Personality Crisis

New York DollsAnd you’re a prima ballerina on a Spring afternoon
Change on into the wolfman, howlin’ at the moon, hooowww

All about that personality crisis you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you got

Now with all the crossin’ fingers that mother nature says
Your mirrors get jammed up with all your friends

I doubt very much if Bernard Leach would have cared for the New York Dolls. And yet somehow, the conclusion of A Potter’s Book made me think about  “Personality Crisis.”  Civilization’s mirror is indeed jammed up with all our friends:

Personal relationships of a group of individual craftsmen are not easy to resolve. The inability to give and take seems to be more pronounced than in ordinary human contacts. In the East, restraining influences of tradition still enable people to work together as the limbs of a body under the directing mind, with us a more highly developed individualism, nowhere more conspicuous than among artist-craftsmen, tends to create an impatient and critical desire for independence.

Experience prompts me to advise any young potter contemplating sharing a workshop with others to choose untrained local labour. Likely boys learn the jobs quickly, enjoy them, and readily form a permanent team if sensibly handled. An older man, trained in the pre-War Winchcombe Potter making pancheons and flower-pots is an asset, for such men know their locality and set a standard of horse-sense and breadth of treatment necessarily lacking in art students. In many cases the latter are capable of doing excellent work under direction, or as moderately free members of a group which is held together by a living tradition, but it is quite another matter when they cast off their shackles and begin to make shapes and patterns of their own.

They then usually join the ranks of the thousands of indeterminate second-rate artists for which high industrialism is responsible. It stands to reason that only rarely does the work of a student from one of the Schools of Art bear the imprint of a character. It is difficult to advise those whom one feels practically certain will not achieve genuine originality. (257-8)

poindexter_inThe problem, as always, is who gets to say whether a unique moment in the history of craft (such as the New York Dolls) is “genuinely original”? I find it altogether too fitting that David Johansen’s next move was to appropriate a traditional form and re-introduce it.

This reminds me of a strange moment in my own history, during the heyday of Buster Poindexter. My friend Slim was appalled that I wasn’t familiar with the New York Dolls, and made it his mission to introduce me to a lot of the old school punks. We were listening to a Replacements album that I hadn’t heard that he bought me one evening.

The blinds were drawn, and a few minutes in there was a knock on the door. It was the police. They informed me that they were there to search the premises and did not require a warrant because I was currently sheltering a parolee (my first wife’s little sister).

As twenty policemen (I’m not exaggerating) filled my living room, they started looking at my walls and noticed the hundreds of photographs that surrounded them. One asked:

“are you a professional photographer?”

Slim, in his typically punk fashion, replied: “Oh, he’s just a second rater!”

It may sound odd,  but it was the biggest compliment that he could think to give me. I thought he was brilliant, and he was sure that all the best people were “second-rate,” at least when examined by people who were fans of the current popular taste. It became a bit of an inside joke between us; we were the “second raters.”

Bernard Leach, obviously, isn’t using it as a compliment, and doesn’t think the modern “personality crisis” is a good thing either:

In a machine age, artist-craftsmen, working primarily with their hands, represent a natural reaction valid as individual expression, and they should be the source of creative design for mass-production whether they work in conjunction with industry or not. The machine has split the human personality.

It has brought humanity within sight of safety and leisure for the first time in history, but at this moment fear of a universal disaster is upon us all, and the only leisure is of the unemployed and the rich and idle, because we have not learned how to use art, science, leisure, or real wealth. Instead, we increase the tempo of industrial slavery, and, refusing to distribute money equal in value to saleable goods and madly pursuing escapist pleasure, we allow under-consumption to be described as over-production, and as a consequence the sheer technique of living has overwhelmed life itself.

Under such conditions of national life artists and craftsmen are obliged to live and work parasitically or precariously because they have no recognized function. Evidence admitted by observers on all hands points to the end of an age. (258-9)

Herbert Read has a completely different take; he declares that the “humanists” have lost the battle and that the reigns of industrial design belong to a special class of abstract mathematicians, as rare as artists but even more precious. The designer is, according to all accounts at the turn of the twentieth century, something to be severed from the reigns of the average “artist-craftsman.” Even Leach suggests that only a few carefully selected traditions are worth of continuing into a new age.

Whether we shall emerge into a time of plenty and a unification of cultural values after violence, or by slower stages of decay and recrudescence, it is not for me to say. Not improbably those who seek the meaning and beauty of life through art may suffer an eclipse, but meanwhile let us ‘bring out weight and measure in a year of dearth,’ as William Blake urged amidst the blindness and apathy of early industrialism. (259)

I suppose that the New York Dolls/Buster Poindexter moment might be a perfect example of the “decay and recrudescence” that Leach is on about; Poindexter and the resurgence of lounge singers of the old school did indeed happen in the era of post-punk.

The Blake quote is quite interesting. It’s from “the proverbs of hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of aphorisms where only about half of them can be considered as useful: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” is another one. Really? Sounds like something Satan might say, which is of course what Blake was on about. It’s hard to tell the devils from the gods, really. Not exactly a set of prescriptions for the good life.

Bringing out “weight and measure in a year of dearth” would have been precisely the wrong move in reaction to the punk rock movement; some of the most raucous voices in the punk movement also turned out to be the most eloquent. Another “proverb from hell” springs to mind as I read Leach: “The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.”

Isn’t it ironic? And not in Alanis Morrisette’s usage. Leach’s personality crisis doesn’t seem as useful as David Johansen’s. Perhaps, like Rev. Dr. Trusler, he’s fallen out with the spirit world.



Merton Abbey

The Pond at Merton Abbey by Lexden Lewis Pocock

Because his Queen’s Square workshops proved too small to weave carpets or dye textiles, in 1882 Morris consolidated all production processes, except furniture, at a new workshop about an hour away from London. Merton Abbey seemed a dream factory. About one hundred people labored there; a few were day workers, but most worked by the piece under special foremen for each branch of manufacturing: glass, dying, printing, and weaving. Set within a garden, “the low long buildings with the clear rushing little stream running between them, and the wooden outside staircases leading to their upper story, have nothing about them to suggest the modern factory,” J.M. MacKail, Morris’s biographer, remembered in 1899. “Even upon the great sunk dye-vats the sun flickers through leaves, and trout leap outside the windows of the long cheerful  room where the carpet-looms are built.” Business manager George Wardle recalled,” . . . it was altogether delightful. We had a spacious ground floor, well lighted, for the carpet looms, and, over it a ‘shop’ for the block printers.” Morris kept a personal studio and bedroom at the factory.

Many employees worshiped Morris. “One and all his workmen live back in the ‘good old days,’ as they call them.” reported the American designer Ernest Batchelder in 1905. One hardly has to ask why. Dressed in a workman’s blouse, his hands stained by dye, Morris shared the labor and understood the work culture of his men. He conscientiously strove to build into the work as much room for individual expression as compatible with aesthetic quality. Although he was able to affect “the more artistic side of the work,” like free-hand pattern copying, Morris felt that he “could not do anything (0r at least but a little) to give this pleasure to the workman, because I should have to change their methods of work so utterly that I should have disqualified them from earning their living elsewhere.” Such concern developed as much from working with employees on the same tasks as it stemmed from being a benevolent employer. Morris’s enthusiasm stirred his subordinates; later his sense of justice and socialist zeal would cement lasting bonds between them.

Eileen Borris, Art and Labor, (doctoral diss, June 1981) p. 26-27

The contrast between William Morris and Josiah Wedgwood couldn’t be greater. Interesting that Herbert Read fails to comment on Morris’s appropriation of useful factory labor practices (including using foremen, as initiated by Wedgwood) while grudgingly avoiding the same sort of specialization in the lines that might hamper the future employment potential of his workers. Wedgwood thought nothing of fractioning things out into specialized tasks that would quickly be rendered obsolete by changes of taste.

I must say that I am quite taken by Morris’s pragmatic approach. He may have idolized the feudal labor system, but he did not seek to recreate it in the capitalist world of modern business. He simply tried to use what he could of the existing system while preserving age-old techniques and practices. Hardly a “dilettante” in my estimation.

Read’s summary of the differences between the two approaches, it seems to me, couldn’t get much further from the truth:

It will be seen that Morris’s attitude was the inverse of Wedgwood’s. Wedgwood was the industrialist who thought art was something external which he could import and use; Morris was the artist who thought of industry as something inconsistent with art, which must therefore be abandoned or abolished. Of the two attitudes, Wedgwood’s is much the simpler—indeed, it is naive, Morris’s attitude is complicated by ethical concerns which most of us find sympathetic. (Art and Industry, 31-32)

Read suggests that the way to address Morris’s concern over the welfare of workers is to simply grant that industrial practices are better at providing “the means of life” while artistic practices furnish “the ends of life.” This rings hollow to me; to have a world where workers are berated and devalued, but allowed to go home to nicely appointed industrial cubicles to do their handicrafts denies the fact that people do indeed want to work, and work at rewarding occupations.

Reading Josiah Wedgwood

rawlings-walter-statue-of-josiah-wedgwood-stoke-on-trent-staffordshire-england-united-kingdomOne of the most easily predictable things about late nineteenth/early twentieth century writing is the consistent call to dead white men for authority.

In Herbert Read’s case, the two major figures he summons are Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris. Morris, I have some familiarity with; Wedgwood was more of a mystery to me so I did a little research.

After flirting with Bernard Leach a bit, it’s fun to visit another potter. I found it intriguing that Wedgwood and Leach actually have some overlap in their attitudes toward labor. I’ll return to that later.

The epigraph that opens Part 1 of Art and Industry is from Lewis Mumford’s Art and Technics, which claims that in order to become more “profoundly human” we must learn the lessons of the machine; Wedgwood fits nicely into this, as he apparently brought the factory approach to the problem of supplying pots to a nation. The lessons of the machine that Mumford identifies are objectivity, impersonality, and neutrality. I begin to get suspicious any time the word “neutrality” is invoked.

What’s also curious to me is the way that Read refers to holistic aesthetic sources, such as Walter Pater, while attempting to divide and conquer the problems of aesthetics. Read fashions a history in which “cabinet painting” is evolved from book illustration; at one time pictures of patrons were woven into illuminated books, and eventually these portraits were separated from their (implied) public use to create a private genre. He suggests that it’s a case of the aesthetic being separated from it’s applied, holistic function in a useful object (the book). That stretches credibility for me, because it seems to me that wall painting precedes book illustration in human history, but that’s a qibble.

I think it’s a much bigger leap to suppose that aesthetic appeal can be divided into three categories:

  1. formal elements of dimension and proportion which have a direct sensory appeal;
  2. elements of emotional or intellectual expression which may be combined with the formal elements;
  3. elements of an intuitive or subconscious nature. (14)

Further, Read asserts that the elements that are not “humanistic” are then labeled abstract. Looking at this list, unless we’re opening up sensory appeal to the animal kingdom, all of these elements (as listed) are humanistic. Alternatives to “abstract” read lists as “nonfigurative,” “nonpictorial,” “nonrepresentational,” etc., which to me also read as human in a very direct sense. Later, he defines form as simply “shape.” which is indeed not necessarily humanistic. This is easier to abide by.

Turning from this naturally into proportion, Read assumes that mathematical proportions have a strong relationship with aesthetics, turning to the usual “golden section” argument, which is a historically mathematical concern rather than an aesthetic one. Of course, he is aware of the limitations citing Ruskin: “All beautiful lines are drawn under mathematical laws organically transgressed” (18). He also cites Freud’s notion of the subconscious, returning full circle to what appears to me to be a humanistic concern:

I do not raise these problems to present a solution; I merely wish to suggest that the question of form in art—even in industrial art—is not a simple one. It cannot be solved by a rule of thumb. If the Golden Section or some other canon of proportion were made compulsory for all industrial design, I have no doubt that the whole standard of production would be improved; but only at the cost of a profounder and more essential vitality. (20)

All proposed divisions aside, Read accepts that there is an “intuitive” side to art (but oddly, not a cultural one) that must be dealt with. Read pivots to the subject of ornament (or decoration) offering a distinctly Western upper class take on the subject:

At present, all I wish to insist on is that the instinct is not essentially aesthetic. All ornament should be treated as suspect. I feel that a really civilized person would as soon tattoo his body as cover the form of a good work of art with meaningless ornament. The only real justification for ornament is that it should in some way emphasize form. I avoid the word “enhance” because if form is adequate, it cannot be enhanced. (23)

It is to this end, and to address the issue of “decoration” that he summons Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris. The adulation of Wedgwood is palpable:

It would help at this point to consider two historical attempts to solve our problem. One comes right at the beginning of the industrial age, and is so interesting and instructive that it would merit a separate and exhaustive examination. All the problems that confront us now were obvious to Josiah Wedgwood, one of the greatest of industrial genuses, a man who in his own lifetime converted a peasant craft into an industrial manufacture, a man who, in whatever sphere he had applied his gifts for organization and rationalization, would have effected a revolution. (23-4)

Before Wedgwood, apparently, pottery was not worthy of notice, “a cult of few dilettanti” (24). The word choice is telling, because it shows up in Read’s description of William Morris. In fact, he can’t even stop talking about Wedgwood when he turns to Morris:

The case of William Morris, a century later, is equally instructive. He differed from Wedgwood in not being born to a trade. Wedgwood’s reforms sprang from an internal necessity of the time and the craft. Morris was external, dilettante. (29)

My jaw just dropped when I read that. There are many words that I might choose to describe Morris, but dilettante certainly isn’t one of them. Yes, he’s the son of a stockbroker. But even David Pye agrees that even an amateur (and Morris wasn’t even that) isn’t necessarily a bad craftsman. The more I read about Wedgwood, the more it seems like Read was willing to overlook what he would consider as grave sins (the division of form from ornament, for example) to adore his capitalist hero.

