William Morris

Individualism At The Royal Academy

To a Socialist hoping for a speedy change in the basis of society a visit to on, picture exhibition is not altogether lacking in encouragement, though to a serious artist who has not conceived hopes of revolution it would surely be most discouraging: for here also are signs of that coming bankruptcy of our present society, tokens of which are forced upon us so plentifully from the economic and the political side of things; it is with a certain exultation that one walks through the wild jumble of inanity that clothes the walls of the Royal Academy to-day, when one thinks that the dominant class the commercialist, noble and non-noble, who have deprived the people of art in their daily lives, can get for themselves nothing better than this for the satisfaction of their intellectual craving for beauty. Two or three men of genius, mostly outside the Academy, and a few of talent, half of whom also seldom if ever exhibit there, this handful is all that can show any attempt at the highest form of intellectual art which does not deserve the contempt of all serious and honest lovers of beauty; and all the while the golden shower rains down fast from the centres of profit-mongering on the army of incapables who make up the rest of the painters of pictures, or at least on many of them, and those by no means the least incapable.

On entering the National Gallery, or any other gallery of ancient pictures, the first thing that must strike the eye is the general beauty of colour; in spite of the pictures not being meant to be seen in juxtaposition: next, when we go near them we cannot fail to note the workmanlike method and certainty of their execution there you have in brief the two qualities absolutely necessary to make a work of art in picture-painting, beauty of colour, beauty of execution; now bear in mind that the individuality of these old painters was influenced by at least the amount of co-operation which tradition gives, and also mostly by direct co-operation akin to that of the gilds in the less intellectual arts: with this in your mind go into the Academy Exhibition which is, by the way, of the same quality as the exhibitions of the last 15 years barring the brilliant exceptions of a few really fine pictures that have been shown in the course of those years. Well, what are the first things that strike you if you are unprejudiced? First that the general colour is bad, nay mostly frightful; next that the execution is essentially unworkmanlike, a mere vague haphazard scrabble. And next, what is there to redeem this essential failure? Indeed that is hard to say; for bad as the colour of these works is, and unsatisfactory as their execution, it is on a pretence of originality of colour or tone, it is on some cleverness and readiness of execution that they must base their claim to be considered at all. The painters of the old pictures had prescribed to them religious subjects which were still thoroughly believed in; or classical subjects whose incidents in the fervour of the re-birth of learning they passed from hand to hand and accepted as realities with child-like faith; though all were not inventive or imaginative, many were, and the common-place minds accepted their position and shared the gifts of the greater minds with the humility of the true artist, who is determined at all events to turn out something which shall be beautiful and pleasant. All that is changed now, and individualism reigns supreme among our painters: that is to say, that while some plagiarize in the coolest way from the works of those that happen to be most in fashion; others, and these are the cleverest, disregard their own real talents and pretend to an originality which they have not, straining in competition for the guineas of the Manchester patron: giving him (and the world) as little work as they possibly can for the said guineas: everybody must at least pretend to be a master: for, look you, it no longer pays an artist to work hard to correct the faults which he himself cannot fail to recognise: it doesn't do to depend on the intelligence and love of beauty of the public; for bourgeois rule has forced the public into ignorance of beauty and vulgarity of mind; it is that which you must appeal to for a livelihood - or at least for a fortune. Therefore if you are weak in drawing, daub away with a pallet-knife and praise vagueness and formlessness as the one thing to be aimed at: if you have no eye for colour, paint with London mud and swear that colour is the degradation of art; or with mauve and magenta, emerald green and snuff colour, and sneer at those who really understand colour as affected mediaevalists. This in short is the game to be played, to elevate your defects into the standard for all art: great shall be your cash-reward if you play it well: yet even then mere clever unscheming vulgarity may bear off the bell from you. In plain words, corruption has eaten out the higher arts almost entirely, and I repeat that it is common for artists to prostitute their talents such as they are, not to popularity, which would be respectable comparatively, but to fortune-hunting: the ignorant public I have been mentioning is not the simple, uneducated public, but the cultured and guinea-shedding public, and there is no limit to its gullibility; for in fact it likes to be gulled.

Grievous indeed that art should be used as a stalking horse for such proceedings; unbearable to an artist, if we did not see revolution beyond it, and a clean sweep of all that folly. Surely it must be said that if the coming change in the basis of society were to make an end of all this sham and half-sham art without any hope of new art arising from it the loss would not great; but that if, as I confidently believe, it will sweep the sham art away and give us good hope of a new art arising from a society founded an the equality of labour, there will be no loss, but immeasurable gain.


Justice, 24th April 1884, p. 4.