I’ve been researching the foundations of Arts and Crafts as a social movement off and on for over a decade now; a decade ago I didn’t even have that label to place on it. At the center, for most people, is John Ruskin. The problem is that I find Ruskin to be deadly dull. This year I figured out that William Morris wasn’t dull; I also realized that Thomas Carlyle also factors into this train of thought and I never found him dull either. Why does Ruskin bore me so? I still can’t answer that question. I can handle his thought when traced to other people, but by itself my eyes just glaze over.
I reached a bit of an epiphany the other day on one part of these questions—why is feudal art the golden age for these people, starting with Ruskin? It dawned on me that it could likely be a symptom of the anxiety over democracy and rule by the rabble which flows from Carlyle forward. The guild system is a system of maintaining authority over the production of goods. The “master” craftsman directs the workers under him in a system that makes sense to these aristocrats in a way that laissez faire capitalism or democracy doesn’t. It answers the anxiety without (in their opinion at least) resort to despotism.
That makes for a really easy connection in the early twentieth century with nationalism and all its calls to authority, making “culture” the central arbiter of quality in goods. For all its populism, it is fear of the crowd that drives these movements. Further, rebellion against “culture” by the modernists results in exchanging the aesthetes for technocrats/engineers/designers thus cloaking the “management” of the population by an oligarchy instead of taste-mongers and power brokers. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.