It is notorious that in their selection of serviceable goods in the retail market purchasers are guided more by the finish and workmanship of the goods than by any marks of substantial serviceability. Goods, in order to sell, must have some appreciable amount of labor spent in giving them the marks of decent expensiveness, in addition to what goes to give them efficiency for the material use which they are to serve. This habit of making obvious costliness a canon of serviceability of course acts to enhance the aggregate cost of articles of consumption. It puts us on our guard against cheapness by identifying merit in some degree with cost. There is ordinarily a consistent effort on the part of the consumer to obtain goods of the required serviceability at as advantageous a bargain as may be; but the conventional requirement of obvious costliness, as a voucher and a constituent of the serviceability of the goods, leads him to reject as under grade such goods as do not contain a large element of conspicuous waste.
It is to be added that a large share of those features of consumable goods which figure in popular apprehension as marks of serviceability, and to which reference is here had as elements of conspicuous waste, commend themselves to the consumer also on other grounds than that of expensiveness alone. They usually give evidence of skill and effective workmanship, even if they do not contribute to the substantial serviceability of the goods; and it is no doubt largely on some such ground that any particular mark of honorific serviceability first comes into vogue and afterward maintains its footing as a normal constituent element of the worth of an article. A display of efficient workmanship is pleasing simply as such, even where its remoter, for the time unconsidered, outcome is futile. There is a gratification of the artistic sense in the contemplation of skillful work. But it is also to be added that no such evidence of skillful workmanship, or of ingenious and effective adaptation of means to an end, will, in the long run, enjoy the approbation of the modern civilized consumer unless it has the sanction of the Canon of conspicuous waste.
The position here taken is enforced in a felicitous manner by the place assigned in the economy of consumption to machine products. The point of material difference between machine-made goods and the hand-wrought goods which serve the same purposes is, ordinarily, that the former serve their primary purpose more adequately. They are a more perfect product—show a more perfect adaptation of means to end. This does not save them from disesteem and deprecation, for they fall short under the test of honorific waste. Hand labor is a more wasteful method of production; hence the goods turned out by this method are more serviceable for the purpose of pecuniary reputability; hence the marks of hand labor come to be honorific, and the goods which exhibit these marks take rank as of higher grade than the corresponding machine product. Commonly, if not invariably, the honorific marks of hand labor are certain imperfections and irregularities in the lines of the hand-wrought article, showing where the workman has fallen short in the execution of the design. The ground of the superiority of hand-wrought goods, therefore, is a certain margin of crudeness. This margin must never be so wide as to show bungling workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would be evidence of low cost.
The appreciation of those evidences of honorific crudeness to which hand-wrought goods owe their superior worth and charm in the eyes of well-bred people is a matter of nice discrimination. It requires training and the formation of right habits of thought with respect to what may be called the physiognomy of goods. Machine-made goods of daily use are often admired and preferred precisely on account of their excessive perfection by the vulgar and the underbred who have not given due thought to the punctilios of elegant consumption. The ceremonial inferiority of machine products goes to show that the perfection of skill and workmanship embodied in any costly innovations in the finish of goods is not sufficient of itself to secure them acceptance and permanent favor. The innovation must have the support of the canon of conspicuous waste. Any feature in the physiognomy of goods, however pleasing in itself, and however well it may approve itself to the taste for effective work, will not be tolerated if it proves obnoxious to this norm of pecuniary reputability.
The ceremonial inferiority or uncleanness in consumable goods due to "commonness," or in other words to their slight cost of production, has been taken very seriously by many persons. The objection to machine products is often formulated as an objection to the commonness of such goods. What is common is within the (pecuniary) reach of many people. Its consumption is therefore not honorific, since it does not serve the purpose of a favorable invidious comparison with other consumers. Hence the consumption, or even the sight of such goods, is inseparable from an odious suggestion of the lower levels of human life, and one comes away from their contemplation with a pervading sense of meanness that is extremely distasteful and depressing to a person of sensibility. In persons whose tastes assert themselves imperiously, and who have not the gift, habit, or incentive to discriminate between the grounds of their various judgments of taste, the deliverances of the sense of the honorific coalesce with those of the sense of beauty and of the sense of serviceability—in the manner already spoken of; the resulting composite valuation serves as a judgment of the object's beauty or its serviceability, according as the valuer's bias or interest inclines him to apprehend the object in the one or the other of these aspects. It follows not infrequently that the marks of cheapness or commonness are accepted as definitive marks of artistic unfitness, and a code or schedule of aesthetic proprieties on the one hand, and of aesthetic abominations on the other, is constructed on this basis for guidance in questions of taste.
As has already been pointed out, the cheap, and therefore indecorous, articles of daily consumption in modern industrial communities are commonly machine products; and the generic feature of the physiognomy of machine-made goods as compared with the hand-wrought article is their greater perfection in workmanship and greater accuracy in the detail execution of the design. Hence it comes about that the visible imperfections of the hand-wrought goods, being honorific, are accounted marks of superiority in point of beauty, or serviceability, or both. Hence has arisen that exaltation of the defective, of which John Ruskin and William Morris were such eager spokesmen in their time; and on this ground their propaganda of crudity and wasted effort has been taken up and carried forward since their time. And hence also the propaganda for a return to handicraft and household industry. So much of the work and speculations of this group of men as fairly comes under the characterization here given would have been impossible at a time when the visibly more perfect goods were not the cheaper.
