Sunday, February 15, 2009

How the Guilds May Be Restored

by A.J. Penty

Passing on now to consider the problem of ways and means of re-introducing the Guild System, the first fact we must grasp is that the Guilds cannot be reestablished by further evolution upon the lines along which society is now travelling, but by the development of those forces which run counter to what may be considered the normal line of social evolution.

Of these, the first force which will be instrumental in restoring the Guilds is the Trade Union movement. Already the unions with their elaborate organizations exercise many of the functions which were performed by the Guilds; such, for instance, as the regulation of wages and hours of labor, in addition to the more social duty of giving timely help to the sick and unfortunate. Like the Guilds, the Unions have grown from small beginnings, until they now control whole trades. Like the Guilds also, they are not political creations, but voluntary organizations which have arisen spontaneously to protect the weaker members of society against the oppression of the more powerful. In three respects only, as industrial organizations, are they differentiated from the Guilds. In the first place, they accept no responsibility for the quality of the wares they produce. Secondly, masters are not permitted to become members of these organizations; and thirdly, they do not possess monopolies in their separate trades.

Of course, these are very important differences – differences in fact which for the time being are insurmountable. The circumstance that modern industry is so completely in the grip of the financier and speculator is alone sufficient to prevent any speedy transformation of the Unions into Guilds, since so long as it exists it is difficult to see how masters and men could belong to the same organization. The question, therefore, which we require to answer is this: Will industry continue to be controlled by the financier, or are there grounds for supposing that the mastercraftsman will supplant him in the future?

My answer to this question is, that we have very good grounds for supposing that the craftsman will supplant the financier. Speculation brings its own ruin. It is already ruining the workman, and in proportion as it succeeds in this it will undermine effective demand, and so ultimately destroy the very source of its dividends. This prediction is based on the assumption that society will quietly acquiesce in the operation of the speculator, but the probability being, as has already been shown, that a revolution will result, the ruin will be considerably hastened. Meanwhile, there are two agencies at work in modem society which are destined to supplant the large factory by the small workshop. The first of these is the increasing use which is made of electricity for the distribution of power at a cheap rate, and the second is the gradual raising of the standard of taste and craftsmanship.

Respecting these, it is easy to see that just as the introduction of steam power created the large factory by concentrating industry, so electricity, by facilitating the distribution of power, will render possible the small workshop in the future. It is true that the growth of the factory system preceded the introduction of steam power and machinery. This, however, in turn was preceded by a decline in craftsmanship which, by substituting uniformity for variety in the practice of industry, made such development possible. And so it may fairly be assumed that just in proportion as the standard of taste and craftsmanship is raised, the factory system will tend to disappear. The practice of good craftsmanship demands that care be taken with the quality of the work; it demands that work be done leisurely; that the worker shall receive a fair price for his work and that he shall have security of employment. All these things commercialism and the factory system deny him and must deny him, for the two are essentially antagonistic. The victory of the one must mean the death of the other.

This brings us to the consideration of the second force which is preparing the way for the restoration of the Guilds, namely, the Arts and Crafts movement, which exists to promote the revival of handicraft. Recognizing that the true root and basis of all art lies in the handicrafts, and that under modern conditions the artist and craftsman have, to their mutual detriment, become fatally separated, the Arts and Crafts movement sought to remedy this defect by promoting their reunion.

Writing on the Revival of Handicrafts and Design, Mr. Walter Crane says: “The movement indeed represents, in some sense, a revolt against the hard mechanical life and its insensibility to beauty (quite another thing to ornament). It is a protest against that so-called industrial progress which produces shoddy wares, the cheapness of which is paid for by the lives of their producers and the degradation of their users. It is a protest against the turning of men into machines, against artificial distinctions in art, and against making the immediate market value, or possibly of profit, the chief test of artistic merit. It also advances the claim of all and each to the common possession of beauty in things common and familiar, and would awaken the sense of this beauty, deadened and depressed as it now too often is, either on the one hand by luxurious superfluities, or on the other by the absence of the commonest necessities and the gnawing anxiety for the means of livelihood; not to speak of the everyday ugliness to which we have accustomed our eyes, confused by the flood of false taste or darkened by the hurried life of modern towns in which huge aggregations of humanity exist, equally removed from both art and nature, and their kindly and refining influences.

