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    Art and the Handicraftsman

    by Oscar Wilde
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    PEOPLE often talk as if there was an opposition between what is
    beautiful and what is useful. There is no opposition to beauty
    except ugliness: all things are either beautiful or ugly, and
    utility will be always on the side of the beautiful thing, because
    beautiful decoration is always on the side of the beautiful thing,
    because beautiful decoration is always an expression of the use you
    put a thing to and the value placed on it. No workman will
    beautifully decorate bad work, nor can you possibly get good
    handicraftsmen or workmen without having beautiful designs. You
    should be quite sure of that. If you have poor and worthless
    designs in any craft or trade you will get poor and worthless
    workmen only, but the minute you have noble and beautiful designs,
    then you get men of power and intellect and feeling to work for
    you. By having good designs you have workmen who work not merely
    with their hands but with their hearts and heads too; otherwise you
    will get merely the fool or the loafer to work for you.

    That the beauty of life is a thing of no moment, I suppose few
    people would venture to assert. And yet most civilised people act
    as if it were of none, and in so doing are wronging both themselves
    and those that are to come after them. For that beauty which is
    meant by art is no mere accident of human life which people can
    take or leave, but a positive necessity of life if we are to live
    as nature meant us to, that is to say unless we are content to be
    less than men.

    Do not think that the commercial spirit which is the basis of your
    life and cities here is opposed to art. Who built the beautiful
    cities of the world but commercial men and commercial men only?
    Genoa built by its traders, Florence by its bankers, and Venice,
    most lovely of all, by its noble and honest merchants.

    I do not wish you, remember, 'to build a new Pisa,' nor to bring
    'the life or the decorations of the thirteenth century back again.'
    'The circumstances with which you must surround your workmen are
    those' of modern American life, 'because the designs you have now
    to ask for from your workmen are such as will make modern' American
    'life beautiful.' The art we want is the art based on all the
    inventions of modern civilisation, and to suit all the needs of
    nineteenth-century life.

    Do you think, for instance, that we object to machinery? I tell
    you we reverence it; we reverence it when it does its proper work,
    when it relieves man from ignoble and soulless labour, not when it
    seeks to do that which is valuable only when wrought by the hands
    and hearts of men. Let us have no machine-made ornament at all; it
    is all bad and worthless and ugly. And let us not mistake the
    means of civilisation for the end of civilisation; steam-engine,
    telephone and the like, are all wonderful, but remember that their
    value depends entirely on the noble uses we make of them, on the
    noble spirit in which we employ them, not on the things themselves.

    It is, no doubt, a great advantage to talk to a man at the
    Antipodes through a telephone; its advantage depends entirely on
    the value of what the two men have to say to one another. If one
    merely shrieks slander through a tube and the other whispers folly
    into a wire, do not think that anybody is very much benefited by
    the invention.

    The train that whirls an ordinary Englishman through Italy at the
    rate of forty miles an hour and finally sends him home without any
    memory of that lovely country but that he was cheated by a courier
    at Rome, or that he got a bad dinner at Verona, does not do him or
    civilisation much good. But that swift legion of fiery-footed
    engines that bore to the burning ruins of Chicago the loving help
    and generous treasure of the world was as noble and as beautiful as
    any golden troop of angels that ever fed the hungry and clothed the
    naked in the antique times. As beautiful, yes; all machinery may
    be beautiful when it is undecorated even. Do not seek to decorate
    it. We cannot but think all good machinery is graceful, also, the
    line of strength and the line of beauty being one.

    Give then, as I said, to your workmen of to-day the bright and
    noble surroundings that you can yourself create. Stately and
    simple architecture for your cities, bright and simple dress for
    your men and women; those are the conditions of a real artistic
    movement. For the artist is not concerned primarily with any
    theory of life but with life itself, with the joy and loveliness
    that should come daily on eye and ear for a beautiful external

