The introduction of machinery for the manufacture of almost all articles necessary to satisfy human needs and desires began an era of decline in the beauty and the honesty of useful things. Painting and sculpture rapidly came to be considered the only real art, and it seemed that before long nothing else would be worthy the name. Textile fabrics, house furnishings, the tools of man, and public buildings alike became more and more marked with the term machine-made. Individuality was lost, while over-decoration, sameness, and use-lessness were growing factors. In the second half of the last century, a group of English artists more far-sighted than their contemporaries became alarmed at the state of affairs and set out to awaken men to a realization of what was happening.
This group of men saw that, unless a reaction took place, machinery would destroy all art in every-day things, flood homes with unartistic bric-a-brac and cities with ugly ornamentation, and cost would be the criterion by which all things would be judged. The whole tendency of the system seemed to be toward ugliness rather than toward beauty. In searching for an understanding and a remedy for these conditions they turned back to mediaeval times, to a period entirely different from the one in which they lived. Here they sought the secret of beauty in every-day things. They found that when handicrafts were at their best in the Middle Ages the simplest tools and household articles, while often clumsy, were honest in construction and frequently marked in their beauty. The individuality of the worker was expressed in his products and the nature of the material was respected.
As machinery increased the output and made cheaper and cheaper products, honesty of material became more rare, the individuality of the workman was lost, and fad and novelty were replacing real artistic merit. The very fact that ornament could be produced cheaply led to great profusion of it, and over-decoration of all kinds resulted. Machinery was doing away with the craftsman, and man was forgetting how to make things with his hands.
Out of this period of degeneracy in useful arts the voice of Carlyle in England came as the first warning which set men to thinking. Believing thoroughly in the value of work and the effect of honest labor and honest production upon the character of man, he deplored the state of the manufactures of his time. He pronounced the goods of his day "cheap and nasty" and "tainted with the spirit of Mammon." "If I want an article," he said, "let it be genuine at whatever price; if the price is too high for me, I will go without it; unequipped for the present, I shall not have equipped myself with hypocrisy at any rate."
Carlyle preached the doctrine of work, the education of men to do things, and to do them honestly. He did not by practice attempt to alter the methods of the times, but his writings inspired others. He saw that the old era had passed, when men could stand idle, and that a new industrial era had arrived, in which work was to be the chief duty of man.
Ruskin, following after Carlyle, was influenced by his writings. A man of wide interests and studies, he was a socialist and much dissatisfied with the existing order of things. He saw that art was getting far away from nature and was becoming degraded. He deplored the fact that art and the crafts were so far separated in the new system of machine production.
Believing that great art is produced only out of pure national faith and domestic virtue, and that artists must be workmen and workmen artists, he saw that the social problem must be the point of attack. If workmen are to be artists, they must have the education, the surroundings, and the happiness which will enable them to produce beautiful things. The true test of art, he considered, should be its serviceability to social needs. It must be universal and lowly. Not only should art be the product of all men, but it should serve all men. The office of machinery, according to Ruskin's ideas, must be to do things for man, to relieve him of drudgery and debasing work, but artistic work must be the work of the hand. He saw that minute division of labor was deadly to the workman and to the product. Though there was an increase in quantity produced, there was a decrease in quality.
Ruskin believed that every man must work to be happy, but he says: "In order that people may be happy in their work, three things are needed; they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it." The reward for work was to be not in the money received for it, but in the satisfaction of having done well. He believed that through education reform would come.
A man of great genius, an artist, and a writer on many and diverse subjects, it is easy to forget that sociology was perhaps Ruskin's chief interest and that he hoped to achieve social reform through industrial reform. He approached the subject from so many sides one does not always realize that the social problem was the one at which he worked hardest. Ruskin went beyond Carlyle in that he put some of his theories into practice and spent a large part of his fortune on his schemes.
The revival of home industries, where workers might "engage in some useful craft under wholesome and humane conditions," was one of his ideas. Home industries were to exist side by side with the factories, not to supplant them. Some of these industries were started by him and still flourish. In the Isle of Man and in Westmoreland he revived spinning and weaving and encouraged handwork among the cottagers. This work has proved not only pleasurable but profitable, and some very excellent products have resulted from his beginnings.