One of the primary themes of Read’s book is to argue against the separation of aesthetic qualities as separate from (0r applied to) products, and yet that is precisely what Wedgwood’s big innovation actually was. He had separate production lines for aesthetic or “art” pieces and “useful” articles. Read acknowledges this, claiming that while the “artistic” items were of little or no merit, his useful pieces were among the best ever made and destined to be emulated. It is primarily Wedgwood’s embrace of modern industrial labor practices and improved tooling that Read admires, feeling that it delivered quality products to the reach of more households than ever before, a problem that Morris simply didn’t address.

Morris actually did set up a working factory and embraced technologies that would improve the quality of his output, but that’s a subject for another piece. What I’d like to look at here instead is Wedgwoods employment practices and his contribution to the labor problems of the Industrial Revolution.

His designs aimed at a conveyor belt progress through the works: the kiln room succeeded the painting room, the account room the kiln room, and the ware room the account room, so that there was a smooth progression from the ware being painted, to being fired, to being entered into the books, to being stored. Yet each process remained quite separate.

He organized his men on the same basis, for he believed that ‘the same hands cannot make fine, & coarse-expensive & cheap articles so as to turn to any good account to the Master’. The ‘fine figure Painters are another ord(e)r of beings’ compared with the common ‘flower painters’  and must be treated accordingly—paid higher wages, set to work in a different workshop, and encouraged to specialize. His workmen were not allowed to wander at will from one task to another as the workmen did in the pre-Wedgwood potteries. They were trained to one particular task and they had to stick to it. Wedgwood felt that this was the only way to improve the quality of the ware-‘ We are preparing some hands to work at red & black… (ware)… constantly & then we shall make them good, there is no such thing as making now & then a few of any artcicle to have them tolerable.’

Neil McKendrick, “Josiah Wedgwood and Factory Discipline,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1961)

In essence, this is the Henry Ford assembly line operating in the late 18th century. He’s credited with inventing the time clock by instituting the ringing of a bell to mark work periods, etc, as well as conveyor systems. Like Ford, Wedgwood was concerned with behavioral engineering of his workers:

Wedgwood had not only to train a new generation of skilled potters, he had also to mould these workers to the needs of his factory system. It was not an easy task, for he had centuries of local tradition to oppose him. The potters had enjoyed their independence too long to take kindly to the rules which Wedgwood attempted to enforce-the punctuality, the constant attendance, the fixed hours, the scrupulous standards of care and cleanliness, the avoidance of waste, the ban on drinking. They did not surrender easily. The stoppages for a wake or a fair or a three-day drinking spree were an accepted part of the potter’s life-and they proved the most difficult to up- root. When they did work, they worked by rule of thumb; their methods of production were careless and uneconomical; and their working arrangements arbitrary, slipshod and unscientific. For they regarded the dirt, the inefficiency and the inevitable waste, which their methods involved, as the natural companions to pot-making. (ibid)

And of course, he ruled his factory with an iron fist:

There can be little doubt of his authority. The impact on his workmen of his almost brutal face-stern even when composed by a Hackwood or portrayed by the grace of a Reynolds-was clear even to himself: ‘my name has been made such a scarecrow to them, that the poor fellows are frighten’d out of their wits when they hear of Mr W. coming to town, & I perceive upon our first meeting they look as if they saw the D(evi)l ‘.His discipline was not, of course, universally accepted. Some found an irresistible challenge in the figure of Josiah. Like many men with powerful temperaments he evoked rebellion in the fractious. Like young bulls in the herd some of them had to try their strength against the old patriarch. Few came out of the contest well. There were a succession of such men-leaders of pay demands, subordinates with their own methods. But they were quelled and if not quelled, replaced. (ibid)

This is Herbert Read’s hero. A man who did everything possible to scare the humanity out of his workers and create an environment where men might be interchangeable like machine parts. However admirable the products might be, the process is something I find terribly abhorrent. For the modernists, the trains must run on time and with a profit.

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.

The work of craft in the age of mechanical reproduction

Bernard Leach by Setsuo Kato
Bernard Leach by Setsuo Kato

The art of the craftsman, to use Herbert Read’s terminology, is intuitive and humanistic (one hand one brain); that of the designer for reduplication, rational, abstract and tectonic, the work of the engineer or the constructor rather than that of the ‘artist’. Each method has its own aesthetic significance. Examples of both can be good or bad. The distinction between them lies in the relegation of the actual making not merely to other hands than those of the designer but to power driven machines. The products of the later can never possess the same intimate qualities as the former, but to deny them the possibility of excellence of design in terms of what mechanical reproduction can do is both blind and obstinate. A motor car such as a Rolls Royce Phantom achieves a kind of perfection although its appeal is mainly intellectual and material. There I think we come to the crux of the matter: good hand craftsmanship is directly subject to the prime source of human activity, whereas machine crafts, even at their best, are activated at one remove—by the intellect.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book p. 2

I have a lot of difficulty accepting that our relationship with “mechanical reproduction” is primarily intellectual compared to intuitive or sensuous relationships with “hand” crafts. A potters wheel, to me at least, is at a basic level a machine. It enables reasonably  replicable  curves compared to strictly “hand” work, and is certainly “intimate.”

Where the eyebrow really goes up, though, is the use of Rolls Royce as an example. What set them apart in most ways also included hand work such as fine upholstery, etc..  As an American who grew up around bikers, I would select Harley Davidson or Triumph as my benchmark models for transportation design. I’ve known a lot of people who were attached to them, and their relationship with their machines was about the furthest thing from “intellectual” you could find. Triumphs always leaked oil and broke down. So did Harleys. They didn’t use the finest materials available, nor did they have superior engineering.

It’s possible to attach a nationalist agenda to either, for example defending “American” engineering  against the assault by the (then superior) Japanese imports, but it’s not what drew most of the people I knew to love those machines. The narrative of American or British superiority was a layer applied over the outside over what was really a deep love of a particular machine and how it felt and what it enabled. These machines were emblems and tools of freedom. Superior engineering was for accountants and academics, not for bikers.

Japanese motorcycles were nicknamed “sewing machines”  or “lawn mowers” for the way that they sounded and their emphasis on performance and utility; their mechanical precision was what marked them as soulless designs. It was the imperfections that made people love their machines the most— an anti-intellectual reaction to what was seen as an American (or British) tradition that was in need of preservation. A biker’s relationship with his machine was nothing if not intimate.

My dual discussion of Yanagi Sōetsu and Bernard Leach is necessary because the two seem in most ways inseparable, with both sides filling a need to identify a cultural “other” to demonize. What happened to William Morris’s socialist approach to Arts and Crafts in the 1930s is a bit shocking by any measure. Edmund de Waal has done some interesting work on it, and in an article from 1997  titled “Homo Orientalis: Bernard Leach and the Image of the Japanese Craftsman” tells a story of how the capitalist powers deployed these craft rhetorics to ultimately racist ends:

Since Leach had left Japan in 1920 the small metropolitan network of artists and intellectuals with Yanagi at their centre had changed. Where there had been transfixed attention paid to contemporary Western art and ideas there was now an evangelical nationalism. Yanagi’s Mingei or ‘art of the people’ group had burgeoned in the early 1930S in the climate of increasing nationalist fervour. It was now a substantial movement with a monthly illustrated journal, a regional network of associations, patronage from the powerful Tokyo department stores, and annual exhibitions:

They have their shops and press and sales and their work is on the point of really entering the households of taste of new Japan as an antidote to the wretched half caste and modern products which so sicken Western visitors to this country.

Journal of Design History, Vol. 10, No. 4, Craft, Culture and Identity (1997), pp. 356

The excerpt de Waal cites is from a letter from Leach, and the “wretched half caste” reference speaks volumes. Ultimately, it wasn’t just machine products that were the enemy, it was “impure” products from unworthy national traditions as well. It almost seems like Americans discussing the wretched half-caste AMF Harley Davidsons.

I’m having some trouble processing what happened to the populist/socialist slant in the late nineteenth century as it transformed into its variants in the 1930s and was subsumed by Japanese and American imperialism, National Socialism in Germany, etc.. I never would have thought it possible that such beautiful sentiment could be transformed into cold and calculated murder and oppression.