Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Art and Industry*


 

Last week I tried to say something about the provincial note in art. If one dared to say all good art is provincial, one must also say all good art is eternal-meaning that while all good art has a touch of the homely charm of complete naturalness and thoroughness, it has at the same time that universal appeal to human sympathies which links it to those great tendencies of nature we call eternal. Pushed to its extreme, this thought is not the whole truth but it has the greater part of the whole truth in it.

Is it not true that all the best inspiration is found in our provinces, not in our capitals? If this is so, it is more evidently so in America than in older countries. Let us say that New York is the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Then, unfortunately, perhaps, let us say that it is the one least likely to foster the fine arts. Let us recognize in it a meeting point of great and diverse forces, the forces of civilization, the forces which make for intelligence, alertness and the satisfaction of pleasure and curiosity. We must see in it also a centre of influence from which these forces radiate and play upon our more provincial life, giving it concentration and balance, giving it criticism. It seems to me that what is true of metropolis in a material sense is true of it in a spiritual sense as well. It is a centre for the distribution, not a centre of its production. It is a place where commerce and manufactures flourish, but commerce and manufactures are only elaborate and powerful engines for distributing wealth and art. They spread our pleasures and comforts; they do not originate them. When you think of it, the good things in life do not come out of factories and counting houses; they come out of nature and the mind of man. The industrial arts, standing half way between fine arts and manufactures, have their essential value in artistic invention after all. In so far as they are influenced by commercialism pure and simple they are vitiated and cheapened; in so far as they are inspired by a loving, artistic care they are bettered and enriched. How does it happen that every man that can afford it furnishes his house with old rugs and old furniture? There is no intrinsic reason why an old thing should be better than a new one. The real reason that Persian rugs and Chippendale sideboards are better than any we make ourselves is this: They were made for love; ours are made for money. It is the old, simple, human devotion that went into the production of them that gives them their value. It is not because American rugs are made be machinery that they are worthless; it is because they are made without love. We have made machinery a god instead of keeping it a slave.

I do not mean to imply that there is no good industrial art to-day; that would be very foolish. But I mean to say that whatever is made well and beautifully designed in fabric, in furniture, in pottery, in dress, in jewels, in architecture, comes into being in spite of machinery and commercialism, not because of them. Things earthen and wooden and silken things, are beautiful when they have expression, when they embody the human feeling of the hand that fashioned them or the mind that conceived them- then, and then only. Rockwood is not any more beautiful because every piece is unique; but since there are to be no duplicates, greater care and thought and devotion will be expended in the production of each piece; it will have more individuality, more expression, more beauty. And its added value, observe, will only be a recognition of this artistic care, this opposition to the commercial spirit. And wherever you see any hope of improvement in industrial art, you may be sure there is some loving, conscientious, devoted man or woman behind the work, unswayed by the judgement of the market place, loyal to an inspiration, however humble.

In another sphere of industrial activity you may see an illustration of the same truth. Any one who has watched the making of books in the past ten or fifteen years must have noticed a marked improvement in them. In paper, in print, in binding, how much better to-day many books are than those published a decade ago. They are often far from satisfactory; but as a rule they will at least show some attempt to design in the cover; the relation between the page and the type, the size and form of the type itself, the width of the margins, the appearance of the title page-all these things have evidently been made the objects of careful consideration in the light of the best tradition, and with the aid of fresh artistic inspiration. The result is very likely to be a book much more pleasing and harmonious than any we were accustomed to in our school days. And how was this improvement brought about? Has it been in direct answer to the commercial demand? Not at all. It costs money to make books beautiful. The older conservative houses in the trade would have gone on making books in the same old ugly way, with cheapness their only aim, for a thousand years. But a few impractical fanatics, like William Morris in England and half a dozen book-lovers in this country, began to make books and publish them out of pure love of the art. They gave the market the scantest consideration; they did not care whether their books sold or not, one almost fancied; but they made better books, more beautiful and more honest in workmanship; until their generous devotion to an artistic ideal influenced the industrial art of two nations. Here again it was the human element, the factor of loving care, which was the main thing. Machinery did nothing but obey.

Now the only point I wish to make, small as it may be, is this: that our nearness to the machinery of commercial manufacture is apt to impress us far too greatly with its importance. It is impossible to live in great centres of activity, such as our great cities, without becoming more and more engrossed in the mere machinery of life in the first place. And from that attitude of mind it is only a step to becoming infatuated with its machinery and then to having faith in all machinery. Political machinery, the sturdy institutions of America, how we rely on them implicitly! And yet, does it seem that they are altogether satisfactory safeguards of freedom? Has not the spirit of freedom passed out of them to some extent, leaving them to be dishonored by the self-seeking and the unscrupulous?

And as we come to rely on machinery, do we not come to think cheaply of the old-fashioned virtues of honesty and devotion? But simple common honesty and untutored devotion are as necessary in the making of a rag mat as they are in the making of an empire. There is no difference. Show me a great city, great with all that wealth and skill and invention can do for it, great with the greatness of machinery, but whose government is essentially dishonest, and I will show you a place where even the industrial art cannot flourish. It is not such a far cry from corrupt politics to worthless art. It is only the sordid, debased, slothful human spirit, exhibiting itself in two different phases: that is all. And that is no reason at all for indulging in cheap cynicism. It is a reason, however, for not indulging in a cheaper, more foolish torpidity. It is a reason for discrediting the worth of machinery, for taking care that commercialism is kept in its own useful place, and for constantly turning back to nature human faith for fresh inspiration.


"Art and Industry," Commercial Advertiser, Dec. 24, 1898 [back]