William Morris. Commonweal 1888

Talk and Art

Source: “Talk and Art” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 154, 22 December 1888, p.404;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Art Congress (or whatever is the proper name for it) at which I assisted last week, may easily be made a mark at which to shoot shafts of ridicule. The crowds of lion-worshipping ladies, the many worthy artists set up to speak about an art which is above all things a matter of the instructed eye and deft hand; and many of them into the bargain but poor speakers, in all senses of the word (small blame to them for that same, since above all things their craft is of doing). The bands of idle busy-bodies; the stock phrases bandied about by people who, if questioned about them, would have been able to give but a sorry account of their meaning; and which phrases, when repeated to a reasonable person for the fiftieth tune, became at last difficult to reply to with the amiable grin expected on the occasion instead of an outburst of the fury within him. All this the outward manifestation of the set of fashion towards ‘earnestness’ in the minor arts is discouraging enough, and I thought I discerned in the faces of my Socialist friends whom I met there some of the shamefacedness which I myself felt. Nor did I wonder that the ‘manufacturers’ lay low under the storm of open denunciation and implied censure and scorn which was the leading feature of the Congress: nay, I had an uncomfortable sensation, as though I could feel them chuckling at our expense, as if they were saying, ‘Well, after all, this fine gathering for talk, and all its materials, including the well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed artists who are abusing us, have passed through our hands before they got here, and by no means unfruitfully for us. You also, our friends the artists, are our slaves, though your tether may be somewhat longer than that of our factory hands; nor do we much heed your talk, for it and your Congress and your village industries do us no harm on the one hand, and are rather good for trade on the other. In short, we are the masters of the situation, and you cannot help it; and indeed the greater part of you would be very sorry to help it if you could, and sacrifice your comforts to disturbance in the present and severity of life in the future.’

That at first seemed to me to be the mocking echo of our talk at Liverpool; and no doubt not one cog or fly-wheel will be displaced in that horrible South Lancashire by all the murmuring sea of talk. Yet after all even this set of fashion against commercial production on one side of it, and the silence of the manufacturers under it, are tokens of the sickness of society and the change drawing near: an epoch whose system is healthy and flourishing does not protest against and is not conscious of any loss which it suffers from the necessary process of that system; it accepts without murmur the gains which the system has brought about, and only thinks of fresh gains to be obtained by the perfecting of the process which has been found necessary to the conditions of life of the passing day. Nor, in spite of their chuckling, are the manufacturers in as good a position as they boast themselves: we know that. They are driven by necessity to find work for the demon which they have created, and which threatens to eat them up. Perhaps it is the knowledge or suspicion of this fact that keeps them silent under the attack of the artists. Else one would have expected to have seen many utterances like a clever letter published the other day in the Manchester Guardian, the writer of which told the artists roundly that it was their business to paint and not to talk (meaning, of course, that they should forget that they, scrubs as they are, are citizens), taunting them with wrapping themselves up in the past and not heeding the present world-grief (he used the German word), and reminding people that a spinning-jenny was a much more important thing than a carved chest or an illuminated manuscript.

All this sounds at first sight like common-sense, and even seems to have some elevation of aim in it; but after all it is but clap-trap. Let us forget the grievance of the humbug and hypocrisy that always hangs itself on to every movement that shows discontent with the present, and see what it is that the artists are aiming at, those of them who are in earnest. Their aim, instinctive or conscious, is to make everybody an artist; whereas the aim of the Guardian letter-writer (signing himself ‘P.’) is to make everybody a ‘manufacturer’ or a manufacturer’s ‘dependent’. To hire the spinning-jenny is glorious, not because it produces yarn which the public can use, but because it produces ‘hands’ whom the manufacturers can use; so no wonder that ‘P.’ wants the artists to glorify the modern world-grief, since it is the system which he and his live by and have created. ‘P.’s’ aim is to realize a world for the manufacturer of market-wares — ie. manufacturers’ profits — made without the will of the makers and in the teeth of their miserable toil.

And what for? That Manchester may be made. And why should Manchester be made? That market-goods bearing a profit may be made. What a lamentable vicious circle! But the artists’ aim is that all men should be artists. Folly! Cries ‘P.’ and perhaps also some of our readers. But wait a little! What is an artist? A man who works at useful work that is fit for him and according to his own will. Therefore the artists are right in their aim; for when work is so done the world will be happy, but not before. Here is a worthy aim indeed; whereas ‘P.’ and his brethren have no aim, nothing more than an instinct for going on living at the expense of the workers.

I say again, in wishing to make all people artists, the artists are absolutely right, whatever follies they may be entangled in while they are still unconscious of their aim and its meaning. But those of them who are worth anything will not long remain unconscious of their aim. They see through the hypocrisy about the world-grief, with which the Philistine tries to sentimentalize filth, stink, and hideousness; their senses as human animals have led them on the right road so far at least as to demand beauty and interest in life for themselves at any rate, and they will soon find out that they cannot have this except by means of the co-operation of the labour that produces the ordinary wares of life; and that co-operation again they cannot have as long as the workmen are dependent on the will of a master. They must co-operate consciously and willingly for livelihood, and out of that free co-operation will spring the expression of individual character and gifts which we call art. Then those spinning-jennies which so affect ‘P.’s’ soul will be used for producing yarns which we want, and not yarns that we only want to sell.