William Morris. Commonweal 1887

Artists and Artisan as an Artist Sees It

Source: “Artist and Artisan as an Artist Sees It” Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 87, 10 September 1887, p. 291;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I have nothing to object to in our comrade’s remarks, but a word or two may be pardoned in explanation of the fact that an artist is looked upon as a gentleman (a sort of one), and sometimes receives a certain portion of the respect accorded to that class, which, however, is dealt out so much more liberally to the mere money-maker in other trades; to the landowner, manufacturer, contractor, stockjobber, or what not; in short, it is dealt out to members of the proprietary class exactly in proportion to the obviousness of their living by owning wealth and not creating it. In other words the less pretence they make to be more than mere thieves, the more they are honoured.

However, let that pass, as it must be admitted that the artists when they gain the point at which they receive any recognition from the public at all, do as hangers-on share in the plunder won by the class to which, if our workmen friends knew it, they are admitted somewhat grudgingly. Now, it must be admitted by all thoughtful people that the conventional flattery of the intellect, which is conventionally supposed as a separate and specially worshipful quality, to be the main-spring of the artist’s capacity, is both stupid and harmful. But like all the rest of our conventionalities it is founded on history; it is a birth of the individualist commercial system which we are at work combatting to-day, with good hope of seeing it disappear. It is that system which has divided the old craftsman into two, artist and artisan. For, before the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth century, the artisan did not differ in kind from the artist; all craftsmen who made anything were artists of some kind, they only differed in degree, and only a few of those who had very special gifts of hand and brain have so much as left their names behind them. No one knows, eg., the name of the man who designed Westminster Abbey, although it rose up amongst the King’s Court, and doubtless was talked about enough in its time; and meantime every joiner or mason or blacksmith was doing his share of work towards the pleasure which our comrade feels is necessary to the life of man, and never dreaming of receiving any special reward for the beauty or invention in his work; although doubtless he did receive the unconventional and genuine praise and thanks of his neighbours for it, just as he gave it to his neighbour craftsmen. With the growth of the historic sense which is a gain of the present century, with the knowledge of the continuity of history which we have now learned, we have come to a conscious knowledge that the intellect of man works co-operatively and collectively; but although the workmen of the Middle Ages were not conscious of this fact, they were happier than we are in this respect, that they practised that cooperation in their production of beauty; whereas we, as long as we are under the domination of the profit-grinders, cannot do so; and the result follows which I have so often spoken of, that art is a skinny drowsy skeleton amidst the stir and enormous riches of modern civilization; and that too in an age, which as I have just said, has discovered that it was the collective people, and not a few miraculous individuals who have produced all worthy, that is all genuine, art in the past. I say when art is hopeful and progressive there is plenty of it for every one, and every one is in some sense an artist, and those who produce beauty are not demi-gods but men, and all can understand them; it is only when beauty produced by man becomes rare that we take to deifying its producers. There is little that is mysterious about the plagiarists and compilers of the Augustan age of Rome; the authors of that mass of Platitudinous rubbish, that fresh flowing well-spring of stupidity, are well known and amply ticketted. But modern research has made Homer a dim and doubtful shadow to us, while it has added clearness to our vision of the life of the people of that time, who were the real authors of the Homeric Poems. Beowulf, the first and the best poem of the English race, which they bore hither the across the seas with them, has no author but the people. No other authors has the splendid literature of our Scandinavian kinsmen, the best tale-tellers the world has seen, through whom we can to-day live with the people of Northern Europe in the tenth century, and know them, not as puppets of chivalry romance, but good fellows such as our living friends are to-day. Again, along with William Cobbett, contrast the dungeon-like propriety of St Paul’s, the work of a ‘famous’ architect, with the free imagination and delicate beauty of the people-built Gothic churches, that were raised by masons who had no architect over them, and who did their work for the reward of a free life, and needed no fame as an extra; and then consider how the people build. In short, our comrade will understand me when I say that what we want is to extinguish not the artist, but the mere artisan, by destroying the flattery craving flunkey in the one, and the brutal toil-worn slave in the other, so that they may both be men; in which case they must be artists in one way or other, that is, they must take an interest in life.

Meanwhile, I cannot see that any extra reward should be given to a man for following an ‘intellectual’ calling. If he does his work in it well, it is more pleasurable to him than a ‘non-intellectual’ one, and why should he be paid twice over? If he does it ill, let him be pulled out of it in the gentlest way possible, and learn to do what he can do. A poet doesn’t need paying for his poetry (he is not paid much now), because he will write better poetry and not worse if he has an ordinary occupation to follow. As for the other mere artists, a painter for instance, I admit that he will probably have to stick to his painting if he has to do it well; but then he should be paid not for the ‘intellectual’ part of his work, but for the workman’s part of it; finishing up everything properly, doing everything as well as it can be done in all respects. This will take something out of him. But the exercise of his ‘intellect’ will take nothing; it is mere play.

The long and short of it is this, a decent life, a share in the common life of all is the only ‘reward’ that any man can honestly take for his work, whatever he is; if he asks for more, that means that he intends to play the master over somebody. When the workers have made up their minds to be free, he won’t get that, so he may make himself easy, and get amusement out of his work as he can, if he is a ‘superior person’. Well, I end as our comrade, with the word ‘equality’, which will one day become a real thing and no mere word, and so cure all our troubles.