William Morris

Art or No Art? Who Shall Settle It?

The workman of the present day may well think that art is not a matter which concerns him much. To speak bluntly, he is not wealthy enough to share in such art (there is little enough of it told) as is going in civilized countries. His earnings are precarious, and his lodging precarious also, and, to boot, stowed away almost always in the dirtiest corners of our dirty cities; so that, at the risk of offending worthy people who are feebly trying to bestow some scraps of art on their "poorer brethren," it must be said that the workman's home must be bare of art. Indeed, the attempt to bring beauty into such homes would be a task to break the heart of the most patient artist in Europe. That shabby gift of the crumbs that fall from the children's table must be taken back again, for there is no such thing as cheap art, and workmen can only buy what is cheap. On the other hand if the workman takes it into his head to go some day to the galleries of art that he may try to understand the raptures of us artists over the works of past ages, how does he speed on his educational errand? What does he find? - the door shut in his face on the one day in the week on which he could carry out his attempt to learn something from the study of his own property the National Gallery say. It really does take an artist to understand the full farce of this stupendous joke of the defenders of religion against common sense and common honesty.

It would exceed the limits of a newspaper article to show how far the workman is from having any share in art when he is at his work, but my workman friends, at least, know all about that; for even those who are engaged on making the wares which, in the wretched slang of would-be cultivation, are called "art objects," have to work always as machines, or as the slaves of machines, and the "organisers of labour" take good care that neither the quality nor the quantity of the art in these "art objects" shall be too grand. Here, then, is the truth, which we artists know full well, that those who produce the wealth of civilized society have no share in art. So entirely are they cut off from it, that many, or most of them, it is to be feared, do not even know of their loss in this matter. Yet I am bound to assert here and everywhere that art is necessary to man unless he is to sink to something lower than the brutes. Middle class supremacy has brought us to this at last, that such art as there is left is used (whatever its merits may be in each case as a toy for the rich, while the workers are debarred from having any art, either in their work or their homes; that is to say that the workers are doomed by capitalism to live without the pleasure which is necessary to humanity.

Yes, middle class supremacy! for things were very different all through the Middle Ages from the 12th to the end of the 16th century, while the middle class was being formed from the enfranchised serfs, yeomen, and craftsmen of the guilds. Throughout that period, at least, all manufactured goods, everything that admitted of ornament was made more or less beautiful; nor was the beauty charged for as a separate article, for all craftsmen were more or less artists, and could not help adding beauty to the goods they made. It is easy to see that this could not have happened if they had been working for the profit of a master. They worked, on the contrary, under such conditions that they themselves were masters of their time, tools, and materials, and, for the most part, their goods were exchanged by the simple process of the user buying from the maker. Under these circumstances it was a matter of course that a man, being master of his work should choose to make it pleasanter to himself by exercising on it that love of beauty which is common to all men till it is crushed out of them by the mere bitter struggle for life called competition for wages, and by subjection to a master who also is struggling for profit against other competitors. This system of a man working for himself leisurely and happily was infinitely better, both as regards the worker and his work, than that division of labour system which the profit-grinding of rising commercialism supplanted it by; but of course it is impossible to go back to such a simple system, even if it would not involve, as it would, a return to the whole hierarchical, or feudal state of society. On the other hand it is as necessary for the existence of art as it is for the well-being of the people otherwise, that the workman should again have control over his material, his tools, and his time only that control must no longer be of the individual workman, as in the Middle ages but of the whole body of workmen. When the workers organise work for the benefit of the workers, that is to say of the whole people, they will once more know what is meant by art; but if this social revolution does not come about (but it must) art will assuredly perish, and the rich will have no more of it than the poor.

It is most important, therefore, for the workers to take note how capitalism has deprived them of art, for that word means merely the pleasure of life, nothing less. I beseech them to consider it not a little thing but a most grievous wound that their work should be barren of attractiveness and their homes of beauty: and I assure them that this wrong is not an accident, not the result of the carelessness and hurry of modern life, which a few well-meaning men of the middle class backed by money can set right. It is not accidental, to be met by palliatives and temporary remedies, but it is the result of the subjection of the poor to the rich, and, at the same time, is the most obvious badge of that subjection. One thing only can amend it, the outcome of that class-struggle now happily in progress, and which will end by abolishing all classes.


Justice, 15th March 1884, p. 2.