Art and Industry

Art and IndustryI wasn’t able to locate any decent scans of the 1961 American edition of Herbert Read’s book online, so I must apologize for the terrible snap of the cover. It’s interesting to me that the design of the book is as much a matter of discussion as its contents.

First published in 1934, it seems to be a point of convergence for several other theorists of design. I can’t recall exactly where I first encountered it, but I seem to remember it was a contemporary wood turner who suggested it as a major influence. It marks a pivot into an “abstract” conception of design in the twentieth century.

The Journal of Design History published an interesting article in its inaugural issue in 1988, focused as much on the design of the book itself as its influence. It was controversial from the start, and that’s why it’s covers were subject to so many redesigns.

Read’s introduction to the 1961 American edition asserts that his project isn’t bound by nationalist boundaries, and remarks that this edition has been augmented with a representative selection of recent American products.

It was my intention from the very beginning, however, to survey industrial design on a world-wide basis. From time to time the standard of design in one country may be leading the world, but there are no specifically national trends in industrial art; the same means of production prevail everywhere, and the general principles which I have tried to establish in this book are of universal application. (x)

Read’s book is useful to me on several levels, not the least because it offers a glimpse into the evolution of British thinking in industrial design in the early twentieth century; that’s his real point of reference. But to assert that he was aiming at something that wasn’t culture bound is significant given the explosion of nationalism across the thirties elsewhere. The great leveler, for Read, was the machine. He saw most of the aftermath of the arts and crafts movement as anti-machine, and his treatment of William Morris in particular is skewed and hardly accurate. In fact, it seems like my main project these days is collecting misreadings of William Morris.


But there’s a lot more to the book than that. It opens with an epigram from Frank Lloyd Wright about the birth of a new machine age, and proceeds to offer the justification of a new machine aesthetic from the perspective of an art historian.

The series of problems addressed by Read stem from the central questions “what is art?” and “can machines produce art?”.

The answer to the first question is a manifesto for new privileges to be afforded to abstract, non-figural or utilitarian, art.

The second is of course a resounding “yes” followed by an attempt at outlining a new sort of machine aesthetics.

These questions, with the onset of artificial intelligence these days, take on a new sort of relevance beyond the dehumanizing impact of machine production. The question now is almost evolving into “can machines be creative?” It’s the universality and omnipresence of machines that renders nationalistic concerns obsolete, Read argues; the real problem is not to adapt machine production to the aesthetic standards of handicraft, but to think out new aesthetic standards for new methods of production:

In other words, what is required as a preliminary to any practical solution of the division existing between art and industry is a clear understanding not only of the processes of modern production, but also the nature of art. Not until we have reduced the work of art to its essentials, stripped it of all the irrelevancies imposed on it  by a particular culture or civilization, can we any solution of the problem. The first step, therefore, is to define art; the second is to estimate the capacity of the machine to produce works of art. (xi-xii)

1944This is a direct jab, it seems to me, at the folk revival. Age old craft traditions become, in Herbert Read’s estimation, irrelevancies.

Needless to say, I have a lot of problems sorting out my feelings about this book. I am not a big fan of abstract art, or formalisms of most sorts. This is the root of Read’s approach, really.

What are the formal aspects of design and how might machines best be deployed to push these forms into the hands of the masses?

I give him major credit for actually addressing the problem of getting better quality products into the hands of the mass of humanity, but it seems like throwing out the baby with the bath water to demand that we surrender our deeply rooted cultural preferences to do so; this is to me modernism at its most heinous and reprehensible.

If we reject the aesthetic faith of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Ruskin, Morris, the Royal Academy, the Royal College of Art, and fifty-eight thousand deluded art students, and turn to the work of a few practical engineers and technical designers, it will be said that work so unconscious of aesthetic purpose cannot for a moment be compared with craftsmanship based on the tradition of five centuries. It will be seen that in the first place I question the accepted interpretation of this tradition; that I distinguish sharply between humanistic and formal elements in such art; and that then I would seem to reject the whole humanistic tradition, at least in so far as it concerns objects of use. (xiv)

The introduction is nothing if not polemic:

These false ideals are for the most part fostered by our academies, institutes, and schools of art. I am almost forced to the conclusion, when I came to consider the problem of education in this book, that on the whole we should benefit from the total abolition of all academic instruction in art; that the only necessary instruction is technical instruction, out of which practical questions of design automatically arise. (xv)

In short, you couldn’t find a better opposite to Jerome Segal’s position on education. It also mirrors William Morris’s desire that the arts themselves be left to rot with so much crap being foisted on the world.


Of course, Herbert Read is an anarchist rather than a socialist. This sort of railing against institutions is to be expected.

The first thing I would like to see in a book that celebrates a machine aesthetic is a clear definition of exactly what constitutes “machine” tools as opposed to basic hand tools. I’m not sure Read really accomplishes that.

