Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hopes and Fears for Craft


William Morris, In Memorium
What then of hope? My hope for craft is but a personal manifestation of a greater hope for humanity. Craft is such an intrinsically humanistic endeavour that it might be considered a preeminent measure, a barometer if you will of human culture. However, the readings from the metaphorical barometer of craft are very low indeed, the immediate outlook for mankind...stormy.

The very notion of 'hope' indicates that the way forward is not assured. So for the hopeful, there accompanies trepidation and fear. A fear of loss not easily recompensed, a storm which hides in its dark clouds: war, pestilence with death following closely behind. A day when the chisel falls silent against the stone, the fires of the forge have all grown cold and the handy-work of man is but a forgotten memory.

So what is left for the hopeful to do in the face of fear? What men and women of nobility and purpose have always done. They fight...each one according to his gifts.  More than a century ago a thoughtful, sensitive human being, one very gifted craftsman would take up this fight with every ounce of his being. Thankfully, the poetry and prose of a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris* survives to us today. I'll briefly share and expand on some of his writings in this post.

The Beauty of Life

PROPTER VITAM VIVENDI PERDERE CAUSAS - Juvenal

To lose the reasons for living for the sake of life. 

The earth was more beautiful once, so very alive. At some point in the not too distant past, man arrived on the scene. Under his influence the wildness of nature was tamed and pacified to a degree; in turn the earth, it might be argued, for a time became even more beautiful and livelier still. No longer. Man who has multiplied and spread to every corner, increases in destructive power whereas the earth becomes uglier and more lifeless each and every day. Where industry and technology are most employed the destruction is swiftest and hardest to remedy. Does this state make any of us happy? I don't believe so, although too many of us are mired in complacency, acceptance or distraction.

Morris identified this inherent conflict of a burgeoning consumer society made possible by the rise of industry, against nature, expressing it thus: "The latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts"


The past few centuries have witnessed this exponentially increasing disconnect of man with his natural environment with devastating effects to the ecology. Of course, this is a suicidal trajectory, as we ourselves are nature, we are ultimately rejecting ourselves. As a craftsman Morris saw nature as the only standard of beauty, intrinsic to our humanity with the universal appeal to divert us from this mad course, "This is at the root of the whole matter, everything made by man's hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her...Now the only way in our craft of design for compelling people to understand you is to follow hard on Nature; for what else can you refer people to, or what else is there which everybody can understand?"

A true artist embraces nature and life with all its troubles, struggles and pains rather than this culture of mechanization and death, though the latter be accepted, easy and peaceful.

The Art of the People

There is a persistent delusion that industry and technology has liberated mankind. Historians seem only to record war, pestilence and suffering as if there only existed fear and terror without respite, not one whit of joy in life. Are we to to believe only the written history and discount the reality embodied in the surviving architecture and craft objects of everyday life?

"Once men sat under grinding tyrannies, amidst violence and fear so great, that nowadays we wonder how they lived through twenty-four hours of it, till we remember that then, as now, their daily labour was the main part of their lives, and that that daily labour was sweetened by the daily creation of Art; and shall we who are delivered from the evils they bore, live drearier days than they did,...choose to sit down and labour for ever amidst grim ugliness?

There was much going on to make life endurable in those times. Not every day, you may be sure, was a day of slaughter and tumult, though the histories read almost as if it were so; but every day the hammer chinked on the anvil, and the chisel played about the oak beam, and never without some beauty and invention being born of it, and consequently some human happiness.

Westminster Abbey
When men say popes, kings, and emperors built such and such buildings, it is a mere way of speaking. You look in your history books to see who built Westminster Abbey, who built St. Sophia at Constantinople, and they tell you Henry III., Justinian the Emperor. Did they? or, rather, men like you and me, handicraftsmen, who have left no names behind them, nothing but their work?

History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created."

Therein lies another great service of craft to humanity, the social dimension, the capacity to give joy and meaning to work, that which occupies the greatest part of our waking hours. Yet, the 'developed' world has transformed itself from being a maker society into a consumer economy, industrially producing a million things that no one really wants. Mere distractions from a monotonous life lacking imagination and meaning. There would be little need to 'get away' or 'live for the weekend' if your everyday life was filled with beauty, creativity and purpose, if it improved your community, if it brought pleasure to your neighbors.

