Savage Aesthetics

One passage in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) has haunted me since I read it. The protagonist is navigating the Thames river and passes through an old style pound lock and wonders why the centuries old technology is still in use. In this pastoral vision of the future, the answer he’s given is this:

‘You see, guest, this is not an age of inventions. The last epoch did all that for us, and we are now content to use such of its inventions that we find handy, and leaving those alone which we don’t want. I believe, as a matter of fact, that some time ago (I can give you a date) some elaborate machinery was used for the locks, though people did not go so far as to try to make the water run uphill. However, it was troublesome, I suppose, and the simple hatches, and the gates, with a big counterpoising beam, were found to answer every purpose, and were easily mended when wanted with materials always at hand, so here they are, as you see.’

‘Besides, said Dick, ‘this kind of lock is pretty, as you can see; and I can’t help thinking that your machine-lock, winding up like a watch, would have been ugly and would have spoiled the look of the river: and that is surely reason enough for keeping such locks as these. (192, Penguin Classic ed. 1993)

Today, our aesthetic choices might be different. I remember a story not long ago about some of the locks on the Erie Canal still using electrical equipment well over a hundred years old. It looks quite pretty to modern eyes. What makes one technology good and another not worth using? For Morris, it seems, it was a question of looks.


Trying to figure out the clearest take away from Typee (1846), Melville’s narrative about his time among the “savages” of the Marquesa Islands, it’s hard to shake the closing anxiety Melville faced at the prospect of having his face tattooed. This was long before Adolph Loos proclaimed ornament is a crime using tattooing as his benchmark for savagery; indeed, Melville seems to show great admiration of the natives and their technologies (especially food technologies) through the book. But having his face tattooed? That was a bridge too far— he could never return to polite society if he allowed this. His choice to leave centered on aesthetics.

While he lived with the Typee, Melville was frequently in awe of their way of life; in fact, the book represents to me a powerful allegorical (and direct) questioning of the nature and bounds of civilization:

As I extend my wanderings in the valley and grew more familiar with the habits of its inmates, I was fain to confess that, despite the advantages of his condition, the Polynesian savage, surrounded by the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely happier, though certainly less intellectual existence than the self-complacent European.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Terra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom so many of the ills and pains of life— what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? She may “cultivate his mind,”—may “elevate his thoughts,”—these, I believe are the established phrases—but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer that question. (149, Library of America ed.)

The facile answer regarding civilization and technology (as alluded to here) is that technology frequently can better our lot in life by alleviating our pains and wants; if there’s no need of this, then what other benefits does civilization accrue? Not many, when it comes to the islands of Hawaii, as Melville rightly states. The population was decimated, and was still being decimated at the time that he composed this. In the United States, the same thing was happening to the Native Americans, particularly in California. The “voluptuous natives” of the Pacific Coast were among the most devastated by the encroachment of so-called civilization. Those who needed it least, suffered the most at its hands.

This passage is not an isolated reflection, but to be balanced in discussing the book it is not entirely a political diatribe (one of the only books of Melville’s to be censored and  modified for the US audience), but also a titillating exercise in voyeurism, “a peep” at Polynesian life as the title states:

I happened to pop in on Mehevi three or four times when he was romping—in a most undignified manner for a warrior king—with one of the prettiest little witches in the valley. She lived with an old woman and a young man, in a house near Marheyo’s; and though appearance a mere child herself, had a noble boy about a year old, who bore a marvelous resemblance to Mehevi, whom I should certainly have believed to be the father, where it not that the little fellow had no triangle on his face—but on second thoughts, tattooing is not hereditary. Mehevi, however, was not the only person upon whom the damsel Monotony smiled—the young fellow of fifteen, who permanently resided in the house with her, was decidedly in her good graces. I sometimes beheld both him and the chief making love at the same time. (224)

The explanation that Melville unfolds is that this is a polygamous society where women are allowed to take several husbands. Women’s issues frequently surface in the book, particularly taboos for women. They apparently weren’t allowed to ride in canoes, which Tommo (Melville’s alter ego in the book) fights and manages to overturn for his paramour, Faraway. Note however, the little joke about tattoos not being hereditary. Society, though inherited, doesn’t mark us quite that directly.

