Document 50: Gustav Stickley, "On True Art", 1905
By , the text below reprints one of a series of three articles published in the craftsman in 1905, on the theme "the machine versus 'art'"
Source to be examined: Recent inroads into the understanding of prescriptive literature for the home as a specific form of visual and literary representation were made in a special issue of this journal, edited by G. Lees-Maffei, ?Domestic design advice?, Journal of Design History, vol. 16, no. 1, 2003.ALS IK KAN [The Finnish or Flemish words "ALS IK KAN" mean "If I can, all I can."]
IN our last talk we considered the difference which lies between true art, the expression of man's joy in his work, and that product of ingenuity or technical skill which often passes for art, but which lacks the essential elements of sincerity and the delight that comes only from the exercise of the inborn creative power.
Art, therefore, is not so much the product of man's work as the spontaneous expression of his attitude toward that work.
Labor is the employment of man's powers to accomplish a certain task; art is the joy man feels in the exercise of those powers. All art means labor, but all labor is not art. Without labor life would not be possible; without art, labor is mere drudgery, undertaken only under the lash of necessity, something from which greater prosperity means an ardently desired escape.
In earlier and simpler days, when art and labor went hand in hand, when the delight of the artisan was to put his utmost powers into the work which formed a part of his very existence, whether it stood alone or was a part of some great scheme of beauty worked out by hundreds of hands and brains under the leadership of some master-mind, the true relationship was maintained, with the result that men look reverently back upon that period as the Golden Age of art.
With the introduction of machinery came the reign of commercialism. Division and countless subdivision of labor wiped out all individual interest of the worker in the thing made. Art and labor parted company when quantity and cheapness of production became the sole aim of the manufacturer, for gradually all personal interest and sympathy between the maker and the user, which was so large a factor in the making of those beautiful articles that now bear silent witness to the richer and more vital art of other days, was replaced by the question of mere valuation in dollars and cents. The art value of a thing depends far more upon the human interest taken in the making of it, than upon its perfection as a piece of work.
Machinery in itself is not directly responsible for this lack of art. All other things being equal, a piece of furniture, for instance, that is entirely hand-made would be apt to have more individuality, and therefore more artistic value, than one entirely machine-made, for the reason that the artisan would naturally put more of his personality into the making of it, but, given the same personal interest of the worker in the completed article, nearly every part of it, except such as are added expressly for ornament, might be made by machine without destroying its interest and value as a work of art. For example, in the making of a chair there is no particular field for artistic expression in the boring of a round hole, or in the shaping of a mortise, that such details must necessarily be done by hand when they may be done so much more swiftly by machinery.
But if the chair is to be valued as an individual piece of work, the man who makes it must have known the joy and enthusiasm of carrying out an idea that is his own, or with which he is in such perfect sympathy that the work becomes a delight. And if the maker is to feel the inspiration and the joy in his work that will make it a work of art, he must have the sympathy and appreciation of the man who will own and use it. The artistic work that has come down to us from former generations is the outcome of just such cooperation. Painters, sculptors, architects, goldsmiths, cabinet-makers, potters,tapestry-weavers, all worked under the eye of and in direct accord with their
patrons and employers. Popes and emperors thought it not beneath their dignity to give much time and attention to the progress of works of all sorts done at their order;
queens worked with their maidens at spinning-wheel and embroidery frame, and the same gracious custom prevailed throughout all ranks of life, leaving its record in
marvelous works of art which modern commercialism strives in vain to imitate.
We speak confidently of "art" furniture, "art" rugs and carpets, "art" wall-papers, "art" fabrics. What is it that makes them artistic as compared with other furnishings
used for similar purposes? The fact that they may be faithful reproductions of things that, on account of the conditions surrounding their creation, have an unquestioned
art value, is not enough.
This art value, while always present in the original, cannot be transmitted to the copy,so that, no matter how beautiful, costly or luxurious they may be, they are simply
clever mechanical reproductions of things that were artistic because they expressed the spirit of their own times and the individuality of their makers as well as the
ideas of the patrons for whose use they were made. A good instance of this is the Empire furniture, replicas of which are so much in vogue to-day. The original
designs expressed nothing less than the ideas and characteristics of Napoleon himself.
Desirous of impressing his subjects with his material pomp and grandeur, he succeeded, with the aid of his architects, Percier and Fontaine, in creating for himself an environment splendid in its refined dignity and artistic merit. He personally directed the work or his artists and artisans, and every detail was carried out according to his own ideas. In all decorations appeared the eagle, the lion, the laurel-wreath, emblems from time immemorial of greatness and of ambition, and adapted by Napoleon to the adornment of his surroundings as being most expressive of his own dominant individuality. Yet these same furnishings and decorations, magnificent as they were in their natural environment, have merely a commercial value when reproduced for use in our American homes. Their significance is gone. They have become mere imitations.
Art, above all things, should express an idea. The rich stores of the past may be borrowed from to almost any extent, but their value lies in the material found there for adaptation, not imitation or reproduction. Napoleon borrowed his emblems of triumph and power from the symbols of ancient civilizations, but he so used them that he made them his own. They furnished the basis only of the original scheme of decoration that bore the impress of the mind of Napoleon, and so came to be typical of his times. In this way alone is modern art justified in borrowing from the past. It may inspire to any extent, as association with great minds or acquaintance with great books furnish a stimulus to intellectual development, but it should inspire original ideas. To furnish our houses in imitation of past style and grandeur is to put ourselves on a mental level with those who imitate the customs and mannerisms of another nation.