William Morris

Preface to Arts and Crafts Essays by members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society

THE papers that follow this need no explanation, since they are directed towards special sides of the Arts and Crafts. Mr. Crane has put forward the aims of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society as an Exhibition Society, therefore I need not enlarge upon that phase of this book. But I will write a few words on the way in which it seems to me we ought to face the present position of that revival in decorative art of which our Society is one of the tokens.

And, in the first place, the very fact, that there is a "revival" shows that the arts aforesaid have been sick unto death. In all such changes the first of the new does not appear till there is little or no life left in the old, and yet the old, even when it is all but dead, goes on living in corruption, and refuses to get itself put quietly out of the way and decently buried. So that while the revival advances and does some good work, the period of corruption goes on from worse to worse, till it arrives at the point when it can no longer be borne, and disappears. To give a concrete example: in these last days there are many buildings erected which (in spite of our eclecticism, our lack of a traditional style) are at least well designed and give pleasure to the eye; nevertheless, so hopelessly hideous and vulgar is general building that persons of taste find themselves regretting the brown brick box with its feeble and trumpery attempts at ornament, which characterises the style of building current at the end of the last and beginning of this century, because there is some style about it, and even some merit of design, if only negative.

The position which we have to face then is this: the lack of beauty in modern life (of decoration in the best sense of the word), which in the earlier part of the century was unnoticed, is now recognised by a part of the public as an evil to be remedied if possible; but by far the larger part of civilised mankind does not feel that lack in the least, so that no general sense of beauty is extant which would force us into the creation of a feeling for art which in its turn would force us into taking up the dropped links of tradition, and once more producing genuine organic art. Such art as we have is not the work of the mass of craftsmen unconscious of any definite style, but producing beauty instinctively; conscious rather of the desire to turn out a creditable piece of work than of any aim towards positive beauty. That is the essential motive power towards art in past ages; but our art is the work of a small minority composed of educated persons, fully conscious of their aim of producing beauty, and distinguished from the great body of workmen by the possession of that aim.

I do not, indeed, ignore the fact that there is a school of artists belonging to this decade who set forth that beauty is not an essential part of art; which they consider rather as an instrument for the statement of fact, or an exhibition of the artist's intellectual observation and skill of hand. Such a school would seem at first sight to have an interest of its own as a genuine traditional development of the art of the eighteenth century, which, like all intellectual movements in that century, was negative and destructive; and this all the more as the above-mentioned school is connected with science rather than art. But on looking closer into the matter it will be seen that this school cannot claim any special interest on the score of tradition. For the eighteenth century art was quite unconscious of its tendency towards ugliness and nullity, whereas the modern "Impressionists" loudly proclaim their enmity to beauty, and are no more unconscious of their aim than the artists of the revival are of their longing to link themselves to the traditional art of the past.

Here we have then, on the one hand, a school which is pushing rather than drifting into the domain of the empirical science of to-day, and another which can only work through its observation of an art which was once organic, but which died centuries ago, leaving us what by this time has become but the wreckage of its brilliant and eager life, while at the same time the great mass of civilisation lives on content to forgo art almost altogether. Nevertheless the artists of both the schools spoken of are undoubtedly honest and eager in pursuit of art under the conditions of modern civilisation; that is to say, that they have this much in common with the schools of tradition, that they do what they are impelled to do, and that the public would be quite wrong in supposing them to be swayed by mere affectation.

Now it seems to me that this impulse in men of certain minds and moods towards certain forms of art, this genuine eclecticism, is all that we can expect under modern civilisation; that we can expect no general impulse towards the fine arts till civilisation has been transformed into some other condition of life, the details of which we cannot foresee. Let us then make the best of it, and admit that those who practise art must nowadays be conscious of that practice; conscious I mean that they are either adding a certain amount of artistic beauty and interest to a piece of goods which would, if produced in the ordinary way, have no beauty or artistic interest, or that they are producing something which has no other reason for existence than its beauty and artistic interest. But having made the admission let us accept the consequences of it, and understand that it is our business as artists, since we desire to produce works of art, to supply the lack of tradition by diligently cultivating in ourselves the sense of beauty (pace the Impressionists), skill of hand, and niceness of observation, without which only a makeshift of art can be got ; and also, so far as we can, to call the attention of the public to the fact that there are a few persons who are doing this, and even earning a livelihood by so doing, and that therefore, in spite of the destructive tradition of our immediate past, in spite of the great revolution in the production of wares, which this century only has seen on the road to completion, and which on the face of it, and perhaps essentially, is hostile to art, in spite of all difficulties which the evolution of the later days of society has thrown in the way of that side of human pleasure which is called art, there is still a minority with a good deal of life in it which is not content with what is called utilitarianism, which, being interpreted, means the reckless waste of life in the pursuit of the means of life.

It is this conscious cultivation of art and the attempt to interest the public in it which the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society has set itself to help, by calling special attention to that really most important side of art, the decoration of utilities by furnishing them with genuine artistic finish in place of trade finish.

July 1893.

Taken from Arts and Crafts Essays, by members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, Pub. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1893.