However, he does at least a sensitivity to the problem the lack of a real definition might entail. The way the question is framed does call for a redefinition of “art”.

By the machine we mean an instrument of mass production. In a sense, every tool is a machine—the hammer, the ax, and the chisel. And every machine is a tool. The real distinction is between one man using a tool with his hands and producing an object that shows at every stage the direction of his will and the impression of his personality; and a machine which is producing, without the intervention of a particular man, objects of a uniformity and precision that show no individual variation and have no personal charm. The problem is to decide whether the objects of machine production can possess the essential qualities of art. (3-4)

The distinctions here are finely honed. Art, then, cannot be exclusively individual or even cultural. It cannot arise from a lack of uniformity (individualism) or error (imprecision). If this were true, machine products would be automatically excluded and the discussion would end here. Art must be an abstract concept that is adrift from the vagaries of culture and historical moment. This reminds me greatly of the high modernism of T.S. Eliot, and leaves me just as cold.

I suppose the one door left open to human influence in this formula is that of the designer/engineer, who would reign supreme over the machine products. Rather than Percy Shelley’s construction of the poet as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, in Read’s world view it’s the designer/engineer that rules the world, at least when it comes to “objects of use.”

Aside: One my weird personal “eureka” moments in the last few years was coming to grips with the natural qualities of eggs. The “white vs. brown” debate waged between me and my wife was actually more about the regularity of white “factory” produced eggs. I grew up with this uniformity, and preferred it to the many shades of brown. When we started buying our eggs from local producers, I discovered that there is no “natural” size, let alone color,  for an egg. They’re all different and never uniform unless they’ve gone through a machine sorting procedure. It took some getting used to, but I have to say I prefer it when all my eggs look different. Uniformity is not only boring, it’s stifling and unnatural when it comes to these common “objects of use.” Eggs are, as it has been described to me, roughly the same color as the chickens they come out of. Who wants all the chickens to be the same color? Not me.

1956The anecdote that opens the discussion in Art and Industry is a tantalizing one regarding the foundation of the National Gallery in 1832. It seems that even then, the UK felt inferior aesthetically while superior in engineering.

British manufacturing, though the envy of the world, could not keep pace with the consumer demand for pleasing products from the rest of the globe.

They were not, to put it bluntly “to the taste” of the buying public.

It was assumed that if a museum was funded and filled with representative art from around the world, the UK might improve its products by the imitation of more “artistic” designs:

“Lord Ashley observed, that the patronage of works of science and art, such as the calculating machine of Mr. Babbage, had collateral advantages. Some improvements in machinery had lately taken place in Glasgow from the contemplation of that machine. He considered that the erection of a gallery would be extremely beneficial for artists and mechanics to resort to, and he had reason for believing that it would be frequented by the industrious classes, instead of resorting to the alehouses, as at present. (6)

This of course also sets up the precedent of founding committees, setting up programs to educate the consumer regarding what products they should buy, etc. which continued long into the 20th century. What read points out here though of great value is that that this also set the precedent for thinking of art as something external to engineering and manufacturing, something to indeed be “applied” to an industrial product. The distinction between fine and “applied’ arts was born.

1965Which brings me back full circle to the matter of the design of the book and the article I mentioned at the onset of this discussion.

It seems as if the controversy engaged by the book, the matter of the “humanist” tradition vs. the machine age, raged on even in this books design.

It wasn’t designed to look like other books, and yet book designers couldn’t resist trying to make it conform to existing traditions in publishing.

Robin Kinross explains:

In devising this thesis, Read provided the British design movement with a theory of mixed benefits. The book was welcomed as a work of substance, with intellectual credentials: something that had been previously lacking in the British discussion of design under industrial conditions. The book did also present the vision of Central European modernism more clearly and with less dilution than any other published discussion had so far done. Here the book’s own design played its part.

In breaking with British traditional book design Art and Industry offered a provocation. Those critics who were most enthusiastic in praise of its qualities as a written discussion were also strongest in their disapproval of its material embodiment. Such a book was not self-effacing: the reader’s progress was impeded. These objections are the familiar refrains of British design: what is wanted is something that does the job, without formal indulgence. And the rejection of the book’s design seems particularly indicative of the literariness of British design circles: modernism as described in words, or even as embodied in certain objects, might be endorsed, but the form of books was established and inviolate.

When the book came to be revised for a new edition, it was returned—under the exigencies of war economies—to the conventions of British book production. And by then the formal radicalism that had been briefly smuggled into the country in the mid-193os (one thinks also of the Lawn Road flats and a few other icons) had been suppressed or left stranded.

(“Herbert Read’s “Art and Industry”: A History,”The Journal of Design History, p.48)

People won’t let go of humanistic traditions easily, even if they can handle the “idea” of it. The reality is really another matter entirely. I’ll revisit this book again, to get back to the misreading of William Morris. I fear I’ve already stretched attention spans too far.