Now, we have only to consider how much of the work commonly produced, which comes under the head of what is called " industrial art," depends upon this very false quality of imitation
(whether as to design or material) to show how far we have departed in the ordinary processes of manufacture and standards of trade from primitive and true artistic instincts. The demand, artificially stimulated, is less for thought or beauty than for novelty, and all sorts of mechanical invention are applied, chiefly with the view of increasing the rate of production and diminishing its cost, regardless of the fact that anything in the nature of bad or false art is dear at any price.
Plain materials and surfaces are infinitely preferable to inorganic and inappropriate ornament; yet there is not the simplest article of common use made by the hand of man that is not capable of receiving some touch of art - whether it lies in the planning and proportions, or in the final decorative adornment; whether in the work of the smith, the carpenter, the carver, the weaver, or the potter, and the other indispensable crafts.
With the organisation of industry on the grand scale, and the enormous application of machinery in the interests of competitive production for profit, when both art and industry are forced to make their appeal to the unreal and impersonal average, rather than to the real and personal you and me, it is not wonderful that beauty should have become divorced from use, and that attempts to concede its demands, and the desire for it, should too often mean the ill-considered bedizenment of meaningless and unrelated ornament.
The very producer, the designer, and craftsman, too, has been lost sight of, and his personality submerged in that of a business firm, so that we have reached the reductio ad absurdum of an impersonal artist or craftsman trying to produce things of beauty for an impersonal and unknown public - a purely conjectural matter from first to last.
Under such conditions it is hardly surprising that the arts of design should have declined, and that the idea of art should have become limited to pictorial work (where, at least, the artist may be known, in some relation to his public, and comparatively free).
Partly as a protest against this state of things, and partly to concentrate the awakened feeling for beauty in the accessories of life, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society commenced their work.
The movement, however, towards a revival of design and handicraft, the effort to unite - or rather to re-unite-the artist and the craftsman, so sundered by the industrial conditions of our century, has been growing and gathering force for some time past. It reflects in art the intellectual movement of inquiry into fundamental principles and necessities, and is a practical expression of the philosophy of the conditioned. It is true it has many different sides and manifestations, and is under many different influences and impelled by different aims. With some the question is closely connected with the commercial prosperity of England, and her prowess in the competitive race for wealth; with others it is enough if the social well-being and happiness of her people is advanced, and that the touch of art should lighten the toil of joyless lives. The movement, indeed, represents in some sense a revolt against the hard mechanical conventional life and its insensibility to beauty (quite another thing to ornament). It is a protest against that so-called industrial progress which produces shoddy wares, the cheapness of which is paid for by the lives of their producers and the degradation of their users. It is a protest against the turning of men into machines, against artificial distinctions in art, and against making the immediate market value, or possibility of profit, the chief test of artistic merit. It also advances the claim of all and each to the common possession of beauty in things common and familiar, and would awaken the sense of this beauty, deadened and depressed as it now too often is, either on the one hand by luxurious superfluities, or on the other by the absence of the commonest necessities and the gnawing anxiety for the means of livelihood ; not to speak of the everyday uglinesses to which we have accustomed our eyes, confused by the flood of false taste, or darkened by the hurried life of modern towns in which huge aggregations of humanity exist, equally removed from both art and nature and their kindly and refining influences.
It asserts, moreover, the value of the practice of handicraft as a good training for the faculties, and as a most valuable counteraction to that overstraining of purely mental effort under the fierce competitive conditions of the day ; apart from the very wholesome and real pleasure in the fashioning of a thing with claims to art and beauty, the struggle with and triumph over the stubborn technical necessities which refuse to be gainsaid. And, finally, thus claiming for man this primitive and common delight in common things made beautiful, it makes, through art, the great socialiser for a common and kindred life, for sympathetic and helpful fellowship, and demands conditions under which your artist and craftsman shall be free.
" See how great a matter a little fire kindleth." Some may think this is an extensive programme - a remote ideal for a purely artistic movement to touch. Yet if the revival of art and handicraft is not a mere theatric and imitative impulse ; if it is not merely to gratify a passing whim of fashion, or demand of commerce; if it has reality and roots of its own ; if it is not merely a delicate luxury - a little glow of colour at the end of a sombre day - it can hardly mean less than what I have written. It must mean either the sunset or the dawn.
