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An essay by A. Clutton-Brock

The Artist And The Tradesman

Title:     The Artist And The Tradesman
Author: A. Clutton-Brock [More Titles by Clutton-Brock]

The Exhibition of the Arts and Crafts at Burlington House was an acknowledgment of the fact that there are other arts besides those of painting, sculpture, and architecture, or rather perhaps that the arts subsidiary to architecture are arts and not merely commercial activities. Burlington House would protest, of course, that it is not a shop; but now at last objects are to be shown in it which the great mass of the public expects to see only in shops and expects to be produced merely to sell. We remember how Lord Grimthorpe called Morris a poetic upholsterer. He meant there was something incongruous in the combination of an upholsterer and a poet; he would have seen nothing incongruous in the combination of a poet and a painter, because he would have called a painter an artist; but an upholsterer was to him merely a tradesman, and tradesmen are not expected to write poetry. Their business is to sell things and to make objects for sale.

In that respect he thought like the mass of the public now. For them the painter has some prestige, because he is supposed not to be a tradesman, not to paint his pictures merely so that he may sell them. He has to live by his art, of course, but he practises it also because he enjoys it; and, if he is an artist, he will not paint bad pictures merely because they are what the public wants. But it is the business of those who make furniture and such things to produce what the public wants. No one would blame them for producing what they do not like themselves, any more than one would blame a pill-maker for producing pills that he would not swallow himself. The pill-maker and the furniture-maker are both tradesmen producing objects in answer to a demand. They have no prestige and no conscience is expected of them.

Now in Italy in the fifteenth century this distinction between the artist and the tradesman did not exist. The painter was a tradesman; he kept a shop and he had none of that peculiar prestige which he possesses now. But of the tradesman more was expected than is expected now; for instance, good workmanship and material were expected of him and also good design. He did not produce articles merely to sell, whether they were pictures or wedding-chests or jewelry or pots and pans. He made all these other things just as he made pictures, with some pleasure and conscience in his own work; and it was the best craftsman who became a painter or sculptor, merely because those were the most difficult crafts. Now it is the gentleman with artistic faculty who becomes a painter; the poor man, however much of that faculty he possesses, remains a workman without any artistic prestige and without any temptation to consider the quality of his work or to take any pleasure in it. This is a commonplace, no doubt; but it remains a fact, however often it may have been repeated, and a social fact with a constant evil effect upon all the arts. Because the painter is supposed to be an artist and nothing else and the craftsman a tradesman and nothing else, we do not expect the virtues of the craftsman from the painter nor the virtues of the artist from the craftsman. For us there is nothing but mystery in the work of the artist and no mystery at all in the work of the craftsman. The painter can be as silly as he likes, and we do not laugh at him, if we are persons of culture, because his art is a sacred mystery. But, as for the craftsman, there is nothing sacred about his work. It is sold in a shop and made to be sold; and all we expect of it is that it shall be in the fashion, which means that it shall be what the commercial traveller thinks he can sell. There are, of course, a few craftsman who are thought of as artists, and their work at once becomes a sacred mystery, like pictures. They too have a right to be as silly as they like; and some people will buy their work, however silly it may be, as they would buy pictures--that is to say, for the good of their souls and not because they like it.

How are we to get rid of this distinction we have made between the artist and the tradesman? How are we to recover for the artist the virtues of the craftsman and for the craftsman the virtues of the artist? At present we get from neither what we really like. Art remains to us a painful mystery; most of us would define it, if we were honest, as that which human beings buy because they do not like it. While, as for objects of use, they are bought mainly because they are sold; they are forced upon us as a conjurer forces a card. We think we like them while they remain the fashion; but soon they are like women's clothes of two years ago, if they last long enough to be outmoded. It is vain for us to reproach either the artist or the tradesman. The fault is in ourselves; we have as a whole society yielded to the most subtle temptation of Satan. We have lost the power of knowing what we like--that is to say, the power of loving. We value nothing for itself, but everything for its associations. The man of culture buys a picture, not because he likes it, but because he thinks it is art; at most what he enjoys is not the picture itself but the thought that he is cultured enough to enjoy it. That thought comes between him and the picture, and makes it impossible for him to experience the picture at all. And so he is ready to accept anything that the painter chooses to give him, if only he believes the painter to be a real artist. This is bad for the painter, who has every temptation to become a charlatan, and to think of his art as a sacred mystery which no one can understand but himself and a few other painters of his own sect. But in this matter the man of culture is just like the vulgar herd, as he would call them. Their attitude to the arts of use is the same as his attitude to pictures. They do not buy furniture or china because they like them, but because the shopman persuades them that what they buy is the fashion. Or perhaps they recognize it themselves as the fashion and therefore instantly believe that they like it. In both cases the buyer is hypnotized; he has lost the faculty of finding out for himself what he really likes, and his mind, being empty of real affection, is open to the seven devils of suggestion. He cannot enjoy directly any beautiful thing, all he can enjoy is the belief that he is enjoying it; and he can harbour this belief about any nonsense or trash.

