ART AND ILLUSION

My old friend Nick Rowling, who corrected the mistakes I’d made about the alleged iconoclasm of the English Commonwealth, suggest I read Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, which he thought was one of the best books on the history of art. I saw that his view was shared by Kenneth Clark, who described it as “One of the most brilliant books of art criticism I have ever read.”

It’s also one of the hardest. Gombrich studied at Vienna, where art historians were steeped in philosophy that they often took for granted, and without a knowledge of which it’s difficult to understand what they’re saying. Although Gombrich lived most of his life in England, and although he wrote Art and Illusion in English, he thought it in German. His idea of the way that mental structures or “schemata” shape perception comes from Kant, and the “mythological explanations” of history that he deprecates (explanation in terms of collectives like “mankind”, “races” and “ages”) come from Hegel. Most of his antecedents are German: Konrad Fiedler, Adolf von Hildebrand, Heinrich Wölfflin, Alois Riegl, Franz Wickhoff, Hans Sedlmayr, Emanuel Loewy, Julius von Schlosser, Aby Warburg, Rudolf Arnheim, Ernst Kris and Karl Popper.

I went online to look for cribs but found that some of them understood even less than me – saying, for example, that the idea of “schemata” was invented by Gombrich, or attributing to Gombrich an opinion of Herbert Read’s that Gombrich dismisses. But that’s how difficult the book is.

CRAFT, SKILL, DESIGN

henry cole

I have been looking at Prof Toshio Kasumitsu’s dissertation British Industrialisation and Design 1830-1851, which I found my way to from Charles Saumaurez Smith’s blog, in which he thanked Kasumitsu for his eloquent support for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

In this interesting thesis he shows that early ideas of “craft”, “skill”, “art” and “mystery” were associated with protective guilds and the apprenticeship system and that they indicated a deep understanding of a trade. Adam Smith, who believed that long apprenticeships protected the trades and the masters and disadvantaged the public, moved “skill” towards ideas of manual dexterity, whereas previously it had a much richer meaning. In Smith’s thinking, skill in this sense could be imparted in much shorter training programmes. It became closer to ideas of “competence”, which motivate modern vocational training .

I wondered whether the elevation of craft in the thinking of Ruskin, Morris and their followers was associated with an archaic and protectionist concept of arts and trades, and whether their resistance to new methods of organising work and production favoured the tradesman over the consumer? That was the effect of Morris’s business practice, which was incapable of producing products cheaply, and there was an irreconcilable contradiction in his philosophy between between the idea of a craft-based economy and the idea of a society where everyone could lead a life of modest prosperity.

By the mid-19th century it was already supposed that design had deteriorated because of the separation of  the “fine” from the “decorative” arts, leading to the debasement of the latter. This view persisted for a hundred years and the cause of the separation was frequently attributed to the factory system and the division of labour. They may have reinforced it but they cannot be said to have caused it, because it began centuries before the industrial revolution and was associated with the Renaissance conception of the liberal arts as distinct from the crafts and with the attempt of fine artists to elevate their social status.

It is also questionable whether the separation of art into “fine” and “decorative” necessarily depresses design. By the end of the 19th century the Arts and Crafts style had thoroughly permeated manufacturing industry and it dominated domestic goods for 20 years after Morris’s death. Some of the designs made in this period were by fine artists but not all were. The furniture painted by Morris and Burne-Jones may be said to be fine art applied to manufacture, but what of the work of pioneering industrial designers like Christopher Dresser, W. A. S. Benson and Lewis Foreman Day? The design of manufactured goods is dependent on the adequate selection and training of designers rather than on the inclusion of fine artists in the manufacturing process or erasing the distinction between the two.

