Resonating warnings of William Morris


In the late nineteenth century William Morris frequently gave public lectures throughout England on the dangers of competitive commerce and the possibility that the world could become a nightmarish place where no one experiences what it feels like to make the necessities of life with their own hands and no one even uses things made by human hands at all. He also points towards hopeful alternatives. The perspectives he conveyed are as relevant today is they were then.

These quotations were found in, “Art and Society: lectures and essays by William Morris.” Edited by Gary Zabel: George’s Hill Publications; Boston. 1993.

Art under plutocracy. 1883.

And first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to all aspects of all the externals of our life. For I must ask you to believe that every one of these things that goes to make up the surroundings among which we live must either be beautiful or ugly, either elevating or degrading to us, either a torment and a burden to the maker of it to make, or a pleasure and a solace to him. How does it fare therefore with our external surroundings in these days? What kind of an account shall we be able to give to those who came after us dealing with the earth, which our forefathers handed down to us still beautiful, in spite of the thousands of years of strife and carelessness and selfishness.

Art, wealth, and riches. 1883.

Popular art, that is, the art which is made by the co-operation of many minds and hands varying in kind and degree of talent, but all doing their part in due subordination to a great whole without anyone losing his individuality –the loss of such an art is surely great, nay, inestimable. But hitherto I have only been speaking of the lack of popular art being a grievous loss as a part of wealth; I have been considering the loss of the thing itself, the loss of the humanizing influence which daily sight of beautiful handiwork brings to bear upon people; but now when we are considering the way in which it is done, the matter becomes more serious still. For I say unhesitatingly that the intelligent work which produced real art was pleasant to do, was human work, not overburdensome or degrading; whereas the unintelligent work which produces sham art, is irksome to do, it is unhuman work, burdensome and degrading; so that it is but right and proper that it should turn out nothing but ugly things. And the immediate cause of the degrading labour which oppresses so large a part of our people is the system of the organization of labour which is the chief instrument of the great power of modern Europe, competitive commerce. That system has quite changed the way of working in all matters that can be considered art, and the change is a very much greater one than people know of or think of. In times past these handicrafts done on a small, almost domestic, scale by knots of workmen who mostly belonged to organized guilds, and were taught their work soundly, however limited their education was in other respects. There was little division of labour among them; the grades between master and man were not many; a man knew his work from end to end, and felt responsible for every stage of its progress. Such work was necessarily slow to do and expensive to buy; nether was it always finished to the nail, but it was always intelligent work; there was a man’s mind in it always, and abundant tokens of human hopes and fears, the sum of which makes life for all of us. (68-69)

Art and socialism. 1884.

I have said that people work no less labouriously than they ever did; but I should have said that they work more labouriously. The wonderful machines which in the hands of just and foreseeing men would have been used to minimize labour and to give pleasure, or in other words added life, to the human race, have been so used to the contrary that they have driven all men into more frantic haste and hurry, thereby destroying pleasure, that is life, on all hands: they have, instead of lightening the labour of the workmen, intensified it, and thereby added more weariness yet to the burden which the poor have to carry. (82)

[. . .]

And now in the teeth of this stupid tyranny I put forward a claim on behalf of labour enslaved by Commerce [. . .] This then is the claim: It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which is worth doing, and be itself pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious. (82-83)

[. . .]

Betwixt the days in which we now live and the end of the Middle Ages, Europe has gained freedom of thought, increase of knowledge, and huge talent for dealing with the material forces of nature; comparative political freedom withal and respect for the lives of civilized men, and other gains that go with these things: nevertheless I say deliberately that if the present state of Society is to endure, she has bought these gains at too high a price in the loss of the pleasure in daily work which once did certainly solace the mass of men for their fears and oppressions: prosperity of the middle classes. Grievous indeed it was, that we were could not keep both hands full, that we were forced to spill from one while we gathered with the other: yet to my mind it is more grievous still to be unconscious of that loss; or being dimly conscious of it to have to force ourselves to forget it and cry out that all is well. For, though all is not well, I know that men’s natures are not so changed in three centuries that we can say to all the thousands of years which went before them: You were wrong to cherish art, and now we have found out that all men need is food and raiment and shelter, with a smattering of knowledge of the material fashion of the universe. Creation is no longer a need of man’s soul, his right hand may forget its cunning, and be the worse for it.

Three hundred years, a day in the lapse of ages, have not changed men’s nature thus utterly, be sure of that: one day we shall win back Art, that is to say the pleasure of life; win back Art again to our daily labour. (90-91)

[. . .]

What can give us the dayspring of a new hope? What, save general revolt against the tyranny of commercial war? The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless: because they are partial revolts against a vast wide-spreading grasping organization which will with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the condition of the people with an attack on a fresh side; new machines, new markets, wholesale emigration, the revival of grovelling superstitions, preachments of thrift to lack-alls, of temperance to the wretched; such things as these will baffle at every turn all partial revolts against the monster we of the middle-class have created for our own undoing. (95)