Pleasure In Creation

PrintPrintEmailEmail

THROUGHOUT AMERICA GRADE SCHOOLS AND summer camps teach “arts and crafts.” In my rural school we mitered wooden boxes, hammered decorative copper, and crackle-glazed clay pots—all under the gaze of a man who wore a dirty smock and a white beard, marks of individuality unknown to other instructors. We worked as if within an ancient order (or, in our case, youthful disorder) of craftsmen. But no one ever explained why we undertook such labors—so unlike the multiplication tables for future engineers, the test tubes for future doctors, the books for future teachers. Why fifty minutes in any school day went to arts and crafts puzzled me. Since then I have learned.

This year the phrase arts and crafts reaches its 100th anniversary. This year also (and next), an exhibition showing the full range of the American Arts and Crafts movement—including work in wood, metal, pottery, and other forms, all brought together by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—will reach museums in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York City. The show casts light not just on American education, and not just on a particular direction in American art from the late nineteenth century to the First World War; it illumines also a major response of American society to the clangor and roar of the Industrial Revolution.

The Arts and Crafts movement originated not in America but in Britain. Like most movements, it had no clear birthdate. But it did have its documented christening, in May 1887, when a London bookbinder coined a name for Britain’s new Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. In its thought the society looked back more than three decades, to the writings of John Ruskin (which, in turn, looked back more than four centuries, to the Middle Ages).

The vision of Ruskin, the first professor of art history at Oxford and the most aggressive art critic of his day, defined virtually every landmark that the American Arts and Crafts movement would steer by. He praised love of natural ob- jects for their own sake and praised the wisdom that began in close attention to “the wandering tendril, and the budding of the flower.” He attacked construction techniques that obscured the maker’s choice of natural materials and applauded design that revealed the “secrets of its structure.” He attacked machine work for turning men into cogwheels and attacked the division of labor, which he insisted had divided not labor but human beings—had divided them into “small fragments and crumbs of life.” He attacked all work that forced men to perform like tools in order to make precise copies, and called, above all else, for “healthy and ennobling labor,” which would free each worker for creative invention.

The ideas of Ruskin the philosopher took shape in the workshop of William Morris the designer. Not long after Morris encountered Ruskin’s ideas at Oxford, his firm began producing its solid wooden chairs, elegant wallpapers, and, eventually, rich carpets and tapestries. With his smock tucked under his armpits and his forearms dyed to his elbows, printing his wallpapers with woodblocks and tinting his tapestries with vegetable dyes, Morris personified the fusion of modern prophet with medieval artisan. “Nothing can be a work of art,” he proclaimed, “which is not useful.” This reverence for both user and maker divided arts and crafts from the nearly contemporaneous “aesthetic movement.” Whereas the aesthete sought to encourage “art for art’s sake,” the arts-andcrafts reformer sought, as Wendy Kaplan of the Museum of Fine Arts puts it, “to incorporate art in everyday activity,” to embrace “art for life’s sake.”

Morris’s workshop at Merton Abbey attracted American pilgrims hoping to witness the sort of spiritually healthy labor described by Ruskin in his idealized vision of the Middle Ages. The Americanization of arts and crafts, which began to gain speed in the 1890s, took new impetus from trips to England by two apparently dissimilar men—a former soap merchant named Elbert Hubbard and a rather conventional furniture maker named Gustav Stickley.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Stickley and Hubbard marketed furniture that was distinctly American and built to last.

In 1894 Hubbard visited Morris’s Merton Abbey and, in his words, “caught it.” Within two years, in the little village of East Aurora, New York, Hubbard had created his Roycroft community (see  ‘Commune’ in East Aurora,” American Heritage, February 1971), dedicated to printing books, making furniture, and, through its magazine, The Philistine, publicizing Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard, although he affected an oversized bow tie fit for an aesthetic dandy, liked his magazine to present him as the devoted leader of a group of monkish craftworkers. It called him Fra Elbertus.