William Morris

Art and its Producers

I fear what I have to tell you will be looked upon by you as an often-told tale; but it seems to me that at the inception of an enterprise for the popularizing and furtherance of the arts of life, the subject-matter of my paper is very necessary to be considered. I will begin by putting before you a kind of text, from which I will speak, so that you may understand from the first the drift of my paper; a plan which, I hope, will save both your time and mine.

Whereas the incentive to labour is usually assumed to be the necessity of earning a livelihood, and whereas in our modern society this is really the only incentive amongst those of the working-class who produces wares of which some form of art is supposed to form a part, it is impossible that men working in this manner should produce genuine works of art. Therefore it is desirable either that all pretence to art should be abandoned in the wares so made, and that art should be restricted to matters which have no other function to perform except their existence as works of art, such as pictures, sculpture, and the like; or else, that to the incentive of necessity to labour should be added the incentives of pleasure and interest in the work itself.

That is my text, and I am quite sure that you will find it necessary to consider its subject-matter very carefully if you are to do anything save talk about art: for which latter purpose works of art are not needed, since so many fine phrases have been invented in modern times which answer all the purpose of realities.

To put it in another way, the question I ask you is threefold. First, shall we pretend to produce architecture and the architectural arts without having the reality of them? Second, shall we give them up in despair or carelessness of having the reality? Or, third, shall we set ourselves to have the reality?

To adopt the first plan would show that we were too careless and hurried about life to trouble ourselves whether we were fools (and very tragical fools) or not. The adoption of the second would ticket us as very honest people, determined to be free from as many responsibilities as possible, even at the expense of living a dull and vacant life. If we adopt the third sincerely, we shall add very much to the trouble and responsibility of our lives, for a time at least, but also very much to their happiness. Therefore I am in favour of our adopting this third course.

In point of fact, though I have put the second one before you for the sake, I fear, of an appearance of logical fairness, I do not think we are free to adopt it consciously at present, though we may be driven to adopt it in the end. To-day I think only the two courses are open to us, of quietly accepting the pretence of an all-pervading art, which indeed pervades the advertising sheets and nothing else; or else of struggling for an art which shall really pervade our lives and make them happier. But since this, if we are in earnest about it, will involve a reconstruction of society, let us first see what these architectural arts really are, and whether they are worth all this trouble; because, if they are not, we had better go on as we are, and shut our eyes to the fact that we are compelled to be such fools as to pretend that we want them when we do not.

The architectural arts, therefore, if they are anything real, mean the addition to all necessary articles of use of a certain portion of beauty and interest, which the user desires to have and the maker to make. Till within a comparatively recent period there has been no question whether this beauty and interest should form a part of wares; it always did do so without any definite order on the part of the user, and not necessarily consciously on the part of the maker; and the sham art which I have spoken of is simply the traditional survival of this reality; that is one reason why you cannot clear yourselves of it in the simple and logical way that I put before you just now as the second course to be adopted.

But the integrity and sincerity of this architectural art, which, mind you, the workman works up with his wares not only because he must (for he is not conscious of compulsion in the matter) but because he likes to, though he is often not conscious of his pleasure - this real architectural art depends on the wares of which it forms a part being produced by craftsmanship, for the use of persons who understand craftsmanship. The user, the consumer, must chose his wares to be so and so, and the maker of them must agree with his choice. The fashion of them must not be forced on either the user or the maker; the two must be of one mind, and be capable under easily conceivable circumstances of exchanging their parts of user and maker. The carpenter makes a chest for the goldsmith one day, the goldsmith a cup for the carpenter on another, and there is sympathy in their work - that is, the carpenter makes for his goldsmith friend just such a chest as he himself would have if he needed a chest; the goldsmith's cup is exactly what he would make for himself if he needed one. Each is conscious during his work of making a thing to be used by a man of like needs to himself. I ask you to note these statements carefully, for I shall have to put a contrast to these conditions of work presently. Meantime observe that this question of ornamental or architectural art does not mean, as perhaps most people think it does, whether or not a certain amount of ornament or elegance shall be plastered on to a helpless, lifeless article of daily use - a house, a cup, a spoon, or what not. The chest and the cup, the house, or what not, may be as simple or as rude as you please, or as devoid of what is usually called ornament; but done in the spirit I have told you of, they will inevitably be works of art. In work so done there is and must be the interchange of interest in the occupations of life; the knowledge of human necessities and the consciousness of human good-will is a part of all such work, and the world is linked together by it. The peace of the arts springs from its roots, and flourishes even in the midst of war and trouble and confusion.