The success which had hitherto attended the efforts of our Society, the sympathy and response elicited by the claims which had been advanced by us on behalf of the Arts and Crafts of Design, and (despite difficulties and imperfections) I think it may be said the character of our exhibitions, and last, but not least, the public interest and support, manifested in various ways, and from different parts of the country, went far to prove both their necessity and importance.
We were therefore encouraged to open a third Exhibition in the autumn of 1890. In this last it was the Society's object to make in it leading features of two crafts in which good design and handicraft; are of the utmost importance, namely, Furniture and Embroidery; and endeavours were made to get together good examples of each.
It may be noted that while some well-known firms, who had hitherto held aloof, now exhibited with us, the old difficulty about the names of the responsible executants continued ; but while some evaded the question, others were models of exactitude in this respect, proving that in this as in other questions where there is a will there is a way.
The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, while at first, of necessity, depending on the work of a comparatively limited circle, had no wish to be narrower than the recognition of certain fundamental principles in design will allow, and, indeed, desired but to receive and to show the best after its kind in contemporary design and handicraft. Judgment is not always infallible, and the best is not always forthcoming, and in a mixed exhibition it is difficult to maintain an unvarying standard. At present, indeed, an exhibition may be said to be but a necessary evil; but it is the only means of obtaining a standard, and giving publicity to the works of Designer and Craftsman ; but it must be more or less of a compromise, and of course no more can be done than to make an exhibition of contemporary work representative of current ideas and skill, since it is impossible to get outside our own time.
In some quarters it appears to have been supposed that our Exhibitions are intended to appeal, by the exhibition of cheap and saleable articles, to what are rudely termed " the masses " ; we appeal to all certainly, but it should be remembered that cheapness in art and handicraft is well-nigh impossible, save in some forms of more or less mechanical reproduction. In fact, cheapness as a rule, in the sense of low-priced production, can only be obtained at the cost of cheapness - that is, the cheapening of human life and labour ; surely, in reality, a most wasteful and extravagant cheapness ! It is difficult to see how, under present economic conditions, it can be otherwise. Art is, in its true sense, after all, the crown and flowering of life and labour, and we cannot reasonably expect to gain that crown except at the true value of the human life and labour of which it is the result.
Of course there is the difference of cost between materials to be taken into account : a table may be of oak or of deal ; a cloth may be of silk or of linen ; but the labour, skill, taste, intelligence, thought, and fancy, which give the sense of art to the work, are much the same, and, being bound up with human lives, need the means of life in its completion for their proper sustenance.
At all events, I think it may be said that the principle of the essential unity and interdependence of the arts has been again asserted - the brotherhood of designer and craftsman ; that goes for something, with whatever imperfections or disadvantages its acknowledgment may have been obscured.
In putting this principle before the public, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society has availed itself from the first of both lecture and essay, as well as the display of examples. Lectures and demonstrations were given during the progress of the Exhibitions, and essays written by well-known workers in the crafts of which they treated have accompanied the catalogues. These papers have now been collected together, and revised by their authors, and appear in book form under the editorship of Mr. William Morris, whose name has been practically associated with the revival of beauty in the arts and crafts of design in many ways before our Society came into existence, and who with his coworkers may be said to have been the pioneer of our English Renascence, which it is our earnest desire to foster and perpetuate.
Every movement which has any substance and vitality must expect to encounter misrepresentation, and even abuse, as well as sympathy and support. In its work, so far, the Society to which I have the honour to belong has had its share of both, perhaps.
Those pledged to the support of existing conditions, whether in art or social life, are always sensitive to attacks upon their weak points, and it is not possible to avoid touching them to any man who ventures to look an inch or two beyond the immediate present. But the hostility of some is as much a mark of vitality and progress as the sympathy of others. The sun strikes hottest as the traveller climbs the hill; and we must be content to leave the value of our work to the unfailing test of time.