The Arts And Crafts Movement Socks It To Industry
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The Arts and Crafts Movement Socks It to Industry

Journalistic sensationalism aside, the sentiment of this modern day caption may very well have been a headline in 1860, when the Arts and Crafts Movement stepped up to offer a constructive antidote, a solution to the downside of the Industrial Revolution.

I am writing about the Arts and Crafts Movement, not so much as a history lesson, but to demonstrate how history often repeats itself, while stirring up understandable emotions in the people who are the most adversely affected by these changes, or paradigm shifts.

In this case, it is the artists, designers, architects, sculptors, illustrators, glass makers, silversmiths, and craftsmen of every description, who most severely felt the negative impact of a new industry and its machines.

Was it good change? Or was it bad change? It was neither and it was both. One thing it definitely was, is inevitable. Change is inevitable.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was both political and aesthetic.

Idealistic in nature, it represented a new model for honest craftsmanship and quality materials, while touting socialistic concepts.

William Morris, an ardent socialist, and the movement’s figurehead, believed that “industrialization alienated labor and created a dehumanizing distance between the designer and manufacturer. “

People were required to work in factories that were usually located in big cities, and they worked under conditions that were far from ideal. To the artists, it seemed anti-human and anti-art. Also, the collaborative working relationship between artist and craftsman ceased to exist, as well as the art of creating a beautiful object with human hands.

As the principal developer of the Arts and Crafts style, Morris’ objective was to unite the arts within the décor of the home, with an emphasis on nature and simple forms. It was dubbed the Decorative Arts.

Morris’ art is sophisticated, and features stylized birds and plant forms in bold, flat color and line. Morris designed and produced many objects for the home, including wallpaper, textiles, furniture, and stained glass. Curiously, he actually “mass-produced” his own work. I say curiously because it seemed to be a contradiction. Morris essentially opposed the commercialism of mass production. Perhaps he thought it was fine as long as the designer was reproducing his own art.

He established Kelmscott Press in 1890, which printed fine editions of classic English literature.

John Ruskin was the leading art critic of the Victorian era, and the inspiration and heart and soul of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ruskin loved nature. He believed in preserving the environment. He was a champion of the integrity of the arts. Ruskin thought machinery was the cause of many social ills and that to have a healthy society, one must depend on skilled, creative workers. He greatly influenced the thinkers of the time, including William Morris.

The Movement happened as a reaction to the new inventions (machines) of the Industrial Revolution. These machines impacted the artists and designers of the day, by not only changing the way they made their art, but also the art itself.

Machines were introduced that replaced skilled craftsmen.

To the trained artistic eye, the mass produced objects were slick and dehumanized.

And the craftsman was in danger of becoming obsolete, or at least subservient to the machine that took over his work.

It was the end of an era, a time of change.

“Change” is always a shock. When it interferes with artistic expression, it’s more than a shock. It is transformational, and perceived as not always in the best interest of art.

Why did artists, craftsmen, and designers object to what was supposed to be progress? Isn't “mass produced” an honest, practical way for all people to own beautiful objects, previously accessible only to the few?

What’s wrong with making duplicates of one object at a price everyone can afford?

I’d be a hypocrite if I said that it isn’t okay to reproduce art, since I have been a designer, whose work has been reproduced for decades. I’m also a designer who understands exactly how the artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement felt. I see their point. Socialism aside, I may have been one of them.

Put yourself mentally into the early to mid nineteenth century. If you wanted a fine piece of furniture, you visited a craftsman and contracted him to make the furniture for you. His work represented a standard you were accustomed to and accepted. The decorative crafts were an art form that was highly valued..

All of a sudden, industry was grinding out cheaply made facsimilies of objects that heretofore required human artistry and time to produce.

Traditionally, these objects were made by hand, not machine. Craftsmen took great pride in their craftsmanship, and in working together with the designer to produce works of beauty and mastery. Oftentimes, the designer and craftsman was one and the same person.

Industrialization evoked massive discontent amongst the artists and thinkers of the day, who felt that the quality of life had been largely diminished by the use of machines to produce the decorative arts.

The Arts and Crafts Movement grew in sentiment and had a huge influence on the decorative arts for fifty year, through 1910. Its ideas and ideals spread throughout Europe and North America, and its visual impact was seen in the art world well into the 1930s.

England was the largest, most powerful industrialized nation of that time. Britain was the indisputable leader, the arbiter of good taste and quality, and set the standard for excellence.

The Industrial Revolution in England was a tremendous paradigm shift. The way people lived, even the objects they lived with in their homes was revolutionized, and it spread out to the entire world.

