Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/September 1904/Art in Industry




The Significance of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

DURING the last century the productive powers of man were multiplied many times by the utilization of the energy of coal and water through the agency of steam and electricity. As a result the human race has been lifted from a condition of struggle for the necessities of life to a higher plane of material comfort. With the increase of material wealth has been ushered in the new spirit of democracy. Leisure, culture, education, art and work are now conceived to be the birthright of all. Universal education and culture has heretofore been impossible because of the meager productivity of the unaided man. The arts and crafts movement of to-day is democratic. It proclaims to the world that beauty, skill and education are for all; and that the common thing should be made beautiful, and the beautiful, universal. If the machine enables us to produce the necessities of life for all, it is, nevertheless, the skilled human hand which must adorn and beautify these products. The hand must find its province where the machine can not go. In its proper sphere, the machine may make beautiful things, and may even excel the hand; it is not the use of the machine, but the abuse of machine production, which should be deprecated; without the machine much of our present material comfort would be impossible.

Art is a form of industry, and industry properly applied always brings forth a work of art. The mechanic, fashioning the accurate and splendid tool, produces a work of art; the man, forming with infinite care the lenses of the great Lick telescope, brings into being another work of art. The automatic screw machine and the steam engine are as certainly works of art as the painting or the sculpture of the great masters of the Renaissance. There is and can be no real art considered entirely apart and distinct from industry and the industrial life of the people. As Emerson has said: "Beauty must come back to the useful arts and the distinction between the final and the useful arts be forgotten." Art is a way of doing things and resides in the common as well as in the uncommon, at home as well as abroad, in the present as well as in the past.

The old craftsmen were artists. They wrought with infinite care as much for the satisfaction of doing good and true work as for the money value of the product. The products of the craftsman's skill were few, and only the ruling classes were privileged to possess them. The laboring masses were busily engaged in obtaining the bare necessities of life; no thought of comfort, art or education entered into their lives. The craftsman did unite art and industry; but the modern conception of democracy did not exist. On the other hand, the modern workman is only a link in a great industrial chain. He repeats, in a monotonous routine, certain simple movements; no realizing sense of the true social value or significance of the work which he performs ever comes to him. Long hours and routine work crush the individuality and ambition out of him.

The specialized worker necessarily has narrow views of life; his ability to enjoy is limited. The opportunity and privileges of both working and leisure hours are only partially utilized. It has been said that for a man of twenty, pleasure is business; of thirty, business is business; and of forty, business is pleasure. It might further be maintained that there is little pleasure outside of business for the ordinary man of forty or fifty. Business, the grind of daily life, has engrossed the entire energies of the man. Enjoyment in life means enjoyment of leisure and of work. The unskilled laborer, I fear, enjoys neither—why? His work is monotonous and wearing, the surroundings of home and workshop are not inspiring, and he has received no training which will aid him in finding and utilizing the few opportunities for rational enjoyment which come to him.

The present arts and crafts movement is a protest against and a reaction from the minute division of labor now employed in manufacture, and the stripping of the artistic features from industry. Articles are made to sell more particularly than to serve a useful and important service. Profit, not service, is now the watchword of industry. Art in the crafts would emphasize service. The arts and crafts movement aims to give dignity to the worker, and to teach that all should be workers. The man of leisure is a drone and a parasite. Each individual has some particular work for which he is best adapted; and society needs his services. Only when all are workers and each striving to do his best work does society approach an ideal condition.

The arts and crafts movement needs educated producers and consumers. The task is a double one; the workers must be trained to produce good work, and the taste of all consumers must be educated so that they will demand good articles. Shorter hours and the right use of leisure will give an impetus to the demand for better qualities of goods; and thus variety and handicraftsmanship will to some extent replace interchangeability and machine production. All civilized men demand the necessities of life—food, clothing and shelter—of a character not greatly dissimilar; these common requirements lend themselves readily to machine production. Industrial operations in which machinery is the chief factor are directed toward producing the greatest possible quantity of a uniform quality; therefore, as far as inventive skill will allow, the machine and natural forces, rather than human skill and energy, are employed in producing goods which satisfy the common needs of all men. The class of work in which skill is the determining factor aims to improve the quality rather than to increase the quantity produced. As the demand for the latter class of goods increases the call for skilled workers will also increase.

There are indications of a revival of those industries involving more skilful hand work. More interest is being manifested, throughout the country, in art, architecture and the products of the various handicrafts. The increased attention paid to art and drawing in our public schools is another indication of the coming change in the spirit and demands of the American people. The result of such training on the next generation will be great, and its effect cumulative on the succeeding one. Industries involving artistic ability and intricate manual skill are incapable of minute division of labor. The gain resulting from the centralization of industry and the division of labor is very small in this class of work. It is well adapted, however, to small factories and workshops, and forms an appropriate kind of industry for small villages. If there is to be any considerable revival of village industry, it must come through an increase in the demand for the products of skilled manual work.

The use of steam and the lack of adequate rural transportation facilities forced the abandonment of village industry and built up the existing great industrial centers. In recent years the increasing use of electricity for the distribution and application of power is changing the location and internal arrangement of our shops. This, together with the rapid growth of suburban and interurban electric lines, is placing the villages and rural community in a better condition for industrial pursuits. The separation of agriculture and manufacture will, as a result, probably be less in the future than in the present or the immediate past.

Two great forces, in addition to the work of the school, may be discerned to be removing the obstacles in the path of the arts and crafts movement—the decentralizing tendency of electricity when used to transmit power, and the growth of the labor movement which demands shorter hours and better shop conditions. Just as the manual training movement was a result of economic and industrial changes, so is the call for art in the crafts the result of such forces. As the machine displaces workers, they are pushed higher up in the industrial scale. Such a phenomenon must also be accompanied by an increased demand for the products of skilled workers. This movement is not something evolved out of the minds of a few thoughtful devotees of art; but is in harmony with and dependent upon the needs of industrial and educational life. It is an evolutionary movement.