Now this is the architectural art which I urge you to think it worth your while to struggle for in all its reality. I firmly believe it is worth the struggle, however burdensome that may be. There are some things which are worth any cost; but above them all I value consciousness of manly life; and the arts form a part of this at least.

This, I say, is the theory of the conditions under which genuine architectural art can be produced; but that theory is founded on a view of the historical development of the industrial arts, and is not merely built up in the air. I must, therefore, now give a brief account of my historical position, although it has been so often done before, that it must be familiar to many, if not most of you. From the beginning of history down to the end of the Middle Ages there has been, as I have said, no question as to whether due form of art should accompany all wares intended to last for any time: this character of theirs did not in itself enhance their price or increase the conscious labour upon them, it was part of their nature to be so, they grew so like a plant grows; during all these ages wares had been made wholly by craftsmanship. It is true that in the ancient world the greater part of the production of wares was the work of chattel slaves, and though the condition of the artisan slaves was very different from that of the field-hands, yet their slavery has fixed its mark clearly enough on the minor arts of the period, in their severe, or literally servile subordination to the higher work done by artists. When chattel slavery passed away from Europe with the classical world and the Middle Ages were fairly born out of the Medean caldron of the confusion that followed: as soon as the formation of the gilds gave a rallying-point to the workmen, free and serf, of the day, those workmen, the makers of wares, became free in their work, whatever their political position was; and the architectural arts flourished to a degree unknown before, and at least a foretaste was given to the world of what the pleasure of life might be in a society of equals. At this time craftsmanship reached its highest point: the avowed object of the craft-gilds, as may be gathered from the irrefragable evidence of their rules, was to distribute whatever work was to hand equitably amongst a society of pure handicraftsmen (we have translated the word now in order to give it a meaning exactly opposite to its original one) to check the very beginnings of capitalism and competition inside the gild, and at the same time to produce wares whose test should be the actual use, the real needs of the public of neighbours that was engaged in work carried on in a similar spirit. This manner of work, of producing for use and not for profit, bore its due fruit: as a matter of course, the wares made by the gildsmen of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries have mostly perished; even the most enduring of them, the buildings of their raising, have been either destroyed or degraded by the ignorance and intolerance, the frivolity and the pedantry of succeeding ages; but what is left us, mostly by sheer accident, is enough to teach us the lesson that no cultivation, no share in the science which has in these days subdued nature, as long as it is exterior to the working life of the workman, can supply the place of freedom of hand and thought during his working hours, and interest in the welfare of his work itself; and further, that the collective genius of a people working in free but harmonious co-operation is far more powerful for the production of architectural art than the spasmodic efforts of the greatest individual genius; because with the former the expression of life and pleasure is unforced and habitual, and directly connected with the traditions of the past, and consequently is as unfailing as the work of Nature herself.

But this society of workmen, this crown of labour of the Middle Ages, was doomed to a short life. Its tendency to equality was so completely extinguished by the development of the political element in which it lived, that the existence of it has been scarcely suspected before the rise of the school of historical criticism of our own days. Those who, perhaps unwittingly, are wont to trouble themselves about what might have been, may consider the lesser causes that seem to have led to this change, and speculate on what would have happened if the Black Death had not half depopulated north-western Europe; if Philip van Artevelde and his bold Ghentmen had defeated the French chivalry at Rosebeque, as their fathers did at Courtray; if the stout yeomen of Kent and Essex, gathered on "the Fair-field at Mile-end," had had wits not quite so simple as to trust the young scoundrel of a king, who had just had their leader murdered under tryst, but had carried out the peasants' war to its due conclusion.

All this is pleasant fooling, but it is little else. The gild-governed industry must in any case have come to an end as soon as the general longing for new knowledge, greater command over nature, and greater hurry of life, had grown strong enough to force on the next development of productive labour. The gilds were incapable of the necessary expansion then called for, and they had to disappear, after having contributed largely to the death of the feudal hierarchy and given birth to the middle-classes, which took its place as the dominant force in Europe. Capitalism began to grow up within the gilds, the journeyman, the so-called free-labourer, began to appear in them; and outside them, notably in this country, the land of the country began to be cultivated for the profit of the capitalistic farmer instead of the livelihood of the peasant, and the system of production was created which was needed for carrying on modern society - the society of contract, instead of the society of status. It was essential to this system that the free-labourer should be no longer free in his work; he must be furnished with a master having complete control of that work, as a consequence of his owning the raw material and tools of labour; and with an universal market for the sale of the wares with which he had nothing to do directly, and the very existence of which he was unconscious of. He thus gradually ceased to be a craftsman, a man who in order to accomplish his work must necessarily take an interest in it, since he is responsible for making or marring the wares he has to do with, and whose market was made up chiefly of neighbours, men whose needs he could understand. Instead of a craftsman he must now become a "hand," responsible for nothing but carrying out the orders of his foreman. In his leisure hours an intelligent citizen (perhaps), with a capacity for understanding politics, or a turn for scientific knowledge, or what not, but in his working hours not even a machine, but an average portion of that great and almost miraculous machine - the factory; a man, the interest of whose life is divorced from the subject-matter of his labour, whose work has become "employment," that is, merely the opportunity of earning a livelihood at the will of some one else. Whatever interest still clings to the production of wares under this system has wholly left the ordinary workman, and attaches only to the organizers of his labour; and that interest commonly has little to do with the production of wares as things to be handled, looked at - used, in short, but simply as counters in the great game of the world-market. I fancy that there are not a few of the "manufacturers" in this great "manufacturing" district who would be horrified at the idea of using the wares which they "manufacture," and if they could be witnesses of the enthusiasm of the customers of the customers of their customers when those wares reached their final destination of use they would perhaps smile at it somewhat cynically.

In this brief account I have purposely left out the gradations by which we have reached the contrast between the craftsmen of the Middle Ages and the free workman of to-day: between the productions of wares for direct use and their production as exchange-wares for the world-market. I want to lay before you the contrast as clearly as possible; but that I may meet objections, I ought to say that I am well aware that the process of transformation was gradual; that the new free labourer did not at first have to change his manner of work much; that the system of division of labour was brought to bear on him in the seventeenth century and was perfected in the eighteenth, and that, as that system drew near to perfection, the invention of automatic machinery changed the workman's relation to his work once more, and turned him, in the great staple industries, into the tender of a machine instead of a machine (which I think was to him an advantage); but, on the other hand, brought almost all the surviving handicrafts that had hitherto escaped, under the sway of the system of division of labour, and thus for the time being abolished craftsmanship among the wage-earning classes. Craftsmanship is now all but extinct, except among the professional classes, who claim the position of gentlemen.

If we are in earnest in wishing to make the architectural or decorative arts a reality, we must face these facts as they regard the workman in the first place. But in order to be clear as to what the position of the workman, the producer of such wares, really is, we must also consider that of the consumer of them. For it will perhaps be said, if you desire the production of these wares, there is nothing necessary but to create a demand for them, and then they will come naturally, and once more transform the workman into a craftsman. Now, granted that such demand is genuine, and also wide enough, that is quite true; but then comes the question whether this genuine and wide demand can be created; and if it can be, how it is to be done?

