William Morris on the problem of luxury

No one will deny the problem our world is faced with: utter ubiquity of anything labeled "beautiful," "original," "exclusive," "excellent." It's as if we each crave to be the first to know, and the only holder of the exclusive rights to something new and great and wonderful. We share our knowledge carefully or ask for the knowledge of others with the same discretion. But somehow, along the way, the thing that was original or beautiful becomes twisted and ends up a commercialized and Wal-Mart-ified shadow of itself.

It happens all the times to the best items, they're appropriated by the maw of consumerism and spit back out, a little soggy and hard-to-recognize for their time in the spin cycle.

As much as I tend to think that this is an unavoidable consequence of the speed of communication that our world operates by, I do think there is some very important commentary in the following excerpted passage from Willam Morris' essay on The Beauty of Life.

He speaks of architecture and residential design, but much if not all of this can be extended to apply to the way we choose to dress ourselves.

For whereas all works of craftsmanship were once beautiful, unwittingly or not, they are now divided into two kinds, works of art and non-works of art: now nothing made by man’s hand can be indifferent: it must be either beautiful and elevating, or ugly and degrading; and those things that are without art are so aggressively; they wound it by their existence, and they are now so much in the majority that it is the works of art we are obliged to set ourselves to seek for, whereas the other things are the ordinary companions of our everyday life...

I have spoken of the popular arts, but they might all be summed up in that one word Architecture; they are all parts of that great whole, and the art of house-building begins it all: if we did not know how to dye or to weave; if we had neither gold, nor silver, nor silk; and no pigments to paint with, but half-a-dozen ochres and numbers, we might yet frame a worthy art that would lead to everything, if we had but timber, stone, and lime, and a few cutting tools to make these common things not only shelter us from wind and weather, but also express the thoughts and aspirations that stir in us. Architecture would lead us to all the arts, as it did with earlier men: but if we despise it and take no note of how we are housed, the other arts will have a hard time of it indeed. Now I do not think the greatest of optimists would deny that, taking us one and all, we are at present housed in a perfectly shameful way, and since the greatest part of us have to live in houses already built for us, it must be admitted that it is rather hard to know what to do, beyond waiting till they tumble about our ears. Only we must not lay the fault upon the builders, as some people seem inclined to do: they are our very humble servants, and will build what we ask for; remember, that rich men are not obliged to live in ugly houses, and yet you see they do; which the builders may be well excused for taking as a sign of what is wanted...

Hitherto, judging us by that standard, the builders may well say, that we want the pretence of a thing rather than the thing itself; that we want a show of petty luxury if we are unrich, a show of insulting stupidity if we are rich: and they are quite clear that as a rule we want to get something that shall look as if it cost twice as much as it really did.

However, I must try to answer the question I have supposed put, how are we to pay for decent houses? It seems to me that, by a great piece of good luck, the way to pay for them is by doing that which alone can produce popular art among us: living a simple life, I mean. Once more I say that the greatest foe to art is luxury, art cannot live in its atmosphere.


The bolded sections are mine, and they are bolded because I think they serve to point to an obvious plague in our world. We have embraced bad taste! I hope that it is sometimes ironic, but I know that it is most of the time the result of an uninformed willingness to be spoonfed trends and fads and the awful greediness of wealth.

There are many problems tied up in an acceptance of organic style ("organic" meant more broadly than a simple reference to the sort of material the clothing is made from).

There is true merit in allowing you style to grow out from within you, just as there is more excellence in living in a home that has been designed by you, or at least with your complete input. No pre-fab houses, no cookie-cutter ensembles. We can use the materials provided us by the convenience of a modern culture, but we need not allow that same convenience to dictate how we use those materials.