yeoman, &c., had gradually grown up a middle class, who increased speedily in wealth and power, being fed by that very misery first created by the expropriation of the peasants, who, as I have said, became the due material for the profit-mongering of new-born commerce.

This new middle class made a stout and rigorous set of men, rough-handed and unscrupulous enough, and pushed on against privilege, with all the old traditions behind them of men who were struggling under very different circumstances, and with aims, at least partially different, and towards the middle of the seventeenth century they began to aim at supremacy in the State instead of freedom for commerce. As to the condition of labor under them, it was poor enough. Although some of the crafts were carried on in a domestic manner without division of labor and untroubled by the middlemen, in most competition and the rule of master over man was fairly established. As to the arts, it fared in likewise. The craftsmen were now divided into artists who were not workmen, and workmen who were not artists. Popular art, which was once 379 universal art, and in which the changes from the highest intellectual to the lowest ornamental art were gradual and imperceptible—popular art lingered in a rude form where it was allied to the domestic labor aforesaid, but elsewhere, under the grip of profit sank lower and lower decade by decade, and was employed in making mere toys and upholstery. Architecture, or ornamental building, retained some of its charm and beauty where life was rude and simple, but elsewhere had lost all life and hope, and sank into a dull, pedantic exposition of the misunderstood rules of bygone ages. Yet a tradition of the better days still lingered, and it was, in general, only when men intended to show their pride of learning and riches that they made quite ugly things.

Such was the art of the seventeenth century ; but there was a growing tendency to change in the organization of labor necessitated by its growing commercialism. The workmen were collected into workshops, their simple machines—the loom, the lathe, the wheel-though not for the most part altered in principle, were lightened and improved; division of labor was introduced; and an intelligent man, who once would have schemed and carried out a piece of work from the first to the last, was now forced to concentrate all his mental power on a small portion of such work, speed and precision being the qualities now sought for in a workman, instead of thought and artistic finish.

This system of work was carried to perfection during the next century (the eighteenth), with the result of the entire destruction of popular art except in places so remote from the centers of civilization that they scarcely felt the influence of commerce; while as to the intellectual arts, painting, sculpture, &c.—they sank as low as possible, given a certain amount of flippant cleverness as to invention, and low manual dexterity in execution. To what extent they have recovered from this living death at this day it is not easy for us contemporaries to settle. Doubtless men of genius exist, and that genius will, with terrible effort, break through unfavorable surroundings, and produce something; hut, as to popular art, it is as a tale that is told, and the people is dissociated from the pleasure of life.

Even in the eighteenth century it was commoner for people to make things ugly than beautiful; and no wonder, for the worker had, as a rule, no longer to think of what he was making, and so could take no pleasure in it—no satisfaction, for instance, in taming a troublesome material to his will, and so producing beauty and interest from roughness and risk. He worked at the bidding of some designer outside his craft, who himself was hurried and harassed by working for the profit-grinder, and cared naught for the material his hands were not to deal with, or the finished wares he might never see.

Here, then, at the end of the seventeenth century, as far as history goes, is an end of art, properly speaking; but for labor there was still another change in store. The division-of-labor system had, indeed, made a great change in the manufacture of goods, and produced enormous quantities of them for the markets; but those markets were growing every year in their demands, for obvious causes too long to speak of here; and, though England had had her share in the growth of commerce, she still remained, on the whole, a quiet agricultural country, even in the first half of the eighteenth century, and was then, as to her working population, more prosperous than she had been for centuries. Then came 380 the tremendous change which has made us what we are now, the revolution of the great machine industries. The real history of the fifty years that effected this revolution has yet to be written, if, indeed, it can ever be written truly; but, at all events, we all know its outlines, and how the terrible war which we undertook, nominally in defense of monarchical principle, but really to preserve our foreign and colonial markets, landed us early in this century in a strange position—the most powerful nation in the world, with the monopoly of trade in the great industries, but with a most miserable population, oppressed, past the power of words to tell of, by the recklessness of the pursuit of commercial gains, which, so long as a profit could be made, heeded not the sufferings produced by some new change in machinery, nor attempted to regulate that change so as to save us from its worst consequences.

Where are we now, after all this? is surely the question we must ask ourselves. As to the relation of art to labor, I can only say that labor in the mass has no longer anything to do with art. Even under the division-of-labor system of the eighteenth century there was left some poor remains of attractiveness in the fact that it was still thought creditable to turn out good work, “well and truly made,” as our forefathers phrased it. Well, we have got a step beyond that now, and understand clearly that profit is the one sole aim of all manufacture; therefore, as far as the work of the worker is concerned, there is no attractiveness—that is, art—in it, whereas once, as we have seen, his work was almost always attractive.