Now, as the present system of production has transformed the handicraftsman into a machine without will, so it has turned the neighbour purchaser with good marketing faculties into a slave of the world-market - a purse. The motto of the modern commercialist being, not the market for the man, but man for the market: the market is the master, the man the slave, which to my mind, is reversing the reasonable order of things. Let us see if that is not so. In the present day the great problem which we have to face is the due employment of human labour; if we fail in employing it in some fashion, it will eat us up to begin with, whatever it does afterwards; if we fail to employ it duly we must at least expect to have nothing but a corrupt and degraded society; and for my part I wish we could turn our thoughts to employing labour duly, instead of employing it anyhow. But at any rate we are practically driven to recognize the fact that, except for a few hundred thousands, who for anything we can do must starve or go to the workhouse, we must look to the employment of labour-power, that is, men. Now, I have said just now, and repeat it again with all the emphasis that I can, that the proper employers (or say customers) of the working men are the working men: and if they had no other customers, I should have perfect confidence that in the long run they would be employed in making nothing but useful things; among which, of course, I would include works of art of various kinds: but as they have other customers, I have not that confidence, for I see, no one can fail to see, that they are employed in producing a great deal that is not useful, although it is marketable. They themselves are not as good customers to themselves as they should be, because they are not wealthy enough; all the wares which they consume must be of inferior quality for one thing, let alone their quantity; therefore their custom must be supplemented by that of the well-to-do and the rich classes, and these we will suppose are all of them wealthy enough to satisfy their needs for really desirable things, and they do so: other things the reasonable among them would not demand, if they could help themselves; but from what I can see round about me, I judge that they cannot help themselves. It seems that the market for gambling in profits is too exacting, or the need for the employment of labour is too pressing to allow them to purchase and consume only what they need; they must, in addition, purchase and consume many things which they do not need; habits of pomp and luxury must be formed amongst them, so that the market which would be starved by the misery of the poor, may be kept busy with ministering to the luxury of the rich. And you must understand that I mean here to assert that though all wares made must be consumed, nevertheless that consumption does not prove their use: they may be used, or they may be wasted, and if they are not needed, they cannot be used and must be wasted.

Here, then, in considering the possibility of the widespread and genuine demand for architectural art, we are met at the outset by this difficulty, that the workmen, who must be the producers of the art, are largely, I will say mostly, employed in wasting their labour in two ways; on the one hand, in making inferior wares, which their inferior position forces them to demand, and for which there ought to be no demand; and on the other, in making wares, not for the use, but for the waste of the rich classes, for which, again, there ought to be no demand. And these two haplessly false demands are forced on to both these classes, because they are forced into the position which so forces them. The world-market, which should be our servant, is our master, and ordains that so it must be. The wide and genuine demand, therefore, for the architectural arts which we have seen can only be produced by the handicraftsman, cannot be created under the present system of production, which, indeed, could not go on if the greater part of its wares were the work of handicraft.

We are driven at last, then, to this conclusion; that pleasure and interest in the work itself are necessary to the production of a work of art however humble; that this pleasure and interest can only be present when the workman is free in his work, i.e., is conscious of producing a piece of goods suitable to his own needs as a healthy man; that the present system of industrial production does not allow of the existence of such free workmen consciously producing wares for themselves and their neighbours, and forbids the general public to ask for wares made by such men; that, therefore, since neither the producers nor the users of wares are free to make or ask for wares according to their wills, we cannot under our present system of production have the reality of the architectural arts which I have been urging you to strive for, but must put up with pretending to have them; which seems to me a rather sorry proceeding.

What can we do, then, in order to shake off this disgrace; in order that we may be free to say either that we want the ornaments of life, and no makeshifts of them shall content us; or that we do not want them, and will not have them?

If my premises are accepted the practical position is clear; we must try to change the system of the production of wares. To meet possible objections once more, I do not mean by this that we should aim at abolishing all machinery: I would do some things by machinery which are now done by hand, and other things by hand which are now done by machinery: in short, we should be the masters of our machines and not their slaves, as we are now. It is not this or that tangible steel and brass machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny, which oppresses the lives of all of us. Now, this enterprise of rebelling against commercialism I hold to be a thoroughly worthy one: remember what my text was, and how I said that our aim should be to add to the incentive of necessity for working, the incentive of pleasure and interest in the work itself. I am not pleading for the production of a little more beauty in the world, much as I love it, and as much as I would sacrifice for its sake; it is the lives of human beings that I am pleading for; or if you will, with the Roman poet, the reasons for living. In this assembly there are perhaps only a few who can realize the meaning of the daily drudgery, hopeless of any result except the continuance of a life of drudgery, which is the lot of all but a few in our civilization; for indeed it is only possible to be realized by experience or strong imagination; but do your best to realize it, and then further to realize the result of turning those daily hours of hopeless toil into days of pleasant work, the happy exercise of manly energies, illuminated by the certainty of usefulness and the hope of applause from the friends and neighbours for whom it is exercised. Surely when you have thought of this seriously you will once more have to admit that the attainment of such a change is worth almost any sacrifice. I say again, as I have often said, that if the world cannot hope to be happy in its work it must relinquish the hope of happiness altogether.