Mass produced objects were devoid of the slight imperfections that are characteristic of a handmade object. This made them appear impersonal.

Unique personal touches, and slight irregularities are most desirable in an original work. Oftentimes, an imperfection is the way we would recognize an original from a mass produced object..

We mass produce everything today. What would your sofa cost if it were not mass produced? Practicality and consumerism seem to rule our modern world.

Artists of 1860 would be horrified if they could see some of our modern decorative arts, especially some that are being produced with profit margins as the only criteria.

My twenty-first century mind thinks we can have it all, but not everything in one place. The decorative arts made by craftsmen have an important place in our world. Mass produced objects have their place. One should not preclude the other. However, they should both be produced with integrity.

Fortunately, we still have some extraordinary decorative art, mass produced objects that are made for the home at reasonable prices, though sadly, these objects are not found in as many retail stores, as they once were.

Followers of the Arts and Crafts Movement tended to make work that was slightly unfinished to emphasize the hand made aspect of the design.

Hand made continues to be desirable.

Followers of the movement felt it was more important to re- establish the integrity of the art, something they felt was destroyed by industry, rather than becoming overly concerned with the social issues that were also part of the movement.

We Americans had our own kind of virtue. We were more interested in creating well decorated middle-class homes.

Americans thought the simple aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts style would lend nobility to industrial consumerism.

A refreshing simplicity was a reaction to the “excessiveness” of the Victorian era. Less was more.

The “socialism” aspect of The Arts and Crafts Movement did not take hold in America in any significant way.

The Exhibition of 1897 was conducted in Boston and featured a large collection of decorative objects, numbering over 1000 items, that were made by men and women craftsmen. As a matter of fact, half of the exhibitors were women. The Arts and Crafts Movement was very friendly toward women. Women were well educated in the arts and the skills of a craftsman. They were encouraged to actively participate in the applied arts.

The Decorative Arts made no gender distinction.

The purpose of the Exhibition was to promote the decorative arts in all areas of hand crafted objects. It was important to encourage workmen to appreciate the value of good design and to see the dignity in producing a well made work. It also insisted upon restraint in regard to ornamentation. Ornamentation was to be secondary to form.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Arts and Crafts ideals influenced a broad spectrum of the arts, including architecture.

Now that we understand what led up to the Arts and Crafts Movement, can you see a parallel in our world today?

Technology has progressed so far that it too, has replaced the human factor to a large degree.

For the artist, technology has even made paint brushes, paint, pens and pencils outdated. What would Van Gogh have said about that?

Some of us "hands on" artists and designers are suddenly feeling dispensable. How can that be?

Is a machine more interesting or more practical than we are? Is it more reliable?

Is our next technological paradigm going to be Ray Kurzweil’s transhumanism? Scary thought.

We have software that can do in minutes what requires hours of labor when done by hand.

In the case of art, what does this abbreviation leave out? The words practicality and art used together, seem to be an oxymoron. At least, one has nothing to do with the other.

Just like the artist and craftsman of 1860, I like “made by hand” much better.

Does having a player piano make you a pianist? Well, I'm sure you get my point.

Many illustrators and graphic designers are using computers to make their drawings and designs. Commercially, it’s often required that art is transmitted online.

As an artist, I confess that I think it’s cheating to rely on a computer to do what you should be able to do on paper, by hand. No, I’m not totally opposed to using computers for art and design because remarkable things are being done on computers. Look at all the great animation.

Many of our “mass produced” decorative arts have seriously slipped in recent years. Have you noticed, the objects we find in stores are not as exciting, inventive, or as well executed as they once were?

Great decorative objects can still be found, if you know where to look.

What will give the mainstream decorative arts a boost?

Maybe a bolt of lightning, an Arts and Crafts Movement, a Renaissance, or possibly a miracle.


Street Talk

Sherry B.  

Nice article Joan! I love art, especially the unique or unusual. I'm not too fond of the way things are going with the mass produced type of artwork out there. Although there are some good ones, it's just not too inspiring to me. I know that a lot of people just can't afford to buy an original "one of a kind" piece of artwork such as a painting or even a handmade piece of furniture. I know I can't afford it. But I definitely like it a lot more than what you can find in most stores. I also love to paint and I agree with you that it seems like cheating if you have to rely on a computer to do it all for you. It just seems that it lacks the human touch and feelings behind the art.

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

I'm with you Sherry, on all of the above. Much of our production has been outsourced to third world countries. The cultural differences have made it hard for workers in these countries to understand the subtle differences that are apparent to us in the finished product. Not only that, but manufacturers have been so concerned with keeping the cost down, that cut corners compromise the end result. Thanks for your comment.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

You're right! There's a place for handmade. There's a place for art. There will indeed be a revolution returning us to that place... and it's beginning all around us. Nice article.

