THERE IS NO DENYING that in the last hundred years the condition of civilised man has changed more radically than at any previous time. Inventions and discoveries, from the steam engine to the internal combustion engine, from electricity to atomic power, have led to the mechanization of industry which in turn has basically affected the social, economic and political structure of our society. A society of the masses has come into existence and is being buttressed by such mass means as the press, the cinema, radio and -- latterly -- television.
It is hardly surprising that these rapidly changing circumstances should have had their effect on the arts, too. Art has always been a highly sensitive instrument for registering any changes in the social order or in the ideas, beliefs and activities of man. One might ask whether it is possible for the creative faculty to exist at all in a mass-society, whether our mechanized world is the proper place for the production and enjoyment of a work of art. If it is true that calm contemplation is vital to the artist, does it not also follow that his whole being will protest most violently against an epoch in which the machine sets the pace, a pace that in its ruthless precision is the very opposite of that rhythm of life out of which art has hitherto grown?
Protests of this kind have been and are still being made on behalf of the arts. William Morris had in the sixties of the last century already tried, with commendable courage, to combat the effects of the machine age and the increase of mechanization, which he considered to be an evil to society. During his lifetime he never travelled by railway and, it is said, ostentatiously carried a spinning-wheel through the streets of London in defence of the old crafts. He founded a firm of artists whose hallmark was soundness of form and good craftsmanship. Together they designed and made all manner of furniture, fabrics, wallpaper, carpets, stained glass etc., in the belief that the artist, by also being a craftsman, could be saved from annihilation by the machine. The forms that Morris and his helpers chose for their products were inspired by the late Middle Ages, as was Morris's poetry. He wrote and decorated books with his own hand in the manner of the medieval monks, opposing the flood of popular mass-productions with the choice limited editions of the Kelmscott Press. The institution of technical schools in which studio and workshop were of equal importance was largely due to him. Morris's success was limited, however. His products never came within the means of more than a small public, and his ideas and achievements could not arrest the movement towards mass-production with its attendant social evils.