With NOTES ON THE WORK OF THE ARTS AND CRAFTS EXHIBITION SOCIETY
THE decorative artist and the handicraftsman have hitherto had but little opportunity of displaying their work in the public eye, or rather of appealing to it upon strictly artistic grounds in the same sense as the pictorial artist; and it is a somewhat singular state of things that at a time when the Arts are perhaps more looked after, and certainly more talked about, than they have ever been before, and the beautifying of houses, to those to whom it is possible, has become in some cases almost a religion, so little is known of the actual designer and maker (as distinct from the proprietary manufacturer or middleman) of those familiar things which contribute so much to the comfort and refinement of life - of our chairs and cabinets, our chintzes and wall-papers, our lamps and pitchers - the Lares and Penates of our households, which with the touch of time and association often come to be regarded with so peculiar an affection.
Nor is this condition of affairs in regard to applied Art without an explanation, since it is undeniable that under the modern industrial system that personal element, which is so important in all forms of Art, has been thrust farther and farther into the background, until the production of what are called ornamental objects, and the supply of ornamental additions generally, instead of growing out of organic necessities, have become, under a misapplication of machinery, driven by the keen competition of trade, purely commercial affairs - questions of the supply and demand of the market artificially stimulated and controlled by the arts of the advertiser and the salesman bidding against each other for the favour of a capricious and passing fashion, which too often takes the place of a real love of Art in our days.
Of late years, however, a kind of revival has been going on, as a protest against the conviction that, with all our modern mechanical achievements, comforts, and luxuries, life is growing " uglier every day," as Mr. Morris puts it. Even our painters are driven to rely rather on the accidental beauty which, like a struggling ray through a London fog, sometimes illumes and transfigures the sordid commonplace of everyday life. We cannot, however, live on sensational effects without impairing our sense of form and balance - of beauty, in short. We cannot concentrate our attention on pictorial and graphic art, and come to regard it as the one form worth pursuing, without losing our sense of construction and power of adaptation in design to all kinds of very different materials and purposes - that sense of relation - that architectonic sense which built up the great monuments of the past.
The true root and basis of all Art lies in the handicrafts. If there is no room or chance of recognition for really artistic power and feeling in design and craftsmanship - if Art is not recognised in the humblest object and material, and felt to be as valuable in its own way as the more highly rewarded pictorial skill - the arts cannot be in a sound condition ; and if artists cease to be found among the crafts there is great danger that they will vanish from the arts also, and become manufacturers and salesmen instead.
It was with the object of giving some visible expression to these views that the Exhibitions of the Arts and Crafts Society were organised.
As was to be expected, many difficulties had to be encountered. In the endeavour to assign due credit to the responsible designer and workman, it was found sometimes difficult to do so amid the very numerous artificers (in some cases) who under our industrial conditions contribute to the production of a work.
It will readily be understood that the organisation of exhibitions of this character, and with such objects as have been stated, is a far less simple matter than an ordinary picture exhibition. Instead of having an array of artists whose names and addresses are in every catalogue, our constituency, as it were, outside the personal knowledge of the Committee, had to be discovered. Under the designation of So-and-so and Co. many a skilful designer and craftsman may be concealed; and individual and independent artists in design and handicraft are as yet few and far between.
However, in the belief, as elsewhere expressed, that it is little good nourishing the tree at the head if it is dying at the root, and that, living or dying, the desirability of an accurate diagnosis while there is any doubt of our artistic health will at once be admitted, the
Society determined to try the experiment and so opened their first Exhibition.
The reception given to it having so far justified our plea for the due recognition of the arts and crafts of design, and our belief in their fundamental importance - the amount of public interest and support accorded to the Exhibition having, in fact, far exceeded our anticipations, it was determined to hold a second on the same lines, and to endeavour to carry out, with more completeness than was at first found possible, those principles of work, ideas, and aims in art for which we contended, and to make the Exhibition a rallying point, as it were, for all sympathetic workers.
Regarding design as a species of language capable of very varied expression through the medium of different methods and materials, it naturally follows that there is all the difference in the world between one treatment and another, both of design and material ; and, moreover, every material has its own proper capacity and appropriate range of expression, so that it becomes the business of the sympathetic workman to discover this and give it due expansion.
For the absence of this discriminating sense no amount of mechanical smoothness or imitative skill can compensate; and it is obvious that any attempt to imitate or render the qualities peculiar to one material in another leads the workman on a false track.