Art and Handicraft
by Johann WOLFGANG VON GOETHE
All arts begin with the necessary. There is hardly a thing, among all those that we own or use, that we cannot fashion into a pleasant shape, position in a suitable place, and bring into a certain relationship with other things. This natural sense of rightness and propriety, which leads to the first attempts at art, must never desert the artist who seeks to climb the last and loftiest peak, so closely is it linked with the sense of the possible and feasible. These, taken together, are the true basis of every art. And yet, alas, since the very earliest times, human beings have never made any natural progress in the arts, any more than in their civil, moral, and religious institutions. On the contrary, generations have succumbed to mindless imitation, false application of true experience, blind tradition, and complacent inheritance from one generation to the next. All of the arts have suffered to a greater or lesser degree from such influences - as they still do to this day: for our own century, enlightened though it has been in many intellectual matters, has proved less adept, perhaps, than any other in compounding pure sensuality with intellect. And this alone is the way to gener-ate a true work of art.
We are richer in all those things that can be inherited: all the advantages of manual dexterity, the whole mass of mechanical skills. But what seems to have become more of a rarity in our age is that which needs to be inborn: the spontaneous talent that reveals the true artist. I hold nevertheless that it still exists as much as ever it did; but that, being a highly delicate plant, it has found neither the soil, nor the weather, nor the husbandry that it requires.
If we look at those works of art that survive from antiquity, or if we reflect on the descriptions that have come down to us, it becomes evident that, for those nations among whom art flourished, everything they possessed, even the merest utensil, was a work of art and was decorated accordingly.
The work of a true artist bestows on his material an inward and eternal value; whereas the form that a mechanical worker confers on even the most precious metal - excellent though the workmanship may be - always retains a trivial and indifferent quality that can give pleasure only so long as it remains new. This, to me, seems to mark the true distinction between luxury, on one hand, and the enjoyment of true wealth, on the other. What constitutes luxury, as I see it, is not that a rich man possesses many precious things but that he possesses things whose form he must change in order to acquire a momentary pleasure for himself and a certain standing in the eyes of others. True wealth, on the other hand, consists in the possession of things that one can keep for a lifetime, enjoy for a lifetime, and enjoy all the more as one's knowledge increases. According to Homer, a certain belt was so excellent that the artist who made it was entitled to take his ease for the rest of his life.' In the same way, we might say of the owner of that belt that he was entitled to enjoy it for the rest of his life.
Similarly, the Villa Borghese is more opulent, more magnificent, more dignified as a palace than some vast royal dwelling in which there is little or nothing that an artisan or a manufacturer could not have produced.' Prince Borghese possesses what no one but he can possess, and what no one can pro-cure at any price. Over the generations, he and his family will value and enjoy those possessions more, the purer their intellects, the more sensitive their feel-ings, the truer their taste becomes. And with them, over the centuries, many thousands of good, educated, and enlightened persons of every nation will join them in admiring and enjoying those same objects.
By contrast, the productions of the purely mechanical artist can never hold such interest, whether for him or for anyone else. For his thousandth work is like his first; and ultimately it exists a thousand times over. What is more, machinery and manufactures have lately been carried to the highest degree, and commerce has flooded the whole world with pretty, elegant, pleasing, ephemeral objects.
From this it will be seen that the only antidote to luxury - given the possibil-ity and the will - lies in true art and a true artistic response. By the same token, the perfecting of machinery, the refinement of handicraft and factory produc-tion, bids fair to be the utter downfall of art.
Over the past twenty years, we have witnessed an increased public interest in the visual arts; and we have seen the effects of that interest on the ways in which art is talked about, written about, and purchased. Astute manufacturers and entrepreneurs have taken artists into their pay, and with their ingenious me-chanical imitations they have battened on the lovers of art, who are gratified before they are educated. In seeming to gratify the nascent public interest, they have deflected and destroyed it.
The English, for instance, with their modern-antique ceramics, their red, black, and polychrome art, are making vast profits on every side; and yet, properly considered, all this gives no more satisfaction than a plain china vase, a pretty wallpaper, or a pair of fine buckles.
There is now to be a great painting factory, in which, they tell us, they intend to copy any painting, rapidly, cheaply, and indistinguishably from the original, by means of totally mechanical operations such as any child can be employed to perform. If this comes to pass, then of course only the eyes of the common herd will be deceived. In the process, however, artists will be deprived of many sources of support and many opportunities to better themselves.
I close this observation with the wish that it may be of use to some individual, here or there: for the whole is rushing onward with irresistible force.
The theory of decorative art. Edited by Isabelle Frank, New York, Yale University 2000. Copyright 2000.