It is a very curious disease that has become endemic in the whole of Europe. People impute it to machinery, but unjustly. There are objects made by machinery, such as motor-cars, which have real beauty of design; and people do genuinely and unconsciously enjoy this beauty, just because they never think of it as beauty. They like the look of a car because they can see that it is well made for its purpose. If only they would like the look of any object of use for the same reason, the arts of use would once again begin to flourish among us. But when once we ask ourselves whether any thing is beautiful, we become incapable of knowing our real feelings about it. Any tradesman or artist can persuade us that we think it beautiful when we do nothing of the kind. We are all like the crowd who admired the Emperor's clothes; and there is no child to tell us that the Emperor has no clothes on at all. We are not so with human beings; we cannot be persuaded that we like a man when really we dislike him; if we could, our whole society would soon dissolve in a moral anarchy. But with regard to the works of man, or that part of them which is supposed to aim at beauty, we are in a state of æsthetic anarchy, because there is a whole vast conspiracy, itself unconscious for the most part, to persuade us that we like what no human being out of a madhouse could like.

So the real problem for us is to discover, not merely in pictures, but in all things that are supposed to have beauty, what we really do like. And we can best do that, perhaps, if we dismiss the notions of art and beauty for a time from our minds; not because art and beauty do not exist, but because our notions of them are wrong and misleading. The very words intimidate us, as people used to be intimidated by the jargon of pietistic religion, so that they would believe that a very unpleasant person was a saint. When once we look for beauty in anything, we look no longer for good design, good workmanship, or good material. It is because we do not look for beauty in motor-cars that we enjoy the excellence of their design, workmanship, and material, which is beauty, if only we knew it. Beauty, in fact, is a symptom of success in things made by man, not of success in selling, but of success in making. If an object made by man gives us pleasure in itself, then it has beauty; if we got pleasure only from the belief that in it we are enjoying what we ought to enjoy, then very likely it is as naked of beauty as the Emperor was of clothes. The great mass of people now have a belief that ornament is necessarily beauty, that, without it, nothing can be beautiful. But ornament is often only added ugliness, like a wen on a man's face. It is always added ugliness when it is machine-made, and when it is put on to hide cheapness of material and faults of design and workmanship. Unfortunately, it does hide these things from us; we accept ornament as a substitute for that beauty which can only come of good design, material, and workmanship; and we do not recognize these things when we see them, except in objects like motor-cars, which we prefer plain because we do unconsciously enjoy their real beauty.

So, in the matter of ornament, we need to make a self-denying ordinance; not because ornament is necessarily bad--it is the natural expression of the artist's superfluous energy and delight--but because we ourselves cannot be trusted with ornament, as a drunkard cannot be trusted with strong drink. We must learn to see things plain before we can see them at all, or enjoy them for their own real qualities and not for what we think we see in them. A man whose taste is for bad poetry can only improve it by reading good, plain prose. He must become rational before he can enjoy the real beauties of literature. And so we need to become rational before we can enjoy art, whether in pictures or in objects of use. The unreason of our painting has the same cause as the unreason of our objects of use; and the cause is in us, not in the artist. We think of taste as something in its nature irrational. It is no more so than conscience is. Indeed, there is conscience in all good taste as in all the good workmanship that pleases it. But where the public has not this conscience, the artist will not possess it either. At best he will have only what he calls his artistic conscience--that is to say, a determination to follow his own whims rather than the taste of the public. But where the public knows what it likes, and the artist makes what he likes, there is more than a chance that both will like the same thing, as they have in the great ages of art. For a real liking must be a liking for something good. It is Satan who persuades us that we like what is bad by filling our mind with sham likings, which are always really the expression of our egotism disguised.

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A. Clutton-Brock's essay: Artist And The Tradesman