    But the simplicity must not be barrenness nor the bright colour
    gaudy. For all beautiful colours are graduated colours, the
    colours that seem about to pass into one another's realm - colour
    without tone being like music without harmony, mere discord.
    Barren architecture, the vulgar and glaring advertisements that
    desecrate not merely your cities but every rock and river that I
    have seen yet in America - all this is not enough. A school of
    design we must have too in each city. It should be a stately and
    noble building, full of the best examples of the best art of the
    world. Furthermore, do not put your designers in a barren
    whitewashed room and bid them work in that depressing and
    colourless atmosphere as I have seen many of the American schools
    of design, but give them beautiful surroundings. Because you want
    to produce a permanent canon and standard of taste in your workman,
    he must have always by him and before him specimens of the best
    decorative art of the world, so that you can say to him: 'This is
    good work. Greek or Italian or Japanese wrought it so many years
    ago, but it is eternally young because eternally beautiful.' Work
    in this spirit and you will be sure to be right. Do not copy it,
    but work with the same love, the same reverence, the same freedom
    of imagination. You must teach him colour and design, how all
    beautiful colours are graduated colours and glaring colours the
    essence of vulgarity. Show him the quality of any beautiful work
    of nature like the rose, or any beautiful work of art like an
    Eastern carpet - being merely the exquisite gradation of colour,
    one tone answering another like the answering chords of a symphony.
    Teach him how the true designer is not he who makes the design and
    then colours it, but he who designs in colour, creates in colour,
    thinks in colour too. Show him how the most gorgeous stained-glass
    windows of Europe are filled with white glass, and the most
    gorgeous Eastern tapestry with toned colours - the primary colours
    in both places being set in the white glass, and the tone colours
    like brilliant jewels set in dusky gold. And then as regards
    design, show him how the real designer will take first any given
    limited space, little disk of silver, it may be, like a Greek coin,
    or wide expanse of fretted ceiling or lordly wall as Tintoret chose
    at Venice (it does not matter which), and to this limited space -
    the first condition of decoration being the limitation of the size
    of the material used - he will give the effect of its being filled
    with beautiful decoration, filled with it as a golden cup will be
    filled with wine, so complete that you should not be able to take
    away anything from it or add anything to it. For from a good piece
    of design you can take away nothing, nor can you add anything to
    it, each little bit of design being as absolutely necessary and as
    vitally important to the whole effect as a note or chord of music
    is for a sonata of Beethoven.

    But I said the effect of its being so filled, because this, again,
    is of the essence of good design. With a simple spray of leaves
    and a bird in flight a Japanese artist will give you the impression
    that he has completely covered with lovely design the reed fan or
    lacquer cabinet at which he is working, merely because he knows the
    exact spot in which to place them. All good design depends on the
    texture of the utensil used and the use you wish to put it to. One
    of the first things I saw in an American school of design was a
    young lady painting a romantic moonlight landscape on a large round
    dish, and another young lady covering a set of dinner plates with a
    series of sunsets of the most remarkable colours. Let your ladies
    paint moonlight landscapes and sunsets, but do not let them paint
    them on dinner plates or dishes. Let them take canvas or paper for
    such work, but not clay or china. They are merely painting the
    wrong subjects on the wrong material, that is all. They have not
    been taught that every material and texture has certain qualities
    of its own. The design suitable for one is quite wrong for the
    other, just as the design which you should work on a flat table-
    cover ought to be quite different from the design you would work on
    a curtain, for the one will always be straight, the other broken
    into folds; and the use too one puts the object to should guide one
    in the choice of design. One does not want to eat one's terrapins
    off a romantic moonlight nor one's clams off a harrowing sunset.
    Glory of sun and moon, let them be wrought for us by our landscape
    artist and be on the walls of the rooms we sit in to remind us of
    the undying beauty of the sunsets that fade and die, but do not let
    us eat our soup off them and send them down to the kitchen twice a
    day to be washed and scrubbed by the handmaid.

    All these things are simple enough, yet nearly always forgotten.
    Your school of design here will teach your girls and your boys,
    your handicraftsmen of the future (for all your schools of art
    should be local schools, the schools of particular cities). We
    talk of the Italian school of painting, but there is no Italian
    school; there were the schools of each city. Every town in Italy,
    from Venice itself, queen of the sea, to the little hill fortress
    of Perugia, each had its own school of art, each different and all

    So do not mind what art Philadelphia or New York is having, but
    make by the hands of your own citizens beautiful art for the joy of
    your own citizens, for you have here the primary elements of a
    great artistic movement.