But, if his work is no longer pleasant, surely there is some compensatory pleasure otherwise in his life. Where is it, then? His home? Alas, in the manufacturing districts, or London, or any great town, not even a rich man can have a decent home, much less a poor man, since it has been thought a little thing to turn the rivers into filth, and put out the sun, and make the earth squalid with the bricken encampments—we will not call them houses—in which those who make our wealth live such lives as they can live.

Does leisure compensate our workman, then? We need not go into that question, I think. Or do high wages, if they could be any good to him, compelled to live in the toiling hell from which, as long as he is a worker, he cannot escape? Nay, we now know that, under the present system, his wages must be limited to the amount which will keep him from day to day in the condition he is used to, or profits will come to an end. Or education—shall that be his recompense? Why, there are still people who are wishful to deprive him—or his children, rather—of the pitiful modicum of education which has but lately been doled out to him, and in this country of compromise (cowardice is another name for that word), I can pretty well guess how that is likely to end, for the present.

The question—What are the present relations of art to labor? is soon answered. The relations are simple enough, for labor is wholly divorced from art. As to his work, the workman is either himself a machine or is the slave of a machine. There is no art in his work; and as to his life outside his work, he has neither money, leisure, or education—that is, refinement—sufficient to obtain art.

It is to be feared that some of our readers will think that this does not matter at all. The workman is fed, clothed, and lodged in such a way that he makes a good workman—for making a profit for other people—and is contented with 381 his lot, as yet. Those who think thus will not care to read an answer to another question—What should be the relations between art and labor?

Let us take the surroundings of the workman’s life first, because his work can never be set right unless the surroundings of his life are, which, indeed, will include the surroundings of all our lives. Let us see what these surroundings should be.

1. The workman must live in a pleasant house in a pleasant place. That is a claim for labor which I know most people will be inclined to agree with until they consider how impossible it is to satisfy it under our present profit-grinding system; for please to think what time, money, and trouble it would take to turn London into a pleasant place, and also that a pleasant house is, and must be, a costly house.

2. The workman must be well educated. This, again, most people will agree to till they know what it means—namely, that all children shall be educated, not according to the money their parents happen to possess, but according to their capacity. Less than this means class-education, which is a monstrous oppression of the poor by the rich.

3. The workman must have due leisure. Once more this is agreed to till the meaning of the word is clear. Overwork for profit must be prevented at any cost. The necessary maximum of a day’s work must be found out, and made legal and compulsory. It follows, as a corollary to this claim, that everybody must labor.

So much for the necessary surroundings of life under which art for the whole people would be possible. I think my readers must see that what these three things really mean is refinement of life, or, as we call it now, the life of a gentleman; and we must clearly understand that if the workers have no hope of becoming refined, or gentlemen, they will in the long run become brutes, and the well-to-do classes will be no better. Let us think of that, and what it means. The lives of some of us may see its terrible meaning explained unless we grow wise in time.

Now as to the manner of work, if we are to have art among us once more.

1. There must be no useless work done. This, indeed, follows, as a matter of course, on the limitation of the daily hours of labor; but also, of course, I know many of my readers do not agree with me at all in this, as we mostly live, we of the well-to-do classes, on useless labor—the turning of the wheel of the profit-grinder.

2. Whatever necessarily irksome work must be done should be done by machines, which should be used to save labor really, and not, as now, to grind out profit. I know that this involves what some will think the monstrous proposition that machines should be our servants, not our masters, but I make the claim without blushing.

3. No useless work being done, and all irksome labor saved as much as possible by machines being made our servants instead of our masters, it would follow, as a matter of course, that what other work was done (which in truth would be by far the most important part of work) would be accompanied by pleasure in the doing, and would receive praise when done; and most true it is that the product of all work done with pleasure and worthy of praise is art—that is to say, an essential part of the pleasure of life. Beauty is the necessary expression and token of such work.

Now, of course, it will be said this kind of work is desirable doubtless, but impossible to realize. But let me remind my readers that to a certain extent it was realized in the Middle-ages, when the workman was master 382 of his material, tools, and time. In order to realize the kind of work I have been speaking of, he must once again be master of these things ; and this must he brought about not by reverting to the system of the Middle-ages, which is obviously impossible, but by making the workman the master of his time, tools, and material collectively or socially—that is to say, that the laborers must regulate labor in the interests of the laborers. Of course, it is clear that this involves the altering of the basis of society, since it means nothing less than supplying the present system of competition, or—the devil take the hindmost—by Socialism, or universal cooperation, whichever you like to call it. And some will think such a change a heavy price indeed to pay for art, even if it he true (and I still assert that it is) that you cannot have art without that change.

Yet I must ask you to remember that I have called art the pleasure of life, which, indeed, means nothing short of happiness. Tell me, then, what is too high a price to buy general happiness with?