The low status of artisan designers the supposed deterioration of design were generally elided in critiques of “bad design” and the latter was supposed to be a consequence of the former. But was it, and to what extent did other things cause it: 1) Indifference of the buying public to “good” design and preference for “bad” design? 2) The inadequate training of designers? 3) The expense of getting good design? All those things –  bad taste, lack of education and the commercial motive – were blamed, but there there is evidence against all of them. 1) There were prolonged and strenuous attempts to elevate taste, from the efforts of Henry Cole (above) and William Morris to the Design Centre, and they appear to have had little effect in the view of their promoters. 2) The Schools of Design and their successors spent seventy years getting designers to study the best models but critiques of bad design persisted. 3) The argument from commerce was confused from the start, between claims that the profit motive pushed out good design and claims that businesses would do much better if only they made better-designed products.

LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY

 

moholy-nagy
I was interested to read that the Hungarian designer László Moholy-Nagy (above) was turned down for a teaching post at the Royal College of Art during his residence in England between 1934 and 1937. Walter Gropius, as I mentioned elsewhere, was considered for the post of director when William Rothenstein stepped down, but was thought to be unsuitable because the Bauhaus was mistakenly understood by the Board of Education to be a fine-art school and because of its association with the political left under Hannes Meyer.

The Bauhaus had not been on Rothenstein’s horizon when ten years earlier he made a tour of continental art schools to see how the RCA might be brought up to date, and although he made radical reforms in the teaching at the college and was aware that the arts-and-crafts ethos was holding it back, he was not an apostle of modernism. He wittily dismissed the followers of Cézanne as ces ânes (these donkeys) and he appointed to the post of professor of design E. W. Tristram, a specialist in medieval wall painting. Britain’s premier art school in the 1930s made little contribution to the development of modernism (although Reco Capey and Paul Nash were notable exceptions). 

Tristram was recruited to the government committee on Art and Industry in 1931, the Gorell Committee, which was tasked with advising on the best ways of exhibiting high standards of design in consumer goods, presumably because of his position, but his interests and experience did not fit him to advancing industrial design.  Many of the other members of the Committee were fully signed up to the arts-and-crafts philosophy and it is extraordinary to consider that its report was regarded by Pevsner as “the first official document to emphasize the vital importance of improvements in British industrial art” when it was suspicious of industry and mass production.

bauhaus lamp
The attitude of the Gorell Committee and other contemporary British initiatives on art and industry was the inverse of that of Moholy-Nagy. Gorell sought ways of applying an artistic appearance to industrial products while Moholy-Nagy was interested in applying industrial technology to art. During his direction of the metal workshop at the Bauhaus, his class developed industrial prototypes and he was associated with the transition from a craft school to a school designing type-forms. Although made by hand, typical products of the workshop, like its famous table lamps, looked machine made and eliminated the mark of the maker and there have been many industrial iterations of it since (above).

Moholy-Nagy and Gropius were for a short while neighbours in the Isokon building in Hampstead, along with another Bauhaus exile, Marcel Breuer. It’s interesting to think how industrial design in Britain would have advanced if Gropius and Moholy-Nagy had been allowed to join the staff of the RCA at that time.

PUBLIC STATUES

The Decorative Arts Society writes of an interesting and significant difference of views about public statues: “The argument over statues and monuments continues. The Andrew Mellon Foundation has announced the Monuments Project, ‘a five-year, quarter-billion-dollar commitment [to] support efforts to recalibrate the assumed centre of our national narratives to include those who have often been denied historical recognition. This work has taken on greater urgency at a moment of national reckoning with the power and influence of memorials and commemorative spaces.’ By contrast, the UK government has told museums and galleries, including the British Museum and Tate Gallery, not to remove statues or other objects of contested cultural heritage from display—or risk losing their public funding. Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport set out bluntly the government’s position on contested heritage: ‘The Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects.’”