Again, the aim of those who look on the popular arts seriously is, that we should be masters of our work, and be able to say what we will have and what we will do; and the price which we must pay for the attainment of that aim is, to speak quite plainly, the recasting of society. For that mechanical and tyrannous system of production which I have condemned is so intimately interwoven with the society of which we all form a part, that it sometimes shows as its cause, and sometimes as its effect, and is in any case a necessity to it; you cannot abolish the slums of our great cities; you cannot have happy villagers living in pretty houses among the trees, doing pretty-looking work in their own houses or in the pleasant village workshop between seed-time and harvest, unless you remove the causes that have made the brutal slum-dweller and the starveling field-labourer. All essential conditions of society, the growth of ages as they are, must bring about certain consequences which cannot be dealt with by mere palliation. The essentials of ancient society involved the chattel slave, those of medieval society the serf, those of modern society the irresponsible wage-worker under a master; and the latter cannot by efforts from without be set to do work which does not belong to his condition of dependency on a master; the craftsman is responsible for his work, and a dependent cannot be responsible for anything save the fulfilment of the task set him by his master.

But lest you may think I show no course for you to take except striving, as I do, towards the conscious reconstruction of society on a basis of equality, I will say a word or two on work which may lie ready to our hands as artists rather than as citizens. There is a small body of men who are independent in their work, who are called by the name I have just used - artists: as a separate group they are the result of the commercial system which could not use independent workmen, and their divorce from the ordinary production of wares is the obvious external cause of the sickness of the architectural arts. Anyhow, they exist as independent workmen, the loose screw in their position being that they do not work for the whole public, but for a very small portion of it, which rewards them for that exclusiveness by giving them the position of gentlemen. Now it seems to me that the only thing we can do, if we will not help in the reconstruction of society, is to deal with this group of gentlemen workmen. The non-gentlemen workmen are beyond our reach unless we look on the matter from the wider point of view, but we can try to get the artists to take an interest in those arts of life whose production at present is wholly in the hands of the irresponsible machines of the commercial system, and to understand that they, the artists, however great they may be, ought to be taking part in this production; while the workmen who are now machines ought to be artists, however humble. On the other hand we may try to dig up whatever of responsibility and independence lies half smothered under the compact clay of the factory system, to find out if there are not some persons in the employ of the commercial organizers who are artists, to give them opportunities if possible of working more directly for the public, and to win for them that applause and sympathy of their brother artists which every good workman naturally desires. The idea that this may and can be done is by no means mine alone; in putting it forward I represent not merely a vague hope that it may be attempted, but an actual enterprise in good working order. I have the honour to belong to a small and unpretentious society, of which Mr. Crane is President, which, under the name of the Arts and Crafts Society, has just carried out a successful exhibition of what are called "the applied arts" in London, with the definite intention of furthering the purpose I have just stated. To some of us such work may seem very petty and unheroic, especially if they have been lately brought face to face with the reckless hideousness and squalor of a great manufacturing district; or have been so long living in the shabby hell of the great commercial centre of the world that it has entered into their life and they are now "used to it," that is, degraded to its miserable standard: but it is something to do at least, for it means keeping alive the spark of life in these architectural arts for a better day; which arts might otherwise be wholly extinguished by commercial production, a disaster which not many years ago seemed most likely to happen. But I think this lesser work will be so far from hindering us, that it will rather draw us on to engaging in the wider and deeper matter, and doing our best towards the realization of that Society of Equals, which, as I have already said, will form the only conditions under which true craftsmanship can be the rule of production; that form of work which involves the pleasurable exercise of our own energies, and the sympathy with the capacities and aspirations of our neighbours, that is, of humanity generally.

Bibliographical Note


Art and its Producers


  1. 5th December 1888 at the first annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Art at the Rotunda, Liverpool


  1. Art and Its Producers, and The Arts and Crafts of To-day: Two Addresses Delivered Before the National Association for the Advancement of Art, Longmans & Co., London, 1901