Courtesy of the
 American College of the Building Arts
"Real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour", so that "If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect." Yet empty existence is not an inevitability. There was a time not long ago when everyone shared in art, when "everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful" so that one either participated in the making of beautiful things or in using the things made, more often still, making and using both, so that everyone shared in art. "To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce USE, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce MAKE, that is the other use of it."

"What is an artist but a workman who is determined that, whatever else happens, his work shall be excellent?" Are we giving ourselves that opportunity? What of our children and grandchildren? Or are we propping up a world built on consumption, greed and profit? "How can we bear to pay a price for a piece of goods which will help to trouble one man, to ruin another, and starve a third? Or, still more, I think, how can we bear to use, how can we enjoy something which has been a pain and a grief for the maker to make?...That evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion."

Might we continue to place our hope in industry and technology to save us from this seemingly intractable morass? What remedy can there be for the blunders of technology but further technology? No, the modernized production of the needs of life: food, clothes and shelter have devolved into a highly organized injustice, an instrument of oppression that poisons our planet, strips beauty from our daily lives and stands in opposition to the human spirit. Industry is past the point of reform, it needs be overthrown...humanity needs a post-Industrial revolution. I don't think we are ready though, our life is still not ugly enough. It is almost as if we must complete the full cycle, the complete ecological and social collapse of society. Perhaps facing our own extinction will be enough to shake us from our languid complacency.

The Prospects of Craft in Civilization

"I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few."

Even if we acknowledge that the ecological and social costs of industry are too heavy to bear for much longer, who can pay for craft but the wealthy, as a pretext of luxury? How can we possibly afford craft again? Simplicity.

Mr. Morris reminds us, "Art was not born in the palace; rather she fell sick there, and it will take more...than that of rich men's houses to heal her again. If she is ever to be strong enough to help mankind once more, she must gather strength in simple places."

What is it that we really need to satisfy our physical needs? Less than we think. How much space can we occupy, how much square footage to we need, how many homes, automobiles, computers? Boats, televisions, cable subscriptions, fantasy leagues? A million things to distract us and waste our life looking after. Do any of the aforementioned, the petty luxuries, pretences of a showy display of wealth, truly enrich our lives? I think not. These commodities are mere fashion, vanities that come and go in our lives as we soon tire of them. In our hearts we recognize they have no value. I believe the drugged pursuit of MORE robs too many of us the time to think and feel, to pass on the inheritance of a better world than was left us. By contrast, "Real art is cheap, even at the price that must be paid for it." and "Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement."

Our physical nature is only a small aspect of what constitutes our humanity. What is it that we really need to satisfy our other needs: intellectual, sensual and spiritual? First we must recognize that we have such needs and so does our fellowman. It places a moral obligation before us to contribute to a society where these needs can be fulfilled. I speak the truth when I tell you that you can not truly enjoy something knowing its production crushed and took advantage of other people. Neither can you verily treasure such things by turning a blind eye, in a thinly veiled, willful ignorance, only suspecting its making was with great injustice.

"If you cannot learn to love real art, at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. It is not so much because the wretched thing is so ugly and silly and useless that I ask you to cast it from you; it is much more because these are but the outward symbols of the poison that lies within them: look through them and see all that has gone to their fashioning, and you will see how vain labour, and sorrow, and disgrace have been their companions from the first,- -and all this for trifles that no man really needs! Learn to do without; there is virtue in those words; a force that rightly used would choke both demand and supply of Mechanical Toil."

This message is admittedly inconvenient if not irksome for industry, nothing more than "mere grit and friction in the wheels of the money-grinding machine." However, it is high time to reject its tyranny, reclaim our humanity, stand up for our fellowman and seize our collective right for happiness, for "an art made by the people for the people as a joy for the maker and the user... How could we keep silence of all this? and what voice could tell it but the voice of art: and what audience for such a tale would content us but all men living on the Earth? This is what Architecture, Art, and Craft** hopes to be: it will have this life, or else death; and it is for us now living between the past and the future to say whether it shall live or die."

*All quotes are from William Morris unless otherwise noted
 **Text added

Contributed by Patrick Webb

No comments:

Post a Comment