Remember, also, that I have said it was necessary for the new birth of art that the workman should be well housed, well educated, and have due leisure in his life. I know that this cannot happen to him under the present competitive system; if you do not know it you may find it true some day, when you begin to try that the workman shall be well housed, well educated, and be in possession of due leisure. And if the present system will not do this for him, what will? That is an important question, which he will one day ask and answer for himself without our help if we do not look to it. My answer to the question once more is—the supremacy of labor used in a social sense for the benefit of the community. That is, I feel quite sure, the next move in the great game of progress, and will he made whether we like it or not, whether we help it or not. But since it is for the good of the human race, and since day by day its advent is becoming more obviously inevitable, let us learn to like it and learn to help it.

The essay published in the Cooperative Annual ended here. Morris's original notes included an additional conclusion, which follows,

To me indeed all things seem moving that way; it was partly my intention when I gave you just now that hurried glimpse of the history of labor to show how practically all history has been the history of the antagonism of classes, that all change and progress has come about by that antagonism, the oppressed class striving to raise itself constantly in opposition to the dominant one, which in its turn resists as blindly as vainly. I told you how the rise of the middle-class took place from the struggles of the enfranchised serf of the middle ages for freedom of competition; that struggle was not fully triumphant till the French Revolution, which is commonly but erroneously supposed to have been a struggle for the freedom of the lower classes, but which was really the last attack of the middle-classes on feudal privilege which it practically abolished. This triumph of the middle classes or commercial classes was sealed finally by the tremendous economical revolution of te great machine industries. and the middle classes, long struggling with the classes above them, at first for existence and latterly for supremacy, had now entered into a new phase, and are arming themselves to resist the class which has formed below them during that struggle, and which has now taken their place in the march of progress. I cannot doubt that you have noted some of the tokens of this new struggle: the success of the trades unions in England, though they themselves hurriedly founded at a time when the principles of Socialism were not well understood in one of the darker periods of our history have grown to be conservative bodies looking only to the interests of the aristocracy of labor; the sudden collapse of the laissez faire doctrines so confidently proclaimed as eternal natural laws of the universe, and now discovered not to be possible to be carried on in a small corner of it; the re-awakening of Socialism supposed to have been dead, in a new and scientific form, even in England the stronghold of middle-class supremacy; its rapid spread over the continent of Europe, and especially in Germany, the land of education, all these things point to the coming of the great change when the time shall be ripe for it. Nor on the other hand are there lacking signs of that ripeness—that rottenness: England the great commercial country is not losing, but has lost her monopoly of trade which she had after the great French War: competition is eating its own heart out: everywhere I hear the manufacturers telling the same story: wages are high they say though business is bad; it is we the hapless profit-grinders who are suffering: we are making no profits: that is their version of the state of things to which periodical inflation . gluts and slackness have brought us, and I can't think a triumphant outcome of the reckless gambling called Commerce. Meantime let them ask themselves, I say this to the trades unions also, what will happen when wages do begin to fall widely; when the working classes having brought their standard of life up to a certain pitch find that under the present system that standard cannot be maintained, that it is slipping away from them; it seems to me that when that pitch comes the conservative instincts of the British working man, on which you gentlemen of the commercial classes so much depend will fail you,─and then─

Be warned in time I beg of you. I beg it not in the interests of our class, which I hope to see melt away into the general community founded on the equality of labor, but in the interests of the individuals of it who may be alive at the time; nay, in the interests of that peace and order of which, excuse me, you are apt to make a fetish of, or treat as the Portuguese sailors do their saints, sometimes worshiping them, sometimes thrashing them soundly when they think more is to be got out of them by that process. I say in the interest of peace and order, I beg you to keep your eyes open to the signs of the times; so that the change may be brought about as little mechanically as may be, as completely as may be, leaving as little heart-burning and injustice behind it as may be. And I am the bolder in begging this of you since I myself belong to the middle class, and I think represent an increasing number of men of that class who, whatever happens must throw in our lot with the workers at every stage of the struggle: to us the name Socialism does not represent a political party but a religion rather, to which we are bound to devote our lives: that religion I preach to you now in what feeble words I can, of which the last are these: there are even now but two camps, one of the people and one of their masters; between these two you must make your choice. Rich and poor are the words which divide the world, and I earnestly beg you to join yourselves to the cause of the poor, in the hope that those two names so long expressive of the curse of the world shall one day have no meaning to us but that we shall all be friends and good fellows united in the communion of hopeful and pleasurable labor which alone can produce art, the Pleasure of Life.

Bibliographical Note


The Relations of Art to Labor


The Cooperative Wholesale Societies Ltd (England and Scotland) Annual for 1890, pub. The Cooperative Wholesale Society Ltd, Manchester and The Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society, Glasgow, 1890, pp. 371-382

The conclusion is taken from the Yale University Library Tinker Manuscript 1598 pp 31-34, as published in Alan Bacon (ed), William Morris: The Relations of Art to Labor, William Morris Society, 2004.


This essay is a modified version of the talk first given under the name Art and Labor in 1884.

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Graham Seaman, July 2020.

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