The sexual overtones of the book tend, in many critical accounts, overshadow several discussions of technology. For example, Melville’s description of his valet Kory Kory’s efforts to start a fire with a spinning stick is frequently summoned:

At first, Kory-Kory goes to work quite leisurely, but gradually quickens his pace, and waxing warm in the employment, drives the stick furiously along the smoking channel, plying his hands to and fro with amazing rapidity, the perspiration starting from every pore. As he approaches the climax of his effort, he pants and gasps for breath, and his eyes almost start from their sockets with the violence of his exertions. This is the critical stage of the operation; all his previous labors are in vain if he cannot sustain the rapidity of the movement until the reluctant spark is produced. Suddenly he stops, becomes perfectly motionless. His hands still retain their hold of the smaller stick, which is pressed convulsively against the further end of the channel among the fine powder there accumulated, as if he had just pierced through and through some little viper that was wriggling and wriggling to escape from his clutches. The next moment a delicate wreath of smoke curls spirally into the air, the heap of dusty particles glows with fire, and Kory-Kory almost breathless dismounts form his steed. (135)

I would to defy anyone to watch, for instance, a Massai tribesman perform this procedure and sexualize it the way that Melville, ever the bawdy sailor, has:

This, I think, is primarily Melville the showman doing his best to earn a living as a writer. The real meat of the scene occurs after the lascivious passage:

What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who  through the instrumentality of a lucifer, performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wits end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without ever troubling their parent, pluck from the branches of every tree around them. (136)

Note the description of Western fire starting as “the instrumentality of a lucifer” rather than a gift from Prometheus, which would apply to both indigenous and Western fire starting. What makes a good technology? A technology that solves our needs, I suspect, would be Melville’s answer. I find it interesting that with the proceeds from Typee, Melville bought a farm of sorts, perhaps so he could pick food from every tree around him.

His cautions against the incursions of imperialism and conversion, particularly conversion:

How little do some of these poor islanders comprehend when they look around them, that no inconsiderable part of their disasters originate in certain tea-party excitements, under the influence of benevolent looking gentlemen in white cravats solicit alms, and old ladies in spectacles, and young ladies in sober russet low gowns, contribute sixpences towards the creation of a fund, the object of which is to ameliorate the spiritual condition of the Polynesians, but whose end has almost invariably been to accomplish their temporal destruction!

Let the savages be civilized, but civilize them with benefits, and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by destroying the heathen. The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent; but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of the Red race. Civilization is gradually sweeping from the earth the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time shrinking the forms of its unhappy worshipers. (230)

Melville’s resistance to the “tea-party excitements” that surrounded polite western society chafed against Melville (see his reaction to Hungarian fund raisers a few years after), but he was not immune to the potential benefits of “civilization” as he knew it, particularly the benefits of technology. Given his later narratives regarding the whale oil trade, I found it interesting the way he painstakingly described the Polynesian technology for lighting the night:

At this supper we were listed by several of the native tapers, held in the hands of young girls. These tapers are most ingeniously made. There is a nut abounding in the valley, called by the Typees “armor,” closely resembling our common horse-chestnut. The shell is broken, and the contents are extracted whole. Any number of these are strung at pleasure upon the long elastic fibre that traverses the branches of the cocoa-nut tree. Some of these tapers are eight to ten feet in length; but being perfectly flexible, one end is held in a coil while the other is lighted. The nut burns with a fitful bluish flame, and the oil that it contains is exhausted in about ten minutes. As one burns down, the next becomes ignited, and the ashes of the former are knocked into a cocoa-nut shell kept for the purpose. This primitive candle requires continual attention, and must be constantly held in the hand. The person so employed marks the lapse of time by the number of nuts consumed, which is easily learned by counting the bits of tap distributed at regular intervals along the string. (244)

Besides providing light, the apparatus, as designed is also a clock. There’s an obsessiveness about his technological descriptions which is fitting what Morris labeled as “the age of invention.”

Melville’s excitement about technology in Typee is closely matched by his interest in food and tattoos. In the next paragraph, he rails against sushi: “Raw fish! shall I ever forget my sensations when I first saw my island beauty devour one?” But, his aesthetic sense was not offended because she didn’t eat “vulgar-looking fishes: oh no; with her beautiful small hand she would clasp a delicate, little, golden-hued love of a fish, and eat it as elegantly as innocently as though it were a Naples biscuit” (245).  If things are pretty, then they are okay. This jibes with Morris’s attitudes towards technology perfectly: only beautiful technologies— or foods— should be celebrated.

There is of course a lot more to say about the book, but I must press on to its sequel Omoo.


I’ve been obsessed with questions about home as a concept for years. I drift in and out of them, but it always seems to come back around to that. The final section of Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful Home in the World sent me in a direction I wasn’t expecting, to Carl and Karin Larsson. My wife of, of course, had been there long before me in appreciating Lilla Hyttnäs.

Carl and Karin LarssonI located a book, and positively devoured it. I find it fascinating that Carl Larsson’s first job was as a photo retoucher, and that his home began as a sort of country compound not unlike the sort of place I was raised.

Lilla Hyttnäs was a hodge-podge of things cobbled together, both modern and traditional— which evolved into a sort of Swedish National style— a distant though unquestionably genetic relative to the now pervasive Ikea. Coincidentally, at the same time I’ve been digesting Chris Schwarz’s latest, The Anarchist’s Design Book.

Ikea has long been the nemesis of Schwarz, who commendably has called for a new furniture movement— the build it yourself movement. Curiously, that’s pretty much what Carl and Karin Larsson did. Schwarz knows that the idea of everyone building it themselves is more than a little utopian, and like all utopian notions is pretty much predestined for failure.

Though Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style is more than a little over the top in its praise, it strikes at the core of why dreams like this eternally return. The foreword of this exhibition catalog from the Victoria and Albert Museum, written by Anders Clason, “Cultural Counsellor” of the Embassy of Sweden, is a perfect crystallization of the character of the book:

Carl and Karin Larsson were children of the nineteenth century, the century of utopias. It was Britain that lead the way in recognizing the great change wrought by industry, and in struggling against the monster of technology. The town had become a living thing, tearing Western man away from the soil that had been the basis of life. The Larssons, in their own utopia, created a permanent dream picture of Sweden and Swedishness, a country idyll bathed in Nordic light.

Certain artists have the ability to spread gold dust on the wintery path of life. The Larssons were such artists. Their vision of Swedishness is more firmly embedded in the national psyche even than the Swedish sense of community. To have a lilac embowered cottage in the country in your family’s place of origin, that is the Swedish dream. To have it light and white, clean and airy, like a summer meadow sprinkled with ox-eye daisies, is the very essence of that dream. (vi)

Though this might be laying it on a bit thick, the concept of home found in Carl Larsson’s paintings is more detailed and useful than Norman Rockwell, at least to me. It’s closer to a sort of space I find attractive. In fact, that’s the thing that always annoyed me about Schwarz’s anti-Ikea tirades; many people really aspire to that sort of middle ground populist design, largely because it looks, well, happy. Regardless whether the construction quality is something to admire or not, it brings good design within the reach of millions.

Scan 1
Carl Larsson in his workshop at Lilla Hyttnäs

Though it isn’t the best quality, this photograph shows a familiar sort of workshop, filled with trees brought in for the winter and assorted projects in process. Larsson painted workshop scenes as well, no doubt with his own children and local artisans as models.

Larsson Workshop

More and more, I’m drawn into the Arts and Crafts movement as a global phenomenon. It was a reaction against technology of a sort, but it was also an embrace of technology too. Not all technology is considered bad, as evidenced by William Morris’s News from Nowhere: Morris, in a memorable passage suggested in his utopian future that genuinely useful technologies were embraced, while tech with little to offer was simply left behind to rust. The question of what is a good tech, versus bad tech, was left unaddressed in the novel though he really did attempt to lay out some guidelines elsewhere.

One of the key essays in the exhibition catalog by Gillian Naylor, “Domesticity and Design Reform: The European Context” really gives me some new avenues to traverse. Her essay points at the deeper roots of Arts and Crafts to the social upheavals of the mid nineteenth century. She talks about the contributions of the German author Hermann Muthesius, whose The English House has been on my list to write about for a while, citing a passage from Stilarchitektur und Baukunst (1902) suggesting that buildings might transcend “academic and socially divisive preoccupations with style. The English approach to the building arts, he wrote, was:

nothing other than a rejection of architectural formalism in favor of a simple and natural, reasonable way of building. One brought nothing new to such a movement: everything had existed for centuries in vernacular architecture of the small town and rural landscape . . . Here, amid the architectural extravagance that the architects promoted, one found all that one desired and for which one thirsted: adaptation to needs and local conditions, unpretentiousness and honesty of feeling: utmost cosiness and comfort in the layout of rooms, colour, an uncommonly attractive and painterly (but also reasonable) design, an economy of building construction. The new English building-art that developed on this basis had now produced valuable results. But it has done more: it has spread the interest and understanding for domestic architecture to the entire people. It has created the only sure foundation for a new artistic culture: the artistic house. (78)

The focus, Naylor argues, shifted away from easel painting and fine arts, into design reform bent on reinforcing national identities and bringing fine art to the masses. The passage from Muthesius is really interesting to me on multiple levels, not the least of which being that if you substitute “furniture” for architecture, you’ve just summarized the core thesis of Chris Schwarz’s latest book—at least the aesthetics of it.

Usefully, Naylor brings a more critical eye on the phenomenon:

This was, of course, a middle-class vision: it reflected the prestige and elitism associated with ‘high art’, and at the same time romanticized the role of the working class. By aiming to transform factory hands into creative and contented artisans, and by concentrating on vernacular ideals of workmanship, this generation of design reformers also challenged the policies of their predecessors rejecting any form of training programme based on attempts to control or rationalize the design process. (79-80)

The rejection of a rationalized design process by the Arts and Crafts practitioners includes both Taylorism and factory-efficiency analyses and moves to impose any sort of design grammar (such as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament from 1856). I note that Lost Art Press has also been publishing admirable work on pre-industrial design by George Walker and Jim Tolpin  that implies that a grammar of design is at least possible. It stops short from creating a full program, although it does include a new workbook with design exercises.

Such programmes were rejected by the Arts and Crafts generation because they denied the role of individuality and creativity; they were devised to impose rather than generate order, and they isolated the object from the context of making and use. (80)

To be fair, recent work by Jim Tolpin and George Walker does base its design practice completely on the context of making and use. Opposed to a controlled and rationalized design process, Naylor aligns the Arts and Crafts generation with the resurrection of a modified medieval guild system (through Ruskin and Morris) and  “the restoration of the ideal and reality of the home” as “a political as well as social necessity” (80). The political nature of this has unique repercussions in Germany:

Policies to improve standards of worker’s housing had been instigated in Germany from the 1840s, and the association of Wohnugsreform (the reform of the dwelling) with Lebensreform (the reform of life) acknowledged the English celebration of home. In Germany, however, the home came to be associated with the homeland, Heimat, that powerful and politically uncompromised symbol of national unity and continuity. Heimat was (and is) a value-laden concept and therefore difficult to translate; it signified home, locality, and country, as well as a sense of belonging and the inheritance of a shared past. Unlike Morris’s gentle Utopia, however, Heimat was somewhere; its roots were in the German soil and the German homestead, and in the bitter struggles for survival of the German race. (80-81)

Home and homeland are complex topics. Reform through design seems to have spread like wildfire virtually every nation at the dawn of the twentieth century. And not just design in general, but design in the lived environment. It’s wonderful to hope that the same thing might be happening at the dawn of the twenty-first.

Researching Ruskin

Newly discovered daguerreotype from John Ruskin’s collection

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.

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.

a mortal wound to craftsmanship

Yanagi Sōetsu

Q. What is lacking in the artist-craftsman?

A. His products are so few and so expensive. They are more decorative than useful. Even if they are made for use they are expensive and therefore not employed in daily life, thus becoming luxury items. From the very beginning they are made for art collectors, and become disconnected from the life of the people. The only person who benefits is the favored purchaser. The artist-craftsman separates himself from need, and thereby divorces himself from the people around him. Is this not a mortal wound to craftsmanship? Apart from use and the people there is no meaning in either craftsmanship or beauty. If the artist-craftsman continues isolating himself from society, he has a responsibility to admit with humility [out of his own experience] that his position of self-expression is one of insufficiency.  And in view of the achievement of the arts of the people, he needs to feel an awakened respect for them and pave the way to the re-expression of that congregate power. At that moment that when the work of the artist-craftsman ceases to be individual and he thus joins the ranks of all men, let him place his work next to the old work that he used to do. And he may see truth for the first time, for his old work will not stand up in service or in beauty.

“The Way of Craftsmanship,” The Unknown Craftsman p.203

Yanagi Sōetsu’s The Way of Craftsmanship was first published in 1927 in Japanese, translated by Bernard Leach in 1972. I have another book on the mingei movement on the way to read, and in the google books extracts I read it seems that Yanagi is no more an innocent than George Nakashima; he’s an aristocrat, instrumental (in theory, at least) to the run-up of Japanese imperialism prior to World War II.  What interests me lately is the way that what seems to be a wonderful, egalitarian spiritual theory can have the unintended consequences of colonizing the very people it seeks to celebrate; in Yanagi’s case, his appreciation of Korean folk-crafts in many ways justified a supposedly paternal relation in Japan’s domination of Korea.

I really look forward to Kim Brandt’s book. She makes the case (at least in the extracts I read) that Yanagi downplayed William Morris’s impact on his theories because of a supposedly more refined aesthetic sense in the Japanese people— nationalism at its worst. But Morris is in there, in spades. It’s really interesting how the arts and crafts pebble rippled around the world.

Locating David Pye

As I’ve deepened my readings/re-readings of David Pye over the years, some interesting things have started to pop out at me. He’s got an Aristotelian knack for taxonomies and frameworks, but there are some real prejudices in there that are troubling.

First, he clearly privileges the visual over the tactile; second, he’s strongly biased against his own peculiar reading of the Arts and Crafts movement. I’m finding some evidence from his family history, thanks to this interview in Craft found via his obit in the Independent:

Marigold Coleman: How did you come to work in wood? Was it an accident or did you make a deliberate choice?

David Pye: No, in a curious way it has been in the family for a long time. My father was always making something or other out of wood as an amateur, and my mother’s uncle was a great hand at it, and also a jeweller, as was my father. This was a William Morris tradition. My grandfather was John Brett the painter, and a friend of Morris’s, I believe, and of Ruskin and so on. Though he didn’t remain a friend of Ruskin’s! I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing round with bits of wood. There’s a nice story which may come in handy — my great-uncle, Uncle Pat, who was also my godfather, he was in the Dragoon Guards, I think, or anyway a very snob cavalry regiment which he couldn’t possibly afford. He went out to India the year after the Mutiny, then got some leave and went out again in 1862. He went out in a sailing ship and to keep himself amused on the voyage he provided himself with 12 dozen bottles of Bass and a wood-turning lathe, both of which he used throughout the voyage to Bombay, which of course took an enormously long time. I think that that flywheel there is from the lathe he took. A lot of these tools belonged to him, and some to my father and some to my grandfather. One way or another wood has been around all my life.

MC: So this is a middle-class tradition of inheriting what would normally be an artisan tradition?

DP: Yes.

MC: Wasn’t that very rare that early?

DP: It was probably the William Morris idea that did it. Quite apart from that, when I was four years old, I can remember to this day one particular piece of wood my brother brought back from school. I thought it was absolutely marvellous because of its surface quality. I think most artists are made by the age of four — they find out what they’re really interested in at an early age, fall in love with it then and it doesn’t alter much. They go on to think that they’re perhaps interested in an enormous number of things they’re really not interested in at all. There’s really only one thing they can do, and that’s true of most of us.

Note that his grandfather had a falling out with John Ruskin, though he maintained his friendship with William Morris. In The Nature and Art of Workmanship Pye demolishes Ruskin while leaving Morris untouched; this really strikes me as odd given that he is obviously familiar with Morris. The impact of World War II on his life is incredibly strong as well, given the loss of time it entailed in getting started on his life-long project, his “one thing”:

MC: How long does it take to find this out?

DP: A hell of a damn long time!

MC: How long did it take you?

DP: Till I was 30? I had a better chance than most — or my generation did — because of the war. I was out of everything for six years. When I got out of the navy I’d had time to think a bit. Anyway, the thing about wood which has always fascinated me is its surface quality. All the chaps who write about wood write about its tactile quality — well, what I’m talking about is decidedly not tactile, it’s visual. Wood has surfaces that are enormously subtle and varied, and that’s the thing that from the age of four I was really struck with. And then when I was about 14 or 15 1 saw a couple of chairs at a farmhouse, early i8th-century walnut chairs, country-made ones. I was really beginning to look at things for the first time, beginning to grow up, and I thought, that’s what I want to do, things like that. So I suppose that is how I came to be fascinated with it. I was brought up to be an architect, but I spent most of my time as a student building boats, a very eccentric thing to do then. My father was always doing it. That was how I started seriously using wood in a connected way. I learnt more from that than I ever learnt from my training as an architect. At the end of my time as a student and afterwards I started specialising in wooden buildings, inevitably. Then the war broke out. After the war there was no wood for buildings for a long time, so I thought I’d stick to wood and ditch buildings.

Marigold Coleman interviewing David Pye (1976) in Crafts no 217 82-4 Mr/Ap 2009

Note that the surface of wood is a visual thing for Pye, a somewhat unusual twist; nonetheless, it would make sense that he’s also a woodcarver because the play of light and shade is what makes carvings special. As my previous excerpt from the same interview attests,  his perspective is also driven by consideration of end products rather than processes; process is important only in that it is a vehicle to get somewhere.

