Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Lesser Arts of Life

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution had a dramatic impact on the lives of traditional artisans and craftsmen. Factories appeared turning out cheap, identical wares which aped the possessions of the rich. Fake porcelain, fake ornamental furniture and other goods made to appear posh flooded the market. The makers of traditional pottery, furniture, clothing and the like intended for sale to the average person, found themselves with no choice but to take factory jobs. These jobs paid less and offered little satisfaction.

William Morris 1834-1896

In response, the Arts & Crafts Movement was founded. William Morris is acknowledged as its father. Morris had a vision for a better way to provide the necessities of life to the average person. He reviled the factory-made goods as soulless and ugly. He looked for meaningful work for the masses. In his essay "Useful Work versus Useless Toil" he begins:

The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it - he is "employed," as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only "industrious" enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself - a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.

Ultimately, Morris became a Socialist. It is a logical progression but not, for me, important. Instead the Arts & Crafts movement itself is what I find so valuable about his thinking. The movement spawned groups in the U.S. as well. Here, the Craftsmen Movement and the groups associated with it (some of them utopian communities) set out a comprehensive aesthetic system which covered the furniture, textiles, pottery, jewelry and other items they produced. They were in direct competition with the factories and produced beautiful work intended to be within the reach of the average person. Ironically, today their work is unaffordable except by the wealthy.

In 1882, Morris delivered a speech to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in London. He called it The Lesser Arts of Life and in it he laid out much of his thinking about the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement as well as not a little history of artisanship. It is long and not particularly easy to read but I find the trouble worth it. It has the ability to provide a new perspective on "making a living". What Morris says, in principle, about the work of artisans applies to all creative workers including programmers, system administrators and anyone who creates a unique work product as their "living". Read it and think about it, you might find something to help make the work you must do something worth doing.

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