An Address Delivered in support of the Society for the
Protection of Ancient Buildings by William Morris,
originally published in London: 1882
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 civilised, has a great number of wants which have to be satisfied by the organised labour of the community. From father to son, from generation to generation, 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 their very labour that they lived by lay the material in which their thought could be embodied; and thus though they laboured, they laboured 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 recognise 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 civilisation, either outlaws from it or corrupters of it.
As to the outlaws from civilisation, 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 sympathise with the rejecters. There have been in all ages of civilisation 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 labour, the poor toiling for the rich, and ever remaining poor; with this we, at least, will have nought 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 ale 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 £700 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 labour, 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 civilisation. 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 labour infinitely that produces material comfort, but they will reach no helping hand to that which makes labour tolerable; and they themselves are but a part of the crowd that toils without an aim; for they themselves labour 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 civilisation 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 civilisation 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 labour spent in supplying civilised man with things which he has come to consider needful, and which, as a rule, he will not do without. Much of that labour is grievous and oppressive; but since there is much more of grievous labour 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 labour; 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 labour 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 fulfil 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 as a workman or a very deeply interested onlooker; wherefore I shall ask your leave to speak quite plainly and without fear or favour.
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 civilisation that does not do this: if our houses, our clothes, our household furniture and utensils are not works of art, they are either wretched make-shifts, 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.
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