freeman, swine or slave? another reason why William Morris matters

William Morris, photographed by Halliday Sparling (ca. 1890)

In his essay, “The Lesser Arts of Life” (available in its full form here), William Morris distinguished between the “Greater Arts” (those that appeal to a person’s spirit and emotion by the direct path of his senses) and the “Lesser Arts” (those that serve physical needs).  Articulating a fundamental idea of the Arts and Crafts movement, he explained that the Lesser could act like the Greater, if craftsmen were able to infuse the works of their hands with their emotions.  His argument calls for people to consume in a way that increases the opportunity for the Lesser Arts to be enhanced by the spiritual activity of imaginative work.  Morris’ challenge was for his listeners to do with less, and especially less of what was produced by machines: “see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves.”  At the time, this was a particularly hard sell to the expanding middle classes of the Victorian era, and today is likewise challenging even to those Occupants, denizens of the very upper part of the 99%.

Morris believed that all things in the material world–house, clothes, furniture–could be described either as works of art or “wretched makeshifts or, what is worse, degrading shams of better things.”  The artfulness of a chair, or teapot, or balustrade, was dependent on the degree to which it revealed the distinct trace of a hand guided by a brain, with only the bare minimum interposition of machines.  Tools, machines, equipment, technology were not the enemy in and of themselves–otherwise Morris’ beloved Medieval masons, with their chisels, mallets, borers, winches and pulleys, would be cast out.  His belief was that a man is dignified through the direct activity of brain and hand working together as closely as possible to achieve the desired and artful, end.  A growing problem in post-Industrial Revolution England, it’s only harder given the even greater globalism of the recent decades, resulting in unintended hypocrisy (maybe there is no other kind), even among the most tasty concerns (we have commented on the buzzkill of a social conscience prompted by the Liberty goods available at Target, for example).

Teacups, lampshades, buildings: then and now, they all had to be made, all human artifacts, all the product of work: work that can dignify or degrade the worker.  In any economy, every person depends on another to make things.  To a great degree, the consumer dictates the condition under which those things will be made.  Morris believed that work was a noble, essential part of life; like the Lesser Arts, capable of being elevated to a spiritually fulfilling role, or degraded to the meanest of enterprise.  He hoped for all people to find worthy work, and to balance it by periods of wholesome rest; this simple goal was the end of three basic social structures:

Such rest, and such work, I earnestly wish for myself and for you, and for all men: to have space and freedom to gain such rest and such work is the end of politics; to learn how best to gain it is the end of education; to learn its inmost meaning is the end of religion.

Although Morris found his early audience for his lectures among craftspeople, his real message was for consumers, for every dollar or pound spent propels an economy of dignity or degradation.  Making those choices for the former was not always easy; as Morris pointedly said, it could be “troublous:”

Consider after all that the life of a man is more troublous than that of a swine, and the life of a freeman than the life of a slave; and take your choice accordingly.

This single sentence must have sounded, and felt, like a piercing blow through the optimism of ballooning nineteenth-century consumerism; its sting still bites today.

Photograph from the National Portrait Gallery

Our friend Clio, the History Muse, addresses this essay in this posting


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