January 21: ‘see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves’

2012/01/21 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1882 William Morris presented a lecture titled “Some of the Minor Arts of Life” before the Birmingham and Midlands Institute.

It was a significant iteration of ideas that he had shared with audiences at places like Trades’ Guild of Learning as early as 1877 and that would, in a later and revised form, becomes the famous “Lesser Arts of Life” essay (available in its full form here).  Morris described the “Greater Arts” as those that appeal “to [man’s] emotions and his intellect,” as well as his memory, imagination and spirit, by the direct means of his senses–say, by looking at a Giotto fresco.  On the other hand, the “Lesser Arts” have as their first intention the service of “bodily wants” and “material needs:” Giotto’s boots.

Yet the Lesser could act like the Greater when craftsmen were allowed to infuse the works of their hands with the fruits of their minds and hearts.  Morris’ argument, in which the aesthetic/material cannot be separated from the social/political, calls for people to consume in a way that increases the opportunity for the Lesser arts to be enhanced by the spiritual activity of imaginative work.  A particularly hard sell to the expanding middle classes of the Victorian era, Morris’ challenge was for his listeners to do with less, and especially less of what was produced by machines, which prohibited the personality of the worker to find its way into the goods, and thus enslaved him to another’s ideas, as well as mechanical process: “see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves.”

The argument is not only about what you might call the decorative arts.  It is a significant challenge to architects, who in Morris’ day were veering farther away from actual work on the building, and instead turning men into tools.  In a later century, when computers replaced pencils as the equipment of drawing, and increasing numbers of consultants vie for a piece of the design development pie, and the architect who wants to avoid a lawsuit is prohibited from discussing methods of work with builders on the site, the product is even more remote, the builders even more mechanical in their operations.  Morris may not have seen that coming, but he knew that architecture was the highest hill to climb.  He valued architecture deeply, calling it “the true democratic art, the child of the man-inhabited earth, the expression of the life of the man thereon.”  It required the greatest attention and cultivation, of all the Lesser Arts, the one with the greatest of Greater aspirations.

 Morris’ lecture is not a quaint literary backdrop that explains why so many people feel happy around Arts and Crafts pillows and wallpaper, or why they find Voysey and Webb houses to be so cozy.  It is a call to arms, a provocation; if it doesn’t get under  your skin, either you never shop at Target, or you’re not paying attention.  Clio prefers to keep her postings brief, but is happy to direct you to her friends at Matters of Taste who dig deeper into this essential text, and you can too, by clicking here.

image: “Honeysuckle” fabric, Victoria and Albert Museum collection (from this source)

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You are currently reading January 21: ‘see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves’ at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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