This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
Many of the features I have described are found also in most modern cities in different degrees, and are still more evident in the United States, where there is nothing ancient to stem the tide of modern - shall we say progress? In justice to New York, however, one must note that there is an important movement there among artists and architects and people interested in municipal affairs in the direction of checking the excesses of commercialism and in favour of dignity and beauty in the streets and public places. Such publications as "The Municipal Journal" bear witness to this, so that there is hope for the future. So may it be here.
Turning from the aspects of houses to humans - take modern dress - in our search for the beautiful! Well National if not distinctive costume - except of the working and sporting sort, court dress, collegiate robes and uniforms - has practically disappeared, and, apart from working dress in working hours, one type of ceremonial, or full dress, is common to the people at large, and that of the plainest kind, with whatever differences of cut and taste in detail. I mean for men, of course. Among the undisputed rights of woman the liberty to dress as she pleases, even under recognized types for set occasions, and with constant variety and change of style, is not a little important, and one that has very striking effects upon the aspects of modern life we are considering. It is true this liberty may be checked by the decrees of eminent modistes and limited by the opinion of Mrs. Grundy, or the frank criticism of the boy-in-the-street; and it is more than probable that the exigencies of trade have something to do with it also.
It is, however, too important an element in the ensemble of life to be ignored or undervalued in any way, as women's dress affords one of the few opportunities of indulging in the joy of colour.
Men suffer the tyranny of the tall hat, as the outward and visible sign of respectability - surely far more so than Carlyle's gig. Instead of "gigmanity," it has become tophatmanity. The "stove-pipe" is the crown of the modern king, the financier - the business man - he who must be obeyed. (I understand it is as much as a city clerk's place is worth for him to appear in any other head gear.) Ladies, too, encourage it - with the black frock coat and the rest of the funereally festive attire of modern correct man. I suppose the garb is considered to act as an effective foil to the feast of colour indulged in by the ladies - as black frames to fair pictures - black commas, semi-colons, or full-stops agreeably punctuating passages of delicate colour!
The worst of it is that the beauty of women's dress when it happens to be beautiful in modern times - as at present - seems to be a matter of accident and entirely at the mercy of fashion (or commerce!) here to-day and gone to-morrow, and, alas - tell it not among the pioneers! - lovely woman, our only hope for variety in colour and form in modern life, in her determination to descend into the industrial and professional arena and commercially compete with men, not unfrequently shows a tendency to take a leaf out of his tailor's pattern-book, and to adopt or adapt more or less of the features of modern man's prosaic, possibly convenient and durable, but certainly summary and un-romantic attire.
Well, I think, on the whole, the pictures which modern life in London, or any great capital displays, may be striking in their contrasts, weird in their suggestions, dramatic in their aspects - anything or everything in fact, except beautiful.
The essential qualities of beauty being harmony, proportion, balance, simplicity, charm of form and colour, can we expect to find much of it under conditions which make life a mere scramble for existence for the greater part of mankind?
Bellamy, in his "Looking Backward," gives a striking and succinct image of modern, social, and economic conditions in his illustration of a coach and horses. The coach is capitalism; it carries a minority; but even these struggle for a seat and to maintain their position, frequently falling off, when they either go under, or must help to pull the coach with the majority, toiling in the traces of commercial competition.
However these conditions may, among individuals, be softened by human kindness, or some of its aspects modified by artistic effort, it does not change the cruelty and injustice of the system or its brutal and ugly aspects in the main. But, if modern civilization :is only tolerable in proportion to the number and facility of the means of escape from it, we may find, at least, the beauty of the country, and of wild nature unimpaired?
Do we? We may escape the town by train, or motor - running the risk, in either case, of a smash - but we cannot escape commercial enterprise. The very trees and houses sprout with business-cards, and the landscape along some of our principal railways seems owned by vendors of drugs. Turning away our eyes from such annoyances, commercial competition again has us, in alluring us by all sorts and sizes in papers and magazines, which, like paper kites, can only maintain their position by an extensive tail. The tail - that is, the advertisements - keeps the kites flying, and the serial tale keeps the advertisements going perhaps, and the reader is obliged to take his news and views, social or political, sandwiched or flavoured with very various and unsought and unwanted condiments, pictorial or otherwise, which certainly ruin artistic effect. Thus public attention is diverted and - nobody minds! But it is in these ways that the materials of life - whereof the sense of beauty and its gratification is no unimportant part - are destroyed, as it were, in getting our living - well, perhaps it would be truer to say, in some cases, a substantial percentage on our investments.
In obedience to the rule of the great God Trade, too, whole districts of our fair country are blighted and blackened, and whole populations are condemned to mechanical and monotonous toil to support the international race for the precarious world-market.
Under the same desperate compulsion of commercial competition, agriculture declines and the country-side is deserted. The old country life with its festivals and picturesque customs has disappeared. Old houses, churches, and cottages have tumbled into ruin, or have suffered worse destruction by a process of smarten-ing-up called "restoration." The people have crowded into the overcrowded towns, increasing the competition for employment, the chances of which are lessened by the very industry of the working-classes themselves, andsoourgreat cities become blindly huger, dangerous, and generally unlovely, losing, too, by degrees, the relics of historic interest and romance they once possessed.
Even in the arts and among the very cultivators of beauty we detect the canker of commercialism. The compulsion of the market rules supply and demand. The idea of the shop dominates picture shows, and painters become as specialized as men of science, and genius requires as much puffing as a patent medicine. Every one must have his trade label, and woe to the artist who experiments, or discovers capacities for other things than his label covers.
Every new and promising movement in art has been in direct protest and conflict with the prevailing conditions, and has measured its success by its degree of success in counteracting them, and, in some sense, producing new conditions. The remarkable revival of the handicrafts of late years may be quoted as an instance. But it is a world within a world; a minority producing for a minority, although it has done valuable work even as a protest, and has raised the banner of handwork and its beauty in an age of machine industry.
Other notable movements of a protesting or protective or mitigating nature are at work in the form of societies for the protection of ancient buildings - for the preservation of the beauty of natural scenery, for the abolition of smoke, for checking the abuse of advertising, for the increase of parks and gardens and open spaces. Indeed, it would seem as if the welfare of humanity and the prospects of a tolerable life under modern conditions were handed over to such societies, since it does not seem to be anybody's business to attend to what is everybody's business, and we have not even a minister to look after such interests. The very existence of such societies, however, is a proof of the danger and destruction to which beauty is exposed under modern conditions.
Social conditions are the outcome of economic conditions. In all ages it has been mainly the system under which property is held - the ownership of the means of production and exchange - which has decided the forms of social life. The expansion of capital and the power of the financier are essentially modern developments, and unrestricted commercial competition seems to lead direct to monopoly - a hitherto unexpected climax. Modern life becomes an unequal race, or scramble for money, place, power, or mere employment. The social (or rather, un-social) pressure which results, really causes those sordid aspects, pretences, and brutal contrasts we deplore. Private ownership is constantly opposed to public interest, and the narrow point of view of immediate individual profit as the determining factor in all transactions obscures larger issues and stultifies collective action for the public good.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, perhaps I have said enough to support the case of Beauty against modern, social, and economic conditions. I do not ask for damages - they are incalculable. She stands before you, a pathetic figure, obscured in shreds and patches, driven from pillar to post, disinherited, a casual, and obliged to beg her bread, who should be a welcome and honoured guest in every city, in every house, bearing the lamp of art, and bringing comfort and joy to all.