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The Meaning Of The Arts And Crafts Movement

( Originally Published 1920 )



By FREDERIC ALLEN WHITING, SECRETARY AND TREASURER SOCIETY OF ARTS AND CRAFTS, BOSTON.

FEW people realize that the beautiful pieces of furniture which have come down from the cabinet-makers of colonial New England, or the objects of mediaeval craftsmanship which are so carefully treasured, are interesting not only for their beauty or for their historical significance but also as examples of an almost vanished system of production.

The development of the modern systems of production has led us a long way from the simple conditions under which the workmen of the middle ages in Europe, or of the early colonial days in New England, did their work. The fact that the farther we have gone from the old methods the farther has our result strayed from the best standards of beauty, seems to indicate that herein lies a truth worth searching out and applying. Let us see just how conditions have altered and what the changes mean to the young people of the present generation.

The most imposing monuments of man's skill with tools are those great mediaeval churches and halls which were built in England and on the continent during the time when men who worked with their hands still sought through their craft to express the religious feelings and the craving for beauty which were still a glory and a source of humble pride. The stone carver who cut the pillars of Melrose or of Rosslyn or of York, wrought to the glory of God, consciously feeling that if his work was good it was because it was sanctified by its end. He was recognized as one interested in the success of the whole undertaking and could therefore be accorded a freedom impossible today, when the average journeyman has little thought of his work as a means of expression, considering it too often only as a means of livelihood.

The causes which have brought about this change of feeling are numerous and can only be touched upon. In the first place the men who built the cathedrals were living in a state of practical isolation which it is hard for us to realize to-day. Each town, each village almost, had to be as far as possible an economic unit, containing within its borders craftsmen capable of supplying the needs of the community. Means of communication were so rare, except in the seaport towns, that furniture, vessels of silver, copper, and brass, woven cloths, clothing, shoes, etc., were of necessity produced in each community, while the commercial system was still so simple that much of the trading was still done by barter or exchange.

These very limitations brought with them the personal relationship which safeguards the standard of workmanship. The man who makes things for his neighbors to use, has a reputation for integrity which he may lose if his work is not so good as they have reason to expect. The man who works in a factory turning out uninteresting fragments of an unknown whole for an unknown possible customer across a continent, feels no moral pressure beyond that contained in the foreman's refusal to pass work below a certain grade. By this contrast have we come to see that in gaining much which is good and which is inevitably ours, we have, perhaps needlessly, sacrificed much of the old which a wiser second thought is teaching us at this late day to recover where recovery is possible.

In England the craft traditions had sadly languished during the mid-years of the last century, and many beautiful country mansions were desecrated by the hands of unintelligent decorators. Thomas Carlyle gave the first note of warning, declaring that the cause for the loss of culture was the loss of respect for honest work. He tried to make his readers believe that the only truly satisfactory and happy life was one full of useful and ennobling labor. Ruskin took up Carlyle's cry and carried the idea much farther. He claimed that art can only be produced by artists; that artists must be workmen and workmen artists; and that conditions making this possible must be secured before it was reasonable to expect art to become once more a vital element in our daily life. Ruskin went far to show how much the rare beauty of the great architectural monuments was due to the freedom of expression granted the individual craftsman who worked upon them, since with this opportunity of expression went that keen feeling of responsibility, not only for their own work but for the whole undertaking, which is so sadly lacking in the worker of today.

William Morris took up Ruskin's cry, declaring that the only enduring art was "an art made by the people and for the people as a happiness to maker and user." His inability to secure for his own home the quality of work he required led to the establishment of the firm of Morris & Company, in which were associated with him Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, and others. The untiring energy of Morris resulted in the firm's offering its patrons, in a surprisingly short time, objects of interesting design, splendid color, and sound workmanship in a rapidly growing list of crafts, and in a financial success which encouraged many others to undertake handicraft work. The whole standard of English taste was very decidedly affected; and perhaps as much through the constant talking and writing of Morris as through the opportunity he afforded for securing beautiful house furnishings, the English houses began once more to assume an air of homely charm and again to represent the character of those who lived in them. Morris said "have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." The more that we in America can apply this saying the sooner will our homes be-as in the colonial days-sincerely expressive of their occupants rather than of obsolete and half-understood styles of another century and another people.

This unintelligent following of the professional decorator's taste has led astray many an ambitious owner of newly acquired riches. It must be done away with if the crafts are to be revived and our homes are to represent our national life. This is easily accomplished if we will but take the pains to buy wisely, putting to the test of our most acute intelligence each object taken into our homes, and buying because we are convinced it is permanently good rather than because it is the prevalent fashion. The best work is always good and always looks well beside other work equally good, regardless of varying style or period.

It is for this, then, that the Arts and Crafts Societies are striving in our country-to urge people to think before buying and to take the pains to buy the things best suited to the individual need. Inexpensive furniture, for instance, made by piece-work under the factory system is cheap only in its first cost. It becomes an abomination as its "cheap" finish wears away, and it must soon be replaced. So many inexpensive chairs are needed to serve through the lifetime of one that is thoroughly well made, that in the end the good chair is the least expensive. It has in addition the saving grace of individual character which makes it, if good in the first place, always beautiful.

There is so much said by those not conversant with the true meaning of the movement as to its being opposed to machinery, that it seems advisable to state definitely that the protest against the ma-chine is only in so far as it encroaches upon the field of art, thus depriving the craftsman of his right to individual expression and turning him into a "hand," entirely dependent upon the owner of the machine for the opportunity to earn his livelihood. It is recognized by all intelligent people that under existing conditions the greater part of the articles of daily use must be made by machinery, which extends man's capacities and enables a few to accomplish with comparative ease undertakings which in olden times would have meant unending drudgery to many. The machine, properly used under the control of an intelligent man, is a blessing to humanity and sup-plies comforts to innumerable people : the machine when wrongly used to exploit untrained human labor, enslaves men and women and deadens the small spark of intelligence with which they started. Let the machine production be kept strictly to the utilities without pretence to art and its use is manifest. It seems almost unnecessary to state that it is an unsound proposition which claims that art (which must be the expression of an intelligent' individual) can be produced by machinery.

Where fifteen years ago the art schools were training only painters and sculptors, to-day they are more and more training designers, most of whom are preparing to enter the great, almost unlimited field offered by the reviving demand for handicraft productions of good design and workmanship. There is today no opportunity so alluring to the young man or young woman who has artistic cravings and who is willing to do hard, serious work; and success is assured to those who have natural ability and the persistence to acquire a thorough training in the theory and practice of design and of the technique of the chosen craft.

The great Exposition at St. Louis gave to many people their first understanding of what individual workers in the various crafts were doing. For the first time in an American Exposition the applied arts were admitted in the Department of Art,-over one thousand objects being shown from craftsmen living in every section of the country. There are now Societies with permanent exhibitions and salesrooms in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, and other cities where young people who are interested can learn what kind of work is being done.

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