An Appreciation of Art and Labor

Eakins, Three Spirals, 1860
Eakins, Three Spirals, 1860

Much of our experience of work today is described as drudgery. This dissatisfaction about one’s work seems to be on every one’s lips. Why is this so? Should not work be a pleasure, something we are proud of, something that contains an integral part of our being? William Morris believed that “no human ingenuity can produce work without pleasure being a third party to the brain that conceived and the hand that fashioned it.” (William Morris, The Art of the People ,1882) Our labor should be a joy. “If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect.” (Ibid) How does one put the creative investment back into our work, for it is only when we feel we are creating something- fashioning something that speaks of an inward impulse, do we feel a certain joy.

In Japan there is a special holiday in the spring where families gather to travel to the countryside to picnic and to paint and draw from nature. Time is spent on contemplating the beautiful and refreshing one’s eyes to the nature of all things. Appreciation is basic. Appreciation creates a greater sensitivity in the individual allowing him to feel connected to the world and to others. It becomes the main platform for activity. When we authentically appreciate something it calls us to action and leaves apathy behind. The power of creativity manifests a consciousness of beauty  and the connectedness of all things. It is powerful that Japan sees this as so significant that it is a special holiday.

Where has our own country failed us? We have so many arts programs, yet this has had little effect in regard to our work later in life. We are all still dissatisfied in our labor. Somehow these programs have failed, have not satisfied our basic need to understand what it is about creativity that enriches our life. Morris states, “So I will say that I believe there are two virtues much needed in modern life, if it is ever to become sweet; and I am quite sure that they are absolutely necessary in sowing the seed of an art which is to be made by the people and  for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user. These virtues are honesty and simplicity of life.” (Ibid) Although our children spend much time exploring crafts, little time is spent on why we create at all.

In the nineteenth century children spent time in school learning how to draw. There is evidence of this in Thomas Eakins early work. In school, he was taught to see clearly and accurately the objects around him whether it was a gear, an apple or architecture. Through such training Eakins was clearly able to see his world  attaining a consciousness that can only be understood intuitively and expressed visually- an understanding that leads to a judgment of a different kind. This shaped him to be the artist he was later to become.

It is this creativity and sensitivity to the world and to our work itself, that needs to be taught.  And possibly, we just need to return to the teaching of basic drawing. Possibly, this is an honest approach that will grant us greater simplicity of life achieving that which Morris speaks of- where things are reduced to pure observation, allowing a moment of real appreciation, allowing us to pause from all of our restless activity and spend time in the contemplation of the incredible beauty before us and in that simplicity find real meaning.

The Art of Craftsmanship

Moravian Tile by Henry C. Mercer, 1898

What is craftsmanship? Is it not the taking of basic materials and by the human hand, along with the imagination, intelligence and will, transforming that material into a reflection of  the human spirit? William Morris, the leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement of England, spent a lifetime reflecting on the nature of one’s relationship to the objects we surround ourselves with. His motto was, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” (Paul Thompson, The Work of William Morris, p.99) This is a stark contrast to materialism, not just because it contains a sense of frugality but more importantly, because it points to the necessary creative investment required by the individual. Although, the selection of  the objects we surround ourselves with is important, it is more crucial that we are  personally invested in them through beauty and usefulness and through this investment allow ourselves to be enriched spiritually.

There is even a greater connection to an object when we create it ourselves. When one crafts things oneself, one is personally and psychically engaged in the labor as well as the creative outcome.  Quality adheres to the object because of this personal bond unlike a ready-made good, which in most cases, loses its value over time. Crafting one’s own things allows us  to create our own myth seeking  symbols that fortify a deep relationship with the world and with others. “But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as his body. Memory and imagination help him.’ This combination of physical exercise with creativity was the key to satisfaction, to fulfillment in self-realization.” (Ibid,p.268)  Whether one is building an English wattle fence around a garden or an Adirondack style trellis reminiscent of  natural forms, one is engaged in the outer world allowing the inner world to flower. And subsequently, the inner world finds its outward expression in the object, shaping it exactly to the form it sees within.

Monet’s garden at Giverny, is his inner life revealed. In the end, Monet no longer traveled in order to paint- his garden sufficed because it was a direct reflection of his psychic state. It became his great contemplation allowing his imagination complete freedom. The garden was a mirror of himself, one reflecting the other and in constant dialogue, a perfect exchange between artist and muse. The lilly pond became the iconographic image of his late work. “Depend upon it, Art, which is the very highest of realities, the explanation of the depth of them, can only be helped by people whose daily life consists in dealing with realities.” (Ibid, p.255)

Create simple things for yourself. Although, it may lack perfection, the object will tell you much about the realities that are present within and without binding us to the world and one another. Morris hoped that mankind would “regain their eyesight, which they have at present lost to a great extent…People have largely ceased to take in mental impressions through the eyes; whereas in past times the eyes were the great feeders of the fancy and imagination.” (Ibid, p.269)