This would tend to make his theory of work somewhat incommensurate with Morris, who emphasized the satisfaction of doing good work over the products. I begin to see Pye’s perspective as a weakness now, rather than a strength. Pye rightly tries to divorce the perfection of craft from economic constraints, but the emphasis on product I think works against him. One point is well taken though: “Anyone can learn to make things, it’s designing them and getting rid of them that’s difficult.”

Looking over on my shelf I see six bowls that aren’t’ good enough to gift to anyone, and don’t really have much use to me. That’s the problem of learning; there are surplus byproducts.

a civilization ‘outside in’

Ceramic tile screen  by Bernard Leach
Ceramic tile screen by Bernard Leach

The art forms of a community are the crystallizations of its culture (which may indeed be a different thing from its civilization), and pottery traditions art no exception to the rule. In the T’ang period it is not difficult to recognize the Chinese genius for synthesis, here reinterpreting Greek and Buddhist ideology in terms of contemporary need, and combining these elements within the native framework of Taoist and Confucian concepts, thus fundamentally modifying and extending the boundaries of their ideas of beauty and truth. In the greatest period, that of the Sung dynasty, all of these different influences are welded together in one, for unification was then supreme. Until the beginning of the industrial era analogous processes of synthesis had always been working amongst ourselves, but since that time the cultural background has lost much of its assimilating force, and the ideas we have adopted and used have been molded into conformity with a conception of life in which imagination has always been subordinated to invention and beauty to the requirements of trade. In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself, and has thus justified the Chinese criticism of us as a civilization ‘outside in’.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book (1976) p. 14 (originally published 1940)

I first became interested in Bernard Leach because of his relationship with Yanagi Sōetsu. He introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to William Blake’s works and Yanagi later wrote a book on Blake. He also introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to the western world.

What is most compelling to me about this particular quote is the dual ideas of imagination subordinated to invention and beauty to trade. Another curious thing about this bit is that productive tradition is framed as a process of assimilation, whereas most “traditionalist” would see assimilation as destructive of tradition, a diffusion of cultures rather than a focusing and synthesis. There is much to unpack.

The idea of imagination destructively being subordinated to invention is counterintuitive to the standard definition of imagination, which is frequently defined as the “invention” of new ideas from old, or the creation of new data beyond existing sense data. In either case, these definitions of imagination necessarily entail invention. What sort of imagination can exist without it?

It seems to me this can be answered without resorting to too many contortions through William Blake. One of the first things we read in my undergraduate seminar on Blake with R. Paul Yoder was his letter to Dr. Trussler from 1799, which begins:

Revd Sir

I really am sorry that you are falln out with the Spiritual World Especially if I should have to answer for it I feel very sorry that your Ideas & Mine on Moral Painting differ so much as to have made you angry with my method of Study. If I am wrong I am wrong in good company. I had hoped your plan comprehended All Species of this Art & Especially that you would not reject that Species which gives Existence to Every other. namely Visions of Eternity You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato

I still remember those days fondly: “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care” was a great way to start my first formal training in a poet which I had read since I was a teenager and barely understood. Of course it wasn’t easy: it wasn’t supposed to be. You’ve got to admire the balls on a guy who can write a letter to a guy who rejects your work that opens this way. What is most important about these contradictions is that they “rouze the faculties to act.” The key section in the letter, however, comes just a bit later:

I percieve that your Eye [s] is perverted by Caricature Prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do. Fun I love but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun & Happiness is better than Mirth–I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions, & Some Scarce see Nature at all But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. (Erdman, 702)

Too much fun is loathsome; happiness is better than mirth, and to see the world imaginatively is the greatest happiness. The happiness that Blake speaks of here is seeing the world itself, not something foreign that has been invented and brought into it in the conventional sense— “Nature is Imagination itself” . To see things as they are sounds a bit like Bacon, whom Blake loathed, but Blake doesn’t fit into the empiricist frame. For Blake, “As a man is, So he Sees”—the man of inspiration and imagination is not the same sort of man as the man who refuses to see. Reverend Trussler had clearly fallen out with the spirit world: to truly see the world, for Blake, was to see God in the world.