MARGARET BULLEY (2)

Bulley001a

I described Margaret Bulley’s aesthetic theories as “gushing”, full of ideas of “spirit” and “vital energy”. R. R. Tatlock, editor of The Burlington Magazine, who published several of her reports on artistic taste, said that –

“From one angle she is an aesthetician, from another a collector, from a third a teacher. It might be truest of all to call her a missionary, for it is in the pertinacious and fervent spirit of the spreader of a gospel that she works and writes. It is not easy to make out just of what her gospel consists, and I believe it would be impossible to account for it in so many words; but what is abundantly clear to those who so much as glance at her book is that art is for her a fact that inspires and compels the soul and puzzles and torments the brain: it is the nucleus round which Miss Bulley and similarly constituted electrons giddily spin; it is the indefinable Presence before whom they prostrate themselves and present offerings of books.” (1926)

Bulley’s books were occasionally mentioned in the philosophical journals, which remarked on the incoherence of her ideas. Philosophy, reviewing Art and Understanding, liked the illustrations in it but thought that “however pleasing the reproductions from ancient and modern masters, they cannot wholly atone for the conspicuous absence of any real knowledge of aesthetics exhibited by the first and theoretical half of the volume.” (1939) And a review of Art and Everyman in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1954) regretted that “Unfortunately, the terms in which the author expresses her esthetic views are unduly opaque.” Although she wrote repeatedly on aesthetics, her ideas were really just an undigested mish-mash of outmoded ideas about taste.

Tatlock went on to describe her research methods in Art and Counterfeit, in which her industry, thoroughness and persistence made up for the weakness of her driving ideas:

“The best part of Miss Bulley’s days through many a year have been occupied in labouring to infect audiences of school-children and of adults with the love of art. But in various directions her zeal has over-flowed from that mission and has driven her to carry out long series of “tests ” with the object of settling what proportion of persons in a given category are able, without being prompted by others, to distinguish between a good and a bad work of art. Three papers, embodying Miss Bulley’s results of this kind, were published in these pages (October, 1919; October, 1923; and October, 1925), and these and others are included in the book. To help her in her teaching, Miss Bulley has made an enormous collection of photographs of every species of work of art. These she has arranged in pairs – one of each kind, good and bad, “of clean beasts and those that are not clean” – without the names of their creators being divulged; and many a reputation has been blasted through the functioning of that relentless instrument. But she has not only collected photographs; with equal zeal she has accumulated innumerable specimens of art criticism. These she has now arranged in groups and has most ingeniously attempted to illustrate by means of certain of her photographs. The result is a unique book – a Noah’s- ark of a book-whose subject may be described as comparative art and whose interest is at once literary and artistic.”

MARGARET BULLEY: ‘HAVE YOU GOOD TASTE?’

After writing about the Gorell Committee, which reported to government in 1932 on the production and exhibition of articles of good design, I became curious about one of its members, the art writer Margaret Bulley (1882 – 1960). The Gorell Committee was one of the many official and unofficial initiatives in the 1920s and 1930s created to improve the standard of design in industry and the result of its deliberations was the setting up of the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), a precursor of the Design Council.

Margaret Bulley was born into a prosperous but socially progressive family in Cheshire. Her early work was in teaching children in galleries and museums. She was involved in war relief work in France where she met Margery Fry and it may have been through her that she made the acquaintance of her brother Roger Fry. Fry introduced her to Marion Richardson, the influential and innovative art teacher, and Bulley arranged an exhibition of children’s art at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Bulley herself became interested in children’s art and she arranged for children’s designs to be manufactured by her husband’s textile firm Armitage and Rigby. She carried out extensive research into children’s responses to art, seeking universals in art appreciation that were unconditioned by culture, publishing her findings in The Burlington Magazine in the 1920s. She espoused the common idea that children have an innate and well-developed aesthetic sense that adults suppress.

Bulley was invited to join the Gorell committee probably because of her acquaintanceship with Fry (also a member of the committee), her researches into art appreciation and her prior involvement in the British Institute of Industrial Art (BIIA), predecessor of the Council for Art and Industry, to which she had contributed a large collection of contemporary consumer goods, and which on the closure of the BIIA, she donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A describe her as a friend of Vanessa Bell and she had been an associate of Fry’s since the days of the Omega Workshops, of which she was a generous patron. Bulley was thus on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and her ideas of art and taste are close to theirs in many ways.

The Gorell committee, comprising public officials, artists, writers and industrialists, entangled questions of design with questions of taste and how it might be improved, as did nearly all contemporary discussions about the advancement of design and taste, which was vaguely defined if defined at all. Such discussions inevitably fell back on the taste of those who staffed committees like Gorell. Shortly after Gorell, Bulley wrote Have You Good Taste?, which filled out her ideas in more detail, and throughout her career she wrote several books in a similar vein, like Art and Counterfeit, Art and Understanding and Art and Everyman.

Have You Good Taste? was an investigation of the taste of the public based on an experiment in which their preferences were compared with the judgement of “six well-known art critics or experts”: Roger Fry, W. Constable (Director of the Courtauld Institute), Charles Holmes (late Director of the National Gallery), Percy Jowett (Director of the Central School of Arts and Crafts), Eric Maclagan (Director of the V&A) and R. R. Tatlock (Editor of the Burlington Magazine). Her use of these individuals as a touchstone immediately arouses the suspicion that good taste as understood by Miss Bulley might simply be the taste of the English cultural elite.

Bulley’s view of art, design and taste was barely different from that of Ruskin and Morris. In her gushing theory of aesthetics, beauty is a spiritual quality that resides in objects, is universal and does not change over time. It is not merely personal choice or preference and Bulley notes that many of the things that people prefer are actually ugly. In order to distinguish artistic beauty from beauty in manufactured goods (which, as a rule she thinks, are inferior to art and handmade things), she adds that artistic beauty is the product of passion, so it appears that even though beauty is a quality of objects, process is essential too. She acknowledges beauty in nature, which is not the product of artistic creation, but the difference between the beauty of nature, everyday objects and art is not explained or thought through and she falls back on beauty being a spiritual value that cannot be described in words.

Bulley appears to have absorbed some formalist ideas from Fry and also to have been influenced by Bergson’s Creative Evolution. From the formalists she takes the idea of beauty expressing harmony and from Bergson the idea of creative energy – “the vitality that comes from free creative force” – and a deprecation of science, materialism and “over-intellectualisation”.

Her terms for things that don’t meet her standards of beauty have the echo of Bloomsbury about them – “sham”, “bloated”, “mean”, “anaemic” – but, unlike Bloomsbury, her taste appears to be a Quakerish simplicity and a preference for interiors that are plain and workmanlike, pleasant and unselfconscious and that don’t try too hard to be artistic.

From the Arts and Crafts movement Bulley inherited an anti-industrialism, a dislike of trade and a belief that hand-made things are better than mass-produced things. Her belief in spirit lead her to reject the functionalism of the modern movement, which she says is not enough to produce a work of art.

The book contains 19 pairs of photos that readers of The Listener had been invited to appraise as good or bad and their verdicts are compared with the verdicts of the experts. About three-quarters of the public agreed with the experts, but, in an interesting anticipation of Bourdieu, upper-class, highly-educated respondents were more likely to agree with the experts than labourers, servants and those with an elementary education.

Bulley’s Arts and Crafts philosophy remained widespread in England until the Second World War. Michael Saler saw Ruskin’s philosophy inspiring Frank Pick, despite his association with the modernisation of the London Underground. It pervaded the Gorell report. Bernard Leach’s philosophy, expressed in the best-selling A Potter’s Book, which he wrote in the late 1930s, is similar to Bulley’s and they both dislike modern journalism, cinema and contemporary culture. The appointment of a person like Bulley to advise on the improvement of industrial design raises questions about how suited to the task Britain’s Board of Trade was in the 1930s.

Biographical details from Alan Powers, “Margaret Bulley”, Crafts , No.192, January – February 2005, p.24