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

I think so too Cynthia. Thanks for commenting.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Wow Joan, so much to say about this article. You have really laid out a fascinating viewpoint! I believe that artists and craftsman of all types are the mainstay of culture and help forge our future. I love certain crafts and when I don't have time to do them I truly enjoy buying someone else's original work that I admire. And yes, I find some of the chain "crafty things" stores to be worthless. One thing I notice where I live here in New Mexico--people L O V E festivals and outdoor gatherings where there are crafts sold. Always wonder how profitable this is for the vendors compared to the time they put in.

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

I think it depends on what you are selling at those craft fairs. I have a photographer friend who set up a booth, and found it to be a waste of time. I think if the craftsman is a regular at a well known fair, he/she can sell a few things to make it worth their time. I went into Bloomingdale's with my sister to do some retail therapy. It was the first time I wasn't seduced into buying something. Everything has become too generic for my taste. I think it's because clothes, et al are being made cheaply in China. It's not the same, but I think there will be a counter culture right here in the USA. Thanks for commenting Patty.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

This is a tough one as I am a lover of the unique and unusual plus my father is an original artist. While I understand the constraints that wanting everything to be original places of society and the cost of manufacturing goes up but I also wonder what will happen to 'craftsmanship' will it even exist in years to come if computers just take over even more

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

We humans always seem to want balance. The more impersonal things get, the more the human heart longs for the human touch in all things. In my opinion, we will have a crafts movement. I see it happening now, though it's not organized as such. I just hope the younger generation has a chance to know and have beautiful objects, original or mass produced. They're being exposed to junk right now. Artists will continue to do their thing because it is who they are. I'm one of them. Great that your dad is an artist.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Very interesting! love history.

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

Thanks Shawn. It is about love.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

A history lesson I enjoyed. I never thought of it in quite those terms. I agree it was inevitable. There are craftsmen retuning in numerous fields. Their items are a little pricey by necessity but usually worth it. Liked and shared

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

Hi John. I think it is also inevitable that we have an influx of craftsmen and one of a kind crafts happening now. Whenever there is a void, something fills it in. And there's a big void. It's going to be interesting to watch. Thank you for liking and sharing.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

The human element has been lost for so many years in most things, now it seems to be about $$ rather than whom, I look at it like this (as I am a carpenter) carpenters of the past had real skill, done by hand and took pride in there work, now tools and machines do the work...the skill has been replaced by non humans....progress...maybe....better...not quite sure about that....nice article Joan

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

Thanks Tim. Great that you're a carpenter. So you know exactly how craftsmen feel because you're one of them. A piece of furniture made using time honored traditions is very different from a commercial piece found in one of the big boxes. They both have a purpose. Just don't want to see these fine skills and masterpieces lost. Some people don't know the difference, and that worries me too.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Although huge I made it! Great, opinionated article. My eye catches always unique, hand made products. Original products are so different and beautiful although more expensive! But it should be like that since it takes so much effort and time to make them

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

Hi Maria. I got carried away, and the article got long. Thank you for sticking with it. If you're like me, you are craving the human element in everything. Graphics, 3 dimensional objects, everything is getting too digital for my liking. Hand made objects have more character.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Phew... this is a thought provoking article Joan, one of which I am in agreement... the old hand made products are those that will still catch my eye, and attract me to purchase.. the mass produced are just that a non unique item that many can own...When Linda started her business years ago, she had a hand made shop where her workers made up designs and crocheted them into pillow slips or cushions... these were snapped up by foreign visitors passing through as most of the designs were of African antelope, birds, bushman type paintings etc... but they were unique and on many the small errors of hand made could be seen... but this is what seemed to make them attractive... when she packed this up and opened her coffee shop.. she was still getting requests from overseas for her designed items... it did make the point that home made was still very popular and in demand...

Reply
  about 8 years ago
  

Linda's shop sounds very interesting. Why doesn't she continue with it and offer her items online? Sounds like a good cottage industry and timely. Hand made will have more value than ever. What's happening with mass production now is that manufacturers are cutting corners in order to offer goods at a good price and still be profitable. It's got to come out of somewhere, so it comes out of quality and originality of the goods. That's just the way it is right now. So if one can manage a small cottage industry business, or a small company with lower overhead, you'll put people to work and have a nice business. You have to be able to charge enough for it though in order to make your profit. Thanks for reading my long article Rob. Glad you found it thought provoking. It's what's happening in our world right now.

Reply
  about 8 years ago
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