Thus, the modernist impulse towards “making it new” sits  uneasily against Bernard Leach’s more Blakean view of imagination as nature. The subjugation of imagination to invention moves in lockstep with the dissimulation of beauty to the requirements of trade in Leach’s construction of the state of the arts, no doubt under the influence of William Morris: “In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself,” here, again, the modernist celebration of new and better machines seems to chafe in the mid century. Morris saw the structure of society as an unavoidable matrix which art emerges from: if society is shallow and obsessed with surface character, then so goes the arts. Leach references Morris, as the my leading quote continues:

Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the reaction started by William Morris has been taking place mostly outside industry and has culminated in what I have called the individual, or artist, craftsman. Beginning in protest against the irresponsible use of power, it came to an end in pseudo-medieval crafts little related to national work and life. Thence has arisen the affirmation of the mechanical age in art—functionalism. This, through let us say, Picasso, le Corbusier and Gropius of the Bauhaus, is having its effect on all crafts. A movement which however is based by its initiators on a new and dynamic concept of three-dimensional form, tends among those who attempt to carry over the idea into industry to an over-intellectual effort to discover norms of orderliness and utility. Such a process limits the enjoyment of work to the designer, and overlooks the irregular and irrational element in all fine activity including the making of pottery. (14-15)

It is important to remember here that Blake rebelled strenuously about conventional, mechanized regular typesetting choosing instead to write backwards in etching fluid to create his plates for his poetry. Both Blake and Morris tend to harken back to the earlier tradition of illuminated manuscripts as an antidote to industry. Though I do think Leach rightly indicts the degeneration of Morris’s arts and crafts movement to nonsensical medievalism. Interestingly, Leach’s attack on functionalism is picked up again by David Pye in 1962, which is where I have a mind to turn next.

The relationship/definitions of beauty and imagination play a key role in defining “happiness” in this pursuit of the “simple life” that I’ve been on about for the last bit. That’s the reason for these monumental digressions. Eventually, I’ll get back to William Morris: I really believe that his approach, and its fracture across the twentieth century, deserves a closer examination.

Seeing Beauty

Allen H. Eaton, photograph by Doris Ulman
Allen H. Eaton, photograph by Doris Ulmann

No experience can advance the cause of the handicrafts more than the cultivation of the habit of seeing beauty all along the way of life. An increasing number of our people are cultivating that habit and are practicing in their homes the sound and satisfying principle expressed by the great craftsman, teacher, and philosopher of art William Morris, who said “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

It is the homemakers of America scattered throughout all the states, in cities towns, villages and open country who are, as has been said, the hope for the fireside industries of the Southern Highlanders, and, it may be added, for the handicrafts of all the rural areas of our country. These homes are more than temporary markets, more than recipients of whatever may be offered for sale to them; they are in a very real sense partners with the makers in conserving and developing the extraordinary range of handwork with which the United States is so richly endowed.

Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (1937) p. 331-2

Public and Private Beauty

Graceful SimplicityThere is a distinct abuse of bulleted lists in Segal’s book. Nonetheless, many of the concepts buried in these bullets deserve close attention and comparison with other variations on the general ideas.  The “graceful” aspect of Segal’s formulation of graceful simplicity is steeped in aesthetic values which converge and diverge with earlier deployments of the concept.

It amazes me just how frequently these basic concepts can be traced directly to William Morris, Ruskin, and the intrusions of industrial capitalism. William Morris lamented the shoddy products of his time and the lack of aesthetic beauty in the lives of the many.

Segal implicitly agrees with Morris, though he never cites him. There are however many   divergences on a path to a quite socialist conception of the problems. Segal places the lack of the beauty into the public sphere, rather than the private though he does bulletize the household first:

  • Beauty must not be thought of as residing solely or even primarily within things. There is a beauty that is the architecture of time; it requires slowing down and doing things right, and it may call for less income and more time, rather than the reverse.
  • A life of graceful simplicity does not require that our homes be museums; it does not require that every artifact of daily use be striking. At the same time, from the point of view of gracefulness, a life that is aesthetically impoverished is abhorrent.
  • One dimension of graceful living is the awakening of aesthetic appreciation, and with that will come a selectivity that often, without any additional cost, results in attainment of things of beauty. Anyone who has wandered through flea markets and garage sales and thrift shops knows that there are great things to be found—beautiful objects, not noticed or not valued by others.
  • Things of beauty exercise a special power—they radiate within their spaceand as they draw us into their orbit they close our consciousness to that which is outside. Thus, it is not necessary that all our possessions be beautiful, only that some things are. (68)

