- Good Work and Aesthetic Education:William Morris, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Beyond
A notion of "good work," derived from William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement but also part of a wider tradition in philosophy (associated with pragmatism and Everyday Aesthetics) understanding the global significance of, and opportunities for, aesthetic experience, grounds both art making and appreciation in the organization of labor generally. Only good work, which can be characterized as "authentic" or as unalienated conditions of production and reception, allows the arts to thrive. While Arts and Crafts sometimes promotes a limited aesthetic (both theoretically and stylistically) around handicraft, a good-work aesthetic theory encompasses a broader range of working methods and materials without compromising the core Arts and Crafts "authenticity" principles of control over production and creative autonomy. Moreover, it gives weight to the equally important role of spectators by linking their aesthetic education to good work in their working lives and, in turn, to the success of artworks. The theory delivers insights into the nature of works as collaborative projects and the developmental courses, participatory and esoteric, open to the arts generally; and it is a robust counter to anti-aestheticism and intellectualism in the theory and practice of the arts.
William Morris and the artist-craftsmen and -women of the Arts and Crafts Movement have a theory of art and the aesthetic that has an importance beyond their own artistic work and its achievements. Morris delivered lectures on the arts in many British towns and cities in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s; these were published as Hopes and Fears for Art and later as a volume [End Page 30] of his collected works.1 The movement codified and publicized its practices through various societies and organizations like the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and Charles Ashbee's Guild and School of Handicraft, each producing its own literature, which ranged from practical handbooks to political exhortations. Later, William Lethaby's lectures, often to organizations that were part of the movement, were published as Form in Civilisation.2 To that extent, then, a Morrisian or Arts and Crafts aesthetic theory has to be constructed from sources that were necessarily rhetorical, as well as being practical and theoretic. Morris and Lethaby were explicitly aiming to influence current artistic practice through their lectures to audiences usually composed of artists, architects, civic leaders, and so on (and this no doubt at least partly accounts for their neglect in philosophical aesthetics). Still, I will argue that this reconstructed theory is sufficiently coherent and sophisticated to be worth investigating for its relevance to contemporary debates in analytic aesthetics, particularly against those arguing for art as a nonaesthetic activity (of which the seminal text remains Arthur Danto's "The Artworld"), and for its arguments for art's connections (as an activity of both making and experiencing artworks) with other life experiences.3 In these respects, then, in the history of aesthetics it is a forerunner of, or at least has intellectual associations with, pragmatist aesthetics (yet it is often unacknowledged within that paradigm, so neither Dewey's Art as Experience nor the more recent pragmatist works by Richard Shusterman cite Morris) and shares ground associated with the Everyday Aesthetics movement.4
In arguing for the theoretic and historic significance of a Morrisian aesthetic, I take encouragement and a lead from Paul Guyer's recent acknowledgement of the neglect of Morris in accounts of the history of philosophical aesthetics. Guyer names Morris, along with Schiller, Ruskin, and Dewey, as properly understanding the full significance of the distinctive character of aesthetic experience. As Guyer writes, they understood
that aesthetic experience is distinctive in its freedom from our most immediate obsessions with purpose and utility, but that the freedom it thereby allows us is not a freedom for the simple contemplation of beauty with no further concerns or implications, but rather a freedom to develop our imaginative and cognitive capacities, to gain knowledge of ourselves and others, and to imagine new ways of life, a freedom that is valued not simply for its own sake but also because of the benefits the developments of these capacities can bring to the...