It is of course only as to the economic value of this school of aesthetic teaching that anything is intended to be said or can be said here. What is said is not to be taken in the sense of depreciation, but chiefly as a characterization of the tendency of this teaching in its effect on consumption and on the production of consumable goods.
The manner in which the bias of this growth of taste has worked itself out in production is perhaps most cogently exemplified in the book manufacture with which Morris busied himself during the later years of his life; but what holds true of the work of the Kelmscott Press in an eminent degree, holds true with but slightly abated force when applied to latter-day artistic book-making generally—as to type, paper, illustration, binding materials, and binder's work. The claims to excellence put forward by the later products of the bookmaker's industry rest in some measure on the degree of its approximation to the crudities of the time when the work of book-making was a doubtful struggle with refractory materials carried on by means of insufficient appliances. These products, since they require hand labor, are more expensive; they are also less convenient for use than the books turned out with a view to serviceability alone; they therefore argue ability on the part of the purchaser to consume freely, as well as ability to waste time and effort. It is on this basis that the printers of today are returning to "old-style," and other more or less obsolete styles of type which are less legible and give a cruder appearance to the page than the "modern." Even a scientific periodical, with ostensibly no purpose but the most effective presentation of matter with which its science is concerned, will concede so much to the demands of this pecuniary beauty as to publish its scientific discussions in oldstyle type, on laid paper, and with uncut edges. But books which are not ostensibly concerned with the effective presentation of their contents alone, of course go farther in this direction. Here we have a somewhat cruder type, printed on hand-laid, deckel-edged paper, with excessive margins and uncut leaves, with bindings of a painstaking crudeness and elaborate ineptitude. The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity—as seen from the point of view of brute serviceability alone—by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spelling, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic feature which fixes the economic place of artistic book-making, there is the fact that these more elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee—somewhat crude, it is true—that this book is scarce and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer.
The special attractiveness of these book-products to the book-buyer of cultivated taste lies, of course, not in a conscious, naive recognition of their costliness and superior clumsiness. Here, as in the parallel case of the superiority of hand-wrought articles over machine products, the conscious ground of preference is an intrinsic excellence imputed to the costlier and more awkward article. The superior excellence imputed to the book which imitates the products of antique and obsolete processes is conceived to be chiefly a superior utility in the aesthetic respect; but it is not unusual to find a well-bred book-lover insisting that the clumsier product is also more serviceable as a vehicle of printed speech. So far as regards the superior aesthetic value of the decadent book, the chances are that the book-lover's contention has some ground. The book is designed with an eye single to its beauty, and the result is commonly some measure of success on the part of the designer. What is insisted on here, however, is that the canon of taste under which the designer works is a canon formed under the surveillance of the law of conspicuous waste, and that this law acts selectively to eliminate any canon of taste that does not conform to its demands. That is to say, while the decadent book may be beautiful, the limits within which the designer may work are fixed by requirements of a non-aesthetic kind. The product, if it is beautiful, must also at the same time be costly and ill adapted to its ostensible use. This mandatory canon of taste in the case of the book-designer, however, is not shaped entirely by the law of waste in its first form; the canon is to some extent shaped in conformity to that secondary expression of the predatory temperament, veneration for the archaic or obsolete, which in one of its special developments is called classicism. In aesthetic theory it might be extremely difficult, if not quite impracticable, to draw a line between the canon of classicism, or regard for the archaic, and the canon of beauty. For the aesthetic purpose such a distinction need scarcely be drawn, and indeed it need not exist. For a theory of taste the expression of an accepted ideal of archaism, on whatever basis it may have been accepted, is perhaps best rated as an element of beauty; there need be no question of its legitimation. But for the present purpose—for the purpose of determining what economic grounds are present in the accepted canons of taste and what is their significance for the distribution and consumption of goods—the distinction is not similarly beside the point. The position of machine products in the civilized scheme of consumption serves to point out the nature of the relation which subsists between the canon of conspicuous waste and the code of proprieties in consumption. Neither in matters of art and taste proper, nor as regards the current sense of the serviceability of goods, does this canon act as a principle of innovation or initiative. It does not go into the future as a creative principle which makes innovations and adds new items of consumption and new elements of cost. The principle in question is, in a certain sense, a negative rather than a positive law. It is a regulative rather than a creative principle. It very rarely initiates or originates any usage or custom directly. Its action is selective only. Conspicuous wastefulness does not directly afford ground for variation and growth, but conformity to its requirements is a condition to the survival of such innovations as may be made on other grounds. In whatever way usages and customs and methods of expenditure arise, they are all subject to the selective action of this norm of reputability; and the degree in which they conform to its requirements is a test of their fitness to survive in the competition with other similar usages and customs. Other thing being equal, the more obviously wasteful usage or method stands the better chance of survival under this law. The law of conspicuous waste does not account for the origin of variations, but only for the persistence of such forms as are fit to survive under its dominance. It acts to conserve the fit, not to originate the acceptable. Its office is to prove all things and to hold fast that which is good for its purpose.