    For, believe me, the conditions of art are much simpler than people
    imagine. For the noblest art one requires a clear healthy
    atmosphere, not polluted as the air of our English cities is by the
    smoke and grime and horridness which comes from open furnace and
    from factory chimney. You must have strong, sane, healthy physique
    among your men and women. Sickly or idle or melancholy people do
    not do much in art. And lastly, you require a sense of
    individualism about each man and woman, for this is the essence of
    art - a desire on the part of man to express himself in the noblest
    way possible. And this is the reason that the grandest art of the
    world always came from a republic: Athens, Venice, and Florence -
    there were no kings there and so their art was as noble and simple
    as sincere. But if you want to know what kind of art the folly of
    kings will impose on a country look at the decorative art of France
    under the GRAND MONARQUE, under Louis the Fourteenth; the gaudy
    gilt furniture writhing under a sense of its own horror and
    ugliness, with a nymph smirking at every angle and a dragon
    mouthing on every claw. Unreal and monstrous art this, and fit
    only for such periwigged pomposities as the nobility of France at
    that time, but not at all fit for you or me. We do not want the
    rich to possess more beautiful things but the poor to create more
    beautiful things; for ever man is poor who cannot create. Nor
    shall the art which you and I need be merely a purple robe woven by
    a slave and thrown over the whitened body of some leprous king to
    adorn or to conceal the sin of his luxury, but rather shall it be
    the noble and beautiful expression of a people's noble and
    beautiful life. Art shall be again the most glorious of all the
    chords through which the spirit of a great nation finds its noblest

    All around you, I said, lie the conditions for a great artistic
    movement for every great art. Let us think of one of them; a
    sculptor, for instance.

    If a modern sculptor were to come and say, 'Very well, but where
    can one find subjects for sculpture out of men who wear frock-coats
    and chimney-pot hats?' I would tell him to go to the docks of a
    great city and watch the men loading or unloading the stately
    ships, working at wheel or windlass, hauling at rope or gangway. I
    have never watched a man do anything useful who has not been
    graceful at some moment of his labour: it is only the loafer and
    the idle saunterer who is as useless and uninteresting to the
    artist as he is to himself. I would ask the sculptor to go with me
    to any of your schools or universities, to the running ground and
    gymnasium, to watch the young men start for a race, hurling quoit
    or club, kneeling to tie their shoes before leaping, stepping from
    the boat or bending to the oar, and to carve them; and when he was
    weary of cities I would ask him to come to your fields and meadows
    to watch the reaper with his sickle and the cattle-driver with
    lifted lasso. For if a man cannot find the noblest motives for his
    art in such simple daily things as a woman drawing water from the
    well or a man leaning with his scythe, he will not find them
    anywhere at all. Gods and goddesses the Greek carved because he
    loved them; saint and king the Goth because he believed in them.
    But you, you do not care much for Greek gods and goddesses, and you
    are perfectly and entirely right; and you do not think much of
    kings either, and you are quite right. But what you do love are
    your own men and women, your own flowers and fields, your own hills
    and mountains, and these are what your art should represent to you.

    Ours has been the first movement which has brought the
    handicraftsman and the artist together, for remember that by
    separating the one from the other you do ruin to both; you rob the
    one of all spiritual motive and all imaginative joy, you isolate
    the other from all real technical perfection. The two greatest
    schools of art in the world, the sculptor at Athens and the school
    of painting at Venice, had their origin entirely in a long
    succession of simple and earnest handicraftsmen. It was the Greek
    potter who taught the sculptor that restraining influence of design
    which was the glory of the Parthenon; it was the Italian decorator
    of chests and household goods who kept Venetian painting always
    true to its primary pictorial condition of noble colour. For we
    should remember that all the arts are fine arts and all the arts
    decorative arts. The greatest triumph of Italian painting was the
    decoration of a pope's chapel in Rome and the wall of a room in
    Venice. Michael Angelo wrought the one, and Tintoret, the dyer's
    son, the other. And the little 'Dutch landscape, which you put
    over your sideboard to-day, and between the windows to-morrow, is'
    no less a glorious 'piece of work than the extents of field and
    forest with which Benozzo has made green and beautiful the once
    melancholy arcade of the Campo Santo at Pisa,' as Ruskin says.

    Do not imitate the works of a nation, Greek or Japanese, Italian or
    English; but their artistic spirit of design and their artistic
    attitude to-day, their own world, you should absorb but imitate
    never, copy never. Unless you can make as beautiful a design in
    painted china or embroidered screen or beaten brass out of your
    American turkey as the Japanese does out of his grey silver-winged
    stork, you will never do anything. Let the Greek carve his lions
    and the Goth his dragons: buffalo and wild deer are the animals
    for you.

    Golden rod and aster and rose and all the flowers that cover your
    valleys in the spring and your hills in the autumn: let them be
    the flowers for your art. Not merely has Nature given you the
    noblest motives for a new school of decoration, but to you above
    all other countries has she given the utensils to work in.

    You have quarries of marble richer than Pentelicus, more varied
    than Paros, but do not build a great white square house of marble
    and think that it is beautiful, or that you are using marble nobly.
    If you build in marble you must either carve it into joyous
    decoration, like the lives of dancing children that adorn the
    marble castles of the Loire, or fill it with beautiful sculpture,
    frieze and pediment, as the Greeks did, or inlay it with other
    coloured marbles as they did in Venice. Otherwise you had better
    build in simple red brick as your Puritan fathers, with no pretence
    and with some beauty. Do not treat your marble as if it was
    ordinary stone and build a house of mere blocks of it. For it is
    indeed a precious stone, this marble of yours, and only workmen of
    nobility of invention and delicacy of hand should be allowed to
    touch it at all, carving it into noble statues or into beautiful
    decoration, or inlaying it with other coloured marbles: for 'the
    true colours of architecture are those of natural stone, and I
    would fain see them taken advantage of to the full. Every variety
    is here, from pale yellow to purple passing through orange, red,
    and brown, entirely at your command; nearly every kind of green and
    grey also is attainable, and with these and with pure white what
    harmony might you not achieve. Of stained and variegated stone the
    quantity is unlimited, the kinds innumerable. Were brighter
    colours required, let glass, and gold protected by glass, be used
    in mosaic, a kind of work as durable as the solid stone and
    incapable of losing its lustre by time. And let the painter's work
    be reserved for the shadowed loggia and inner chamber.

    'This is the true and faithful way of building. Where this cannot
    be, the device of external colouring may indeed be employed without
    dishonour - but it must be with the warning reflection that a time
    will come when such aids will pass away and when the building will
    be judged in its lifelessness, dying the death of the dolphin.
    Better the less bright, more enduring fabric. The transparent
    alabasters of San Miniato and the mosaics of Saint Mark's are more
    warmly filled and more brightly touched by every return of morning
    and evening, while the hues of the Gothic cathedrals have died like
    the iris out of the cloud, and the temples, whose azure and purple
    once flamed above the Grecian promontory, stand in their faded
    whiteness like snows which the sunset has left cold.' - Ruskin,

    I do not know anything so perfectly commonplace in design as most
    modern jewellery. How easy for you to change that and to produce
    goldsmiths' work that would be a joy to all of us. The gold is
    ready for you in unexhausted treasure, stored up in the mountain
    hollow or strewn on the river sand, and was not given to you merely
    for barren speculation. There should be some better record of it
    left in your history than the merchant's panic and the ruined home.
    We do not remember often enough how constantly the history of a
    great nation will live in and by its art. Only a few thin wreaths
    of beaten gold remain to tell us of the stately empire of Etruria;
    and, while from the streets of Florence the noble knight and
    haughty duke have long since passed away, the gates which the
    simple goldsmith Ghiberti made for their pleasure still guard their
    lovely house of baptism, worthy still of the praise of Michael
    Angelo who called them worthy to be the Gates of Paradise.

    Have then your school of design, search out your workmen and, when
    you find one who has delicacy of hand and that wonder of invention
    necessary for goldsmiths' work, do not leave him to toil in
    obscurity and dishonour and have a great glaring shop and two great
    glaring shop-boys in it (not to take your orders: they never do
    that; but to force you to buy something you do not want at all).
    When you want a thing wrought in gold, goblet or shield for the
    feast, necklace or wreath for the women, tell him what you like
    most in decoration, flower or wreath, bird in flight or hound in
    the chase, image of the woman you love or the friend you honour.
    Watch him as he beats out the gold into those thin plates delicate
    as the petals of a yellow rose, or draws it into the long wires
    like tangled sunbeams at dawn. Whoever that workman be, help him,
    cherish him, and you will have such lovely work from his hand as
    will be a joy to you for all time.

    This is the spirit of our movement in England, and this is the
    spirit in which we would wish you to work, making eternal by your
    art all that is noble in your men and women, stately in your lakes
    and mountains, beautiful in your own flowers and natural life. We
    want to see that you have nothing in your houses that has not been
    a joy to the man who made it, and is not a joy to those that use
    it. We want to see you create an art made by the hands of the
    people to please the hearts of the people too. Do you like this
    spirit or not? Do you think it simple and strong, noble in its
    aim, and beautiful in its result? I know you do.

    Folly and slander have their own way for a little time, but for a
    little time only. You now know what we mean: you will be able to
    estimate what is said of us - its value and its motive.

    There should be a law that no ordinary newspaper should be allowed
    to write about art. The harm they do by their foolish and random
    writing it would be impossible to overestimate - not to the artist
    but to the public, blinding them to all, but harming the artist not
    at all. Without them we would judge a man simply by his work; but
    at present the newspapers are trying hard to induce the public to
    judge a sculptor, for instance, never by his statues but by the way
    he treats his wife; a painter by the amount of his income and a
    poet by the colour of his neck-tie. I said there should be a law,
    but there is really no necessity for a new law: nothing could be
    easier than to bring the ordinary critic under the head of the
    criminal classes. But let us leave such an inartistic subject and
    return to beautiful and comely things, remembering that the art
    which would represent the spirit of modern newspapers would be
    exactly the art which you and I want to avoid - grotesque art,
    malice mocking you from every gateway, slander sneering at you from
    every corner.

    Perhaps you may be surprised at my talking of labour and the
    workman. You have heard of me, I fear, through the medium of your
    somewhat imaginative newspapers as, if not a 'Japanese young man,'
    at least a young man to whom the rush and clamour and reality of
    the modern world were distasteful, and whose greatest difficulty in
    life was the difficulty of living up to the level of his blue china
    - a paradox from which England has not yet recovered.

    Well, let me tell you how it first came to me at all to create an
    artistic movement in England, a movement to show the rich what
    beautiful things they might enjoy and the poor what beautiful
    things they might create.

    One summer afternoon in Oxford - 'that sweet city with her dreaming
    spires,' lovely as Venice in its splendour, noble in its learning
    as Rome, down the long High Street that winds from tower to tower,
    past silent cloister and stately gateway, till it reaches that
    long, grey seven-arched bridge which Saint Mary used to guard (used
    to, I say, because they are now pulling it down to build a tramway
    and a light cast-iron bridge in its place, desecrating the
    loveliest city in England) - well, we were coming down the street -
    a troop of young men, some of them like myself only nineteen, going
    to river or tennis-court or cricket-field - when Ruskin going up to
    lecture in cap and gown met us. He seemed troubled and prayed us
    to go back with him to his lecture, which a few of us did, and
    there he spoke to us not on art this time but on life, saying that
    it seemed to him to be wrong that all the best physique and
    strength of the young men in England should be spent aimlessly on
    cricket ground or river, without any result at all except that if
    one rowed well one got a pewter-pot, and if one made a good score,
    a cane-handled bat. He thought, he said, that we should be working
    at something that would do good to other people, at something by
    which we might show that in all labour there was something noble.
    Well, we were a good deal moved, and said we would do anything he
    wished. So he went out round Oxford and found two villages, Upper
    and Lower Hinksey, and between them there lay a great swamp, so
    that the villagers could not pass from one to the other without
    many miles of a round. And when we came back in winter he asked us
    to help him to make a road across this morass for these village
    people to use. So out we went, day after day, and learned how to
    lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank
    - a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the
    mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our
    enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it
    much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked
    away for two months at our road. And what became of the road?
    Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly - in the middle of the
    swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next
    term there was no leader, and the 'diggers,' as they called us,
    fell asunder. And I felt that if there was enough spirit amongst
    the young men to go out to such work as road-making for the sake of
    a noble ideal of life, I could from them create an artistic
    movement that might change, as it has changed, the face of England.
    So I sought them out - leader they would call me - but there was no
    leader: we were all searchers only and we were bound to each other
    by noble friendship and by noble art. There was none of us idle:
    poets most of us, so ambitious were we: painters some of us, or
    workers in metal or modellers, determined that we would try and
    create for ourselves beautiful work: for the handicraftsman
    beautiful work, for those who love us poems and pictures, for those
    who love us not epigrams and paradoxes and scorn.

    Well, we have done something in England and we will do something
    more. Now, I do not want you, believe me, to ask your brilliant
    young men, your beautiful young girls, to go out and make a road on
    a swamp for any village in America, but I think you might each of
    you have some art to practise.

    We must have, as Emerson said, a mechanical craft for our culture,
    a basis for our higher accomplishments in the work of our hands -
    the uselessness of most people's hands seems to me one of the most
    unpractical things. 'No separation from labour can be without some
    loss of power or truth to the seer,' says Emerson again. The
    heroism which would make on us the impression of Epaminondas must
    be that of a domestic conqueror. The hero of the future is he who
    shall bravely and gracefully subdue this Gorgon of fashion and of

    When you have chosen your own part, abide by it, and do not weakly
    try and reconcile yourself with the world. The heroic cannot be
    the common nor the common the heroic. Congratulate yourself if you
    have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony
    of a decorous age.

    And lastly, let us remember that art is the one thing which Death
    cannot harm. The little house at Concord may be desolate, but the
    wisdom of New England's Plato is not silenced nor the brilliancy of
    that Attic genius dimmed: the lips of Longfellow are still musical
    for us though his dust be turning into the flowers which he loved:
    and as it is with the greater artists, poet and philosopher and
    song-bird, so let it be with you.
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