The Art of the People by William Morris (1879)

 History (so called) has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created.

Morris delivered this lecture to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, of which he was President, on February 19, 1879.

Art is despised

Morris laments that in their day Art is despised by the rich and powerful.

There are some of us who love Art most, and I may say most faithfully, who see for certain that such love is rare nowadays. We cannot help seeing, that besides a vast number of people, who (poor souls!) are sordid and brutal of mind and habits, and have had no chance or choice in the matter, there are many high-minded, thoughtful, and cultivated men who inwardly think the arts to be a foolish accident of civilisation–nay, worse perhaps, a nuisance, a disease, a hindrance to human progress.

But he and his audience are certain Art is not only valuable but vital to human nature and to society.

The arts we have met together to further are necessary to the life of man, if the progress of civilisation is not to be as causeless as the turning of a wheel that makes nothing.

Art for Art’s sake is a dead end

One of the obvious corruptions of the time is the immense amount of badly paid work and poor craftsmanship which goes into making pointlessly showy objects for the philistine rich:

I have never been in any rich man’s house which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of nine-tenths of all that it held.

Alongside it has gone the production of genuinely marvellous artefacts by a smaller and smaller coterie of genuine artists who, due to their complete rejection by wider Society, have turned in on themselves and work only for themselves and have finally come to believe that Art has no relationship with wider society or moralit, but can and should be made for this tiny elite alone.

I believe that if other things were but to stand still in the world, this improvement before mentioned would lead to a kind of art … cultivated professedly by a few, and for a few, who would consider it necessary–a duty, if they could admit duties–to despise the common herd, to hold themselves aloof from all that the world has been struggling for from the first, to guard carefully every approach to their palace of art. It would be a pity to waste many words on the prospect of such a school of art as this, which does in a way, theoretically at least, exist at present, and has for its watchword a piece of slang that does not mean the harmless thing it seems to mean–art for art’s sake. Its fore- doomed end must be, that art at last will seem too delicate a thing for even the hands of the initiated to touch; and the initiated must at last sit still and do nothing–to the grief of no one.

It is not that Art for Art’s sake is wrong in itself; it is that society is in danger of coming to believe that this incredibly restricted definition is what art is when Morris passionately takes the diametrically opposed view.

I know that those honest and intelligent people, who are eager for human progress, and yet lack part of the human senses, and are anti-artistic, suppose that such men are artists, and that this is what art means, and what it does for people, and that such a narrow, cowardly life is what we, fellow-handicraftsmen, aim at. I see this taken for granted continually, even by many who, to say truth, ought to know better, and I long to put the slur from off us; to make people understand that we, least of all men, wish to widen the gulf between the classes, nay, worse still, to make new classes of elevation, and new classes of degradation–new lords and new slaves; that we, least of all men, want to cultivate the ‘plant called man’ in different ways–here stingily, there wastefully: I wish people to understand that the art we are striving for is a good thing which all can share, which will elevate all; in good sooth, if all people do not soon share it there will soon be none to share; if all are not elevated by it, mankind will lose the elevation it has gained. Nor is such an art as we long for a vain dream; such an art once was in times that were worse than these, when there was less courage, kindness, and truth in the world than there is now; such an art there will be hereafter, when there will be more courage, kindness, and truth than there is now in the world.

The people’s art

Art for art’s sake is a dead end because the best art in all ages has come from popular craftsmen. Of course there are great cathedrals and mansions (though almost always the craftsmen who actually built them are anonymous, of the people) but the great life of the people of the past involved creative labour, work which produced beautiful ornamentation to even the most practical objects, and whose work can be seen in lovely village churches and in the best village cottages.

History (so-called) is the annals of tyrants and psychopaths. But between the endless wars, ordinary life went on and Morris wants us to celebrate everyday creativity in all its forms:

Not every day, you may be sure, was a day of slaughter and tumult, though the histories read almost as if it were so; but every day the hammer chinked on the anvil, and the chisel played about the oak beam, and never without some beauty and invention being born of it, and consequently some human happiness.

The core of  his message is that work should and could be pleasurable, not the downtrodden slave-labour it has become for so many Victorians.

That thing which I understand by real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour. I do not believe he can be happy in his labour without expressing that happiness; and especially is this so when he is at work at anything in which he specially excels. A most kind gift is this of nature, since all men, nay, it seems all things too, must labour; so that not only does the dog take pleasure in hunting, and the horse in running, and the bird in flying, but so natural does the idea seem to us, that we imagine to ourselves that the earth and the very elements rejoice in doing their appointed work; and the poets have told us of the spring meadows smiling, of the exultation of the fire, of the countless laughter of the sea.

If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect… If I could only persuade you of this, that the chief duty of the civilised world to-day is to set about making labour happy for all, to do its utmost to minimise the amount of unhappy labour…

The Victorian age has perfected two kinds of machinery, those for making money and weapons, both a type of war-machine, the war of commerce and the war of imperial conquest.

But, on the other hand, matters for the carrying on of a dignified daily life, that life of mutual trust, forbearance, and help, which is the only real life of thinking men–these things the civilised world makes ill, and even increasingly worse and worse.

In contrast to the miserable slave labour which is carried out to create shoddy goods which can only be sold by huckstering salesmen (‘the toil which makes the thousand and one things which nobody wants, which are used merely as the counters for the competitive buying and selling, falsely called commerce’) or weapons which are only good for killing people in foreign countries, Morris’s vision is of a country at peace with itself and an economy built on fulfilling work.

It is necessary to the further progress of civilisation that men should turn their thoughts to some means of limiting, and in the end of doing away with, degrading labour.

Come the Revolution…

Morris is adept at listing all the ills of his age: poverty and squalor; terrible architecture of Victorian terraces knocked up to house slave labourers; complete disregard for art or ornamentation anywhere in life; the wealth generated by this slave labour frittered away by the rich who go out of their way to display their disgusting philistinism. But he can’t quite see a clear way to the improvement of this sorry state unless it is in a magical Transformation:

The present time of strife and doubt and change is preparing for the better time, when the change shall have come, the strife be lulled, and the doubt cleared…

That great change which we are working for, each in his own way, will come like other changes, as a thief in the night, and will be with us before we know it…

What shall we do then? what shall our necessary hours of labour bring forth? That will be a question for all men in that day when many wrongs are righted, and when there will be no classes of degradation on whom the dirty work of the world can be shovelled…


But the mechanism by which this change comes about remains a mystery. This is why the word HOPE is so prevalent in his writings. Without a clear roadmap for the future, he urges himself and his audience to work and educate and create IN HOPE of a better time to come.

if we were only come to our right minds, and could see the necessity for making labour sweet to all men, as it is now to very few–the necessity, I repeat; lest discontent, unrest, and despair should at last swallow up all society–If we, then, with our eyes cleared, could but make some sacrifice of things which do us no good, since we unjustly and uneasily possess them, then indeed I believe we should sow the seeds of a happiness which the world has not yet known, of a rest and content which would make it what I cannot help thinking it was meant to be: and with that seed would be sown also the seed of real art, the expression of man’s happiness in his labour,–an art made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.

I am, indeed, hopeful, but can I give a date to the accomplishment of my hope, and say that it will happen in my life or yours?

Meanwhile, if these hours be dark, as, indeed, in many ways they are, at least do not let us sit deedless, like fools and fine gentlemen, thinking the common toil not good enough for us, and beaten by the muddle; but rather let us work like good fellows trying by some dim candle-light to set our workshop ready against to-morrow’s daylight–that to-morrow, when the civilised world, no longer greedy, strifeful, and destructive, shall have a new art, a glorious art, made by the people and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.

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