Culture, Opinion

The Plight of the “Traditional Arts”

Something must be done! Turkish reaction to the outcomes of industrialization, consumerism and urbanization must find a unique way to challenge the Zeitgeist, and this must involve both the idea of the self and the experience of the West.
10 min read

Nowadays the word “traditional arts” is in vogue in various symposia organized mostly by universities and municipalities. As globalization sweeps away the local characters, conventions, and traditions left over from the modernization of the previous centuries, such efforts to preserve and revitalize major elements of a lost civilization can only be considered tentative when compared to the similar reactions that the West had experienced in the last two centuries.

Other than the problem of combining the word “tradition” with the non-traditional word “art”, the retreatment or appropriation of traditional crafts in artistic terms today requires much more than personal initiatives.In nineteenth century Britain, those who wanted to tackle the same problem had found a traditional way to get organized: the guilds. In the pre-modern World, guilds were the organizations of craftsmen, from shoe makers and carpenters to painters and masons, which imposed rules and offered solidarity to the members. Generally speaking, the members of the guilds continued the traditions and techniques of the crafts they took over from their masters. The Renaissance artist, however, was an individual creator and had the license to change traditions. Throughout the four centuries since the Renaissance, Western arts, crafts and architecture incessantly transformed due to the dynamism brought by the concept of fine arts.

In the nineteenth century, in Britain many artists sought new ways to introduce art into society, when machine production and unskilled labor threatened free artistic production. The resistance of romantic artists required a gathering of forces, and as a result, the guilds of the Middle Ages were recalled. It was first Welby Pugin who, in as early as 1836, presented the Christian Middle Ages as an alternative to the present time corrupted by mechanized industry. It was also he who first pointed out the problem of ornament, which was for him once an ecclesiastical language. Pugin’s campaign for restoring the values of Medieval Christian communities by means of restoring the values of “Christian architecture” did not go unheard. On the contrary, it started a movement that changed the course of arts and architecture in the West. Especially the ideas of cooperation and solidarity of skilled craftsmen, and their hand-made production of meaningful ornaments, beautiful objects and buildings captured the imagination of at least two generations who sought for the preservation of artistic freedom through solidarity and collective production of brothers organized around modern guilds.

Pugin’s campaign for restoring the values of Medieval Christian communities by means of restoring the values of “Christian architecture” did not go unheard.

Pugin’s immediate follower, John Ruskin, analyzed the medieval artists’ soul rather than the vocabulary of the forms he produced. The moral principles Ruskin derived from the Gothic through interpretation – principles which were heavily depended on nature as God’s creation – were to shed light on contemporary artistic production. Because in his writings the handwork of the medieval artisan was elevated to the level of highest art, Ruskin can be considered the founder of the moral philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was also critical of the various outcomes of capitalism in society. The St. George Community which he had founded in 1871 was to be the first modern guild and agricultural cooperative, but Ruskin’s nervous breakdown prevented him from fulfilling his dream of a modern agrarian society where Nature would once again be the major inspiration for the arts.

The penetration of socialist ideas among the middle and upper classes in Britain helped pseudo-medieval collectivism to gain wide currency, especially in the romantic world of the artists. William Morris started his prolific career in such an atmosphere. The company Morris founded in London in 1862 for the purpose of producing hand-made household items for average middle class people set the standard for the cooperation of artists and craftsmen – a modus operandi which would be called Arts and Crafts. Morris aimed to transfer the techniques of the crafts to art, and the aesthetics of art to the crafts, and thus to connect utility with beauty.  As a result, the work would no longer be the impersonal labor offered to the capitalist and become once again an artistic craft, which was the key to make the meaningful environments of the pre-industrial past. To that end, Morris tried and succeeded in revitalizing old craft techniques in order to produce new art forms.

Meanwhile, modern guilds followed one after another. The Art Workers’ Guild was founded in 1884 by five young architects from the office of Norman Shaw, whose major inspiration were English country houses. In 1888, Charles Robert Ashbee started the Guild of Handicraft, which became a model for many other Arts and Crafts societies in Britain such as Newlyn, Keswick, Surrey and Birmingham. Ashbee’s carrying the guild from London to a small town named Chipping Campden in 1902 testifies to the eagerness of socialist architects and artists to create a utopian community outside the present one, although the experiment failed.

The Century Guild of Artists, which was founded in 1882 by three artists headed by Ruskin’s protege, Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, seems to be a turning point in the development of the guilds. The Century Guild was not open to new memberships, but invited freelance contributions to be produced by the Guild, so that it would not exercise pressure on the independence of the artists – a model which would be followed by similar organizations in Germany like the Vereinigten Werkstätten für Kunst im Handwerk. The separation of the approaches is very clear in Mackmurdo’s introduction to the first issue of the Guild’s journal, the Hobby Horse, in which he criticized Morris for mixing art with big matters like politics. For Mackmurdo, instead of seeking the naturalist or realist representation of the world, the artist should reflect his inner world in his work. The individualistic and psychological approach towards artistic representation would be the distinguishing characteristic of Art Nouveau in Continental Europe.

Created by progressive designers and architects around the turn of the century and generally with the motivation of creating psychological effects with mystic scenes, Art Nouveau is distinguished from its precursor in Britain by its lack of real socialist objectives. By quickly dominating the aesthetics of any consumer goods, Art Nouveau as a style proved that aesthetics, or design, had serious value in the market. It was perhaps the most important factor behind the erosion of the historical or traditional elements in the realm of artistic production. It was – as it is now – so important that designing the aesthetics itself became a central issue for the national policies of manufacture shaped by the powers of influence around the state, especially in Germany during the Wilhelmine and Weimar Republic periods. In that country, reaction to the social and environmental problems caused by industrialization had on the one hand created the rather traditionalist Heimatschutz (Protection of the Homeland) movement, and paved the way for the rather modernist Kunstgewerbe (Arts and Crafts) movement on the other.

The national Kunstgewerbe organization in Germany, the Verband des Deutschen Kunstgewerbes was created partly by the efforts of an architect affiliated with the German state, Herrmann Muthesisus, who had studied the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain for around six years. The same Muthesius initiated in 1907 an elite and even more progressive organization named the Deutsche Werkbund, following the ideas of the politician-thinker Friedrich Naumann. Muthesius and Naumann were both against the historicism supported by the landlord aristocracy (junker) and advocated a new attitude towards the values of the urban (bürgerlich) society.

With its efforts to bring together modern aesthetics and industrial techniques, Bauhaus became a world famous school of modern design.

As a politician and a thinker, Naumann’s main objective was to prevent class struggle and socialist revolution, and for that objective he was seeking a pragmatic synthesis between nationalism, socialism, liberalism and Christianity. Unlike Art Nouveau artists like Henry Van de Velde, who romantically believed creating a “beautiful environment” was the key to the solution of social problems, Naumann had practically found the link between aesthetics and welfare. His key concepts were business and quality. Even art works needed buyers and the mass produced goods were the real market for the application of modern arts and crafts, that is, the design. The “culture of visible things” (Kultur des Sichtbaren) has been an important issue since the Kunstgewerbe discussions. But Naumann believed that neither the appearance, nor the physical quality of the objects produced would be enough. He believed that the conditions of work were also essential for the Qualitätsarbeit, which involved the design of the work place, humane working hours, the democratic participation of workers in the direction of the production, and even sharing the profit with workers. All in all, Germany’s competition in the world market depended on quality, and quality was to be represented both by design and living.

In 1919, Walter Gropius, an architect and member of the Werkbund, took over the direction of the Weimar Kunstgewerbe school and rearranged it as a common space for the education of various crafts, like a modern school of guilds. The school, which was later moved to Dessau and renamed as the Bauhaus, included in its staff famous avant-garde artists like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy. With its efforts to bring together modern aesthetics and industrial techniques, Bauhaus became a world famous school of modern design. After the Second World War, the United States and many other countries adopted the model of the Bauhaus for design education. Thus the history of artists’ struggle against the industrialized capitalism ended up with coming to terms with the mass-consumer markets.

Turkey has today become an industrialized nation, 90 percent of whose population is urbanized. Any panorama from any urbanized part of the country – whether from 70 years ago or recent years – will leave no doubt that Turkish society is not interested in the aesthetics of tradition, except in mosques. Among many other things, the fact that the erosion of traditional material culture occurred before industrialization became the major dynamics of the society, proves that Turkish culture does not inhere ideological barriers against change brought by the introduction of new material cultures. Besides, the intellectual reactions to industrialization and capitalism in the West, which is very shortly summarized above, has almost no equivalent in Turkey today or in any other part of the developing world. This, of course, is not always a good thing.

Like many industrialized Eastern nations, people in Turkey are also experiencing the alienation to the idea of the self, whether they are aware of it or not.

Like many industrialized Eastern nations, people in Turkey are also experiencing the alienation to the idea of the self, whether they are aware of it or not. The efforts to continue the tradition of Ottoman crafts (“traditional arts”), or adding Seljukid-Ottoman architectural motifs to despicable public buildings will not solve the problem, as nothing really has been intellectually problematized. As a final blow it should be said, that the story of revitalizing craft traditions in the West shows us that in industrialized capitalism, art can only serve the aesthetic value of an object as the design, with the intention to make it more preferable than others – a fact which does not leave much space for the so-called “traditional arts”.

After all, something must be done! Turkish reaction to the outcomes of industrialization, consumerism and urbanization must find a unique way to challenge the Zeitgeist, and this must involve both the idea of the self and the experience of the West. The disconnection between self-identity and the built-environment will remain an acute problem if traditions will be seen only as techniques or forms, because traditional techniques and forms cannot compete with global trends. The solution may be in looking for a new culture of vision, a unique Kultur des Sichtbaren, and that culture may be derived from our traditions.

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Dr. Civelek is currently teaching architectural design, history and theory of architecture at the School of Architecture and Design, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakıf University, Istanbul, Turkey.