“It asserts, moreover, the value of the practice of handicraft as a good training for the faculties, and as a most valuable counteraction to that overstraining of purely mental effort under the fierce competitive conditions of the day; apart from the very wholesome and real pleasure in the fashioning of a thing with claims to art and beauty, the struggle with and triumph over technical necessities which refuse to be gainsaid. And, finally, thus claiming for man this primitive and common delight in common things made beautiful, it makes, through art, the great socializer for a common and kindred life, for sympathetic and healthy fellowship, and demands conditions under which your artist and craftsman shall be free.

"'See how a great a matter a little fire kindleth.’ Some may think this is an extensive program – a remote ideal for a purely artistic movement to touch. Yet if the revival of art and handicraft is not a mere theatrical and imitative impulse; if it is not merely to gratify a passing whim of fashion, or demand of commerce; if it has reality and roots of its own; if it is not merely a little glow of color at the end of a somber day – it can hardly mean less than what I have written. It must mean either the sunset or the dawn.”

We do not, of course, need to take this war-cry at its face value. It is one thing to declare a principle, it is another to reduce it to practice. And looking at the Arts and Crafts movement today it seems to resemble the sunset rather than the dawn. It cannot be denied that up to the present, while the movement has succeeded in popularizing the idea, it has for the most part failed to reduce it to practice. A favored few, possessed of means or social advantages, have succeeded in establishing themselves before the public, but the number is comparatively insignificant. The majority, after struggling for a few years, have lost heart, and a depression of the movement has followed in consequence.

Sunset, however, is followed by dawn, and while we frankly recognize that the government is suffering from a reaction, we are not justified in concluding that failure is its inevitable doom:

Tasks in hours of insight willed
Can be through hours of gloom fulfilled,

says Matthew Arnold. The movement is fortifying itself upon more impregnable strongholds, for viewed from the inside it may be seen that the center of gravity of the movement is being slowly transferred from artistic and dilettante circles to the trade. Hitherto the movement has suffered from weakness in three directions. The first was its isolation from the trade; the second, the general absence of intellectual patronage – fashion having been the guiding and controlling influence with the vast majority of its patrons; – and the third has been lack of knowledge as to the sociological bearings of the movement, such as would have enabled it to direct its energies in the most effective way.

The gulf which has hitherto separated the movement from the trade shows a tendency to become bridged over. In many directions there are signs that the trade is being gradually leavened; the wave of feeling which created the Arts and Crafts movement has at length reached the workers, and there is good reason to believe that the first condition of widespread success – namely, the co-operation and goodwill of the trade – will ere long be attained.

The patronage afforded to the crafts by fashionable circles, if it has not altogether ceased, is rapidly decreasing, and though, in the general absence of intelligent patronage the Arts and Crafts movement has every reason to be grateful to fashion for keeping the flame alive, we are persuaded that the withdrawal of such patronage will prove to be no evil, since, so long as the movement accustomed itself to look to fashion for its support, the work produced must necessarily be of an exotic nature, while the really valuable work which the movement stands for, namely, the restoration of beauty to life, is retarded. The greatest weakness of all, however, is that hitherto the movement has never clearly understood its own sociological bearings – a defect which the present volume aims at remedying. In the long run I am persuaded that the movement will never be able to make much headway until it possesses a social theory which accords with its artistic philosophy – since until then it can never have a common meeting ground with the public; it will be unable to get support of the right sort, and without such support its value as a force in social reconstruction will be impaired.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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