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Of Art & Work

I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT ENJOY a look at one example of art-as-social-practice in action. Herewith,  Portland State University’s MFA students exhibit their craft at the Portland Museum, Oregon:

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Here we see the social role of the artist being played out in a community setting. It is a wonderful thing. Their heads all point to the center like the spokes of a wheel. The wheel—mankind’s first truly revolutionary mechanical device. It made possible the Industrial Revolution and the very thing that gets your Prius from one place to another. Now, today, 3,000 years later, social practice nerds are paying tuition to reinvent the wheel. God bless them, one and all.

PSU boasts that its program is one of only five such programs in the country. Five is already too many.

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RUMMAGING THROUGH DISCARDED BOOKS at my local dump recycling center, I picked up a lovely little thing, Underneath the Bough, published in Liverpool in 1905. Subtitled A Poesie of Other Men’s Flowers, it is a gathering of thoughts on life and death culled by one Theodora Thompson. Too worn to be considered collectible, the book is still beautiful. The cover, end-papers, title page and frontispiece were all designed by Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933), a member of the Arts and Crafts movement active in Liverpool and well known in his day. Gold tracery on the tooled cover, gilt-edged pages, the stylized plant motifs of Arts and Crafts together with drawings that are somewhere between Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau—all too wonderful not to keep. (Whoever discarded it, perhaps a used book dealer, had marked a price in blue pencil on the end-paper: 50¢. Our heritage goes by on the cheap.)

Below, a sample of Bell’s work:

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The American Society's Yearbook, 1894

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But the best part are the quotations. The qualities of mind they exhibit have an antique flavor. And it is just that revelation of lost sensibilities that is so poignant. It is not just the wording that is out-of-date. It is the heart of the matter: a moral vocabulary that no longer suits our times. Listen:

When he [the artisan] becomes an artist in his vocation, if it be but the shoeing of horses or the making of wheelbarrows, labour becomes sweet and toil inspiring. (Jenkyn Lloyd Jones)

We shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life. . . . No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. (Booker T. Washington)

This, by one Frederick A. Dixon, reads like a chastisement to our culture of celebrity, an much else besides:

Glory is dross! The nobler aim is duty.
This freely do thou do; forego the rest!
The honest purpose makes the truest beauty—
What matter if thou fail? Do but thy best!

Do thy best. Behind that imperative lies an appreciation of the value of work, the dignity of productive activity. Without work to do, all aspiration toward excellence shrivels and dies. Without work, there is nothing to be excellent about, nothing to perfect. What I treasure in this sentence—so completely non-political in its wording—is its implicit rebuke to the culture of unemployment that our betters tell us is the new normal:

One may hope that heaven is a state in which there will be firm footing, free air, and room to work. (F. Baldwin Brown)

A culture that dismisses these old quotes as sentimental is one that is losing its soul. If it has not already lost it.

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© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey