Art for Life's Sake: Morris' Defense of the Decorative Arts, 1877-82

… we have all of us heard discussions as to whether art should be for art's sake, should be its own end, or be done for a purpose—most fruitless discussions they
are…. You may be sure both that a real artist does his work because he likes it, and that when done 'tis a blessing to his fellows. (Lecture to Nottingham Kyrle
Society, 1881; William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, I, 22 )

When Morris and his friends began to decorate the Oxford Union debating hall in 1857, Rossetti and Burne-Jones painted their panels with illustrations of Malory; Morris filled his and the backgrounds of those of others with proliferating flowered designs. He had already begun to teach himself manuscript illumination, woodcarving, and embroidery, and soon abandoned the study of architecture to devote more energy to experiments in household decoration at Red Lion Square and Red House.

These experiments led to the founding in 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co., which Morris and his coworkers made from 1861 to 1877 into London's most influential art decorators and suppliers of stained glass. During the same period, he wrote:

(a) an immense narrative poem, The Earthly Paradise, 1868-70, whose frame asserts his kinship with emotions of lovers and heroes of past cultures;

(b) an intense medieval masque, Love Is Enough, 1871, whose protagonist relinquishes all worldly benefit for an elusive ideal of beauty and love; and

 (c) Sigurd the Volsung ( 1876 ), an epic celebration of the life and tragic death of a man devoted to the defense of his people.

Many of Morris' activities are understandable as acts in defense of one or anoher form of threatened beauty. In 1877, when Morris was 43, he founded "Anti-Scrape," the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and began to lecture to art schools and public societies on the history and purpose of "the decorative arts." These essays offer an early synthesis of Morris' practice and theory: partly a rationale for his decorative practice, and partly a prototype of his essays on socialism. Even the earliest lectures attack exploitive luxuries, call upon artisans and artists to determine their destiny, and evoke the creative and satisfying nature of work in an ideal future society.

I will trace Morris' justification of the decorative arts in essays such as "The Lesser Arts" ( 1877 ), "Some Hints on Pattern-Designing" ( 1881 ), and "The Lesser Arts of Life" ( 1882 ), in which he attempted to defend the forms of art he most valued in the understated manner of the Apology and Epilogue to The Earthly Paradise. The decorative arts are "lesser," but not less needful than representations of tragedy and heroic passion, which he admits are the subject of the "greatest" literature and painting. Gradually, however, Morris broadened "decoration" to include a "defense" of all aspects of life which further happiness, most especially beauty of landscape and natural environment; dignified simplicity in the forms and materials of architecture; opposition to 'commercial' exploitation; careful study of artistic and cultural values of the past; and equal respect for all workers and the cultural values of their work.

Gradually, this evolving view of "lesser arts" also came to absorb his old heroic ideals, which he had already redefined in "The Lesser Arts" as "the art of morals, the the art of living worthily, and like a man." The conditions of life which the 'lesser' arts would reflect and encourage are "fearless rest and hopeful work," the proper goal of all social institutions and culture:

[T]o 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. ("The Lesser Arts," AWS, I, 269)

In this “lesser” ideal, Morris struggled to modulate and reconcile: ardent naturalism with limiting realism; unpedantic respect for history with belief in each artist's ( artisan, worker's ) originality; usefulness of task with joy in its performance and varied materials; art as the expression of a subject or theme, and as a mediating act of artistic consciousness; art for life's sake, and art for its own.

In effect, Morris contributed to nineteenth-century British views of art a new criterion: not moral imperative (Carlyle), or high quality (Ruskin), but consciousness and joy of creation -- the intrinsic value of art as a human process of poesis, or 'making.' He began to seek definitions of 'artist' and 'artisan' that would be less exclusive of wider classes of creative work, whose pleasures and achievements specifically included co-operation with others toward social ends.

Good teachers, for example, are not 'poets,' 'creative artists,' or 'critics' in most of their lives. Nothing in the theories of solitary romantic imagination adequately accounts for the satisfaction with which one may try to shape a day of meetings classes, questions, casual conversations and potential bureaucratic entanglements into the expression of a consistent social and intellectual purpose. The process of education is presumably one of Morris' "lesser arts."

As Morris' view of the decorative arts came to include virtually all forms of creativity, in both favorable or hostile environments, the "higher" arts came to seem a subdivision of the "lesser" ones: particular forms of inlaid detail-work in broader contexts of human relationships and sources of emotions. This is an extraordinarily attractive vision, but some detailed aspects of its own theoretic 'inlaid work' may be extraneous to it. Morris argued, for instance, that the "higher" arts must represent tragic and concentrated incidents, too intense for the patterns of daily life; by contrast the latter were the province of decoration. Further, Morris was essentially blind to the sustained tension between the decorative, realistic, and representative qualities of ( e. g. ) the best of contemporary Impressionist art. Fortunately, his practice did not reflect this aspect of his theory. He infused both "decorative" and "tragic" elements into his historical and poetic narratives, and "decorated" the highly-wrought Graham piano with paintings of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Toward the end of his life, Morris seems to have found a means of describing his attempts to reconcile "higher" and "lesser" art in two talks, "The Pre-Raphaelite School" (1891), and "Woodcuts of Gothic Books" ( 1892 ). In the former, he defended Pre-Raphaelite "medievalism" as the closest contemporary approximation to a popular art, a "traditional combined idea of Art which once was common to all the people." (WM: AWS, I, 306). In the latter, he argued that

All organic art, all art that is genuinely growing, as opposed to rhetorical, retrospective, or academical art, art which has no real growth in it, has two qualities in common: the epical and the ornamental; its two functions are the telling of a story and the adornment of a space or tangible object….Medieval art, the result of a long unbroken series of tradition, is preeminent for its grasp of these two functions, which indeed, interpenetrate them more than in any other period. (WM: AWS, I, 320)

He especially sought in the design of Kelmscott Press books to "interpenetrate" the "higher" but "ornamental" art of Burne-Jones' drawings, with the more "epic" ( or at least more intense ) narratives of Sigurd the Volsung, The Golden Legend, or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The fusion of "lesser" and "higher" was further effected by the volume's carefully integrated design: typefaces, pages, columns, lines, large and small initials, inset and outer borders, and large and small initials, inset and outer borders, and placement of illustrations, all arranged to suggest and complement the themes of the text. These volumes of

…the subjects for the best art: stories that tell of men's aspirations for more than material life can give them, their struggles for the future welfare of their race, their unselfish love, their unrequited service, (“Some Hints for Pattern Design,” WM:AWS)

were a final, concrete attempt at synthesis of the crafts and skills, loved and practiced, in an 'art' which was neither “higher” nor "lesser," but

… art, the constant companion and expression of the life and aspirations of the world. (WM:AWS, I, 124)