The first point, about an “architecture of time” seems more unique, or at least reactive to the “slow” movements that were emerging around the time that he composed his book. The second, third, and fourth points are eerily similar to Yanagi Sōetsu’s concepts of mingei and the intimate nature of craft beauty, which probably had Morris as their original source. Ultimately, it seems as these concepts flow through many mouthpieces who differ largely only in emphasis rather than substance. Where Segal really breaks ground, in my opinion, is in next few bullets

  • One of the inexpensive sources of beauty is in our own creative ability. In part, this is a matter of tapping into our own latent abilities to take a beautiful photograph, to sculpt, to draw, or to play an instrument. These to some extent involve mastery of technique. But within the household, we are constantly engaged with the issue of design and arrangementwhether it be the utensils, the tools, the furniture, the towelswhat we find in every space is that beauty resides not just in the objects, but in how they are arranged with one another. Perhaps this is better understood by thinking about marketplaces. If one has traveled in the Third World countries and gone into marketplaces, sometimes one is stopped short by an exceedingly beautiful display, formed with fifty loves of bread or with a few dozen shirts. (68-9)

I’ve got some serious issues with this section. First, it seems really horrible to suggest that photography, playing music, sculpting, etc., are somehow latent in people and only need to be summoned by practice and technique. Photography, for example, is largely (in my opinion) a matter of disabusing oneself of the notion that you actually know anything about it simply because you’ve seen a lot of it. It’s not latent, in fact, it is perhaps the most opposite of a latent skill I can possibly think of.

Photography is a recording technology that you might think you understand by simply being exposed to it: it only takes a few stabs at imitation before you figure out that maybe you don’t know so much about it after all. It’s hard, at least if you’re doing it right. Skill isn’t an internal matter of getting in touch with yourself and your hidden talents; it’s about understanding a variety of technologies from the pencil to the chisel, including perhaps also the piano and the camera. Practice and education are far more constituent of “talent” than any innate quality, at least in my opinion. In design and arrangement however, things might well be different.


I remember stopping at Buc-ee’s in Lulling, Texas a while ago and being struck by this wall of products. It struck me then that it didn’t represent real choice, but rather the illusion of choice. Though there are a multitude of flavors listed, they’re pretty much the same product (salt, sugar, soy, etc.) with just a touch of different in the chemical/spice treatments added. As I’ve learned to do more with basic food products like rice (which comes in a myriad of varieties with completely different properties) it occurs to me that the knowledge of how to transform raw materials into meals presents a more impressive array of choices than the wall of flavor powders. But I digress: the display was beautiful in a bizarre way.

Though I find the reference to the beauty of Third World markets a bit condescending and imperialist (ah, those simple peasants and their displays), Segal is onto something with the beauty of arrangement. Of all that he’s mentioned, arrangement is as close to a “latent” talent that most people can be said to have. While it can be developed through education and practice, we all “know what looks right” if we give ourselves half a chance. The fact that he chooses an economic locus (the market) as an example of commonplace beauty is a bit like a Freudian slip; lusting after products in a shop window is a beautiful thing.

I recall my mother, being a woman used to living on very little, would just revel in moving her furniture around from time to time to “improve” her surroundings. Furniture arrangement was probably the only “artistic” pursuit she ever attempted. Crafts, like needlepoint or knitting, though popular with most of her sisters, always reminded my mother how much better they were at it. She didn’t find it relaxing in the slightest. But furniture arrangement, well, that was just her way of getting in touch with beauty. So, I think Segal’s point is a good one even if it is clumsy in its expression.

But the real breakthrough, I think, is in the final bullet of his list:

  • The beauty in our private spaces, inside our homes, is accessible only to us and our friends. But perhaps of more significance is the aesthetic quality of public space, be it the architecture of houses, yards, gardens; the pavement of the streets; the shops; the trees; the skyline; or access to the sunset. In economist’s terms, these are public goods, in the sense that the enjoyment of them by one person does not diminish their availability to others. They are not, in the ordinary sense, consumed.

It is this point that really merits discussion at greater length. It’s not really something that can be addressed by individual action. It’s a question of social beauty, not of individual or consumer beauty. I hadn’t really thought of beauty as a social concept before.

I must admit that I felt “happier” living in the Twin Cities*, though I was of lower economic means then.  With the highest per capita arts spending of any major metro area and a park system pretty much second to none, Upstate New York suffers by comparison. Natural beauty is widely available here, and wonderful— but the lack of civic beauty is hurtful to the spirit. I live in a beautiful enclave, accessible only to those with means. And my heart sinks when I step outside of it.

*There is a rebuttal to the linked article, but I stand by my opinion– it’s the best place I have ever lived.