In the first part of “The Art and Craft of the Machine” Wright shows that throughout history the Machine has been used to hinder and ruin Art. Wright’s makes a rather grand statement: “That the Machine has dealt Art in the grand old sense a death blow, none will deny. The evidence is too substantial.” Before Wright can show that the Machine has been injurious to Art he must define what he means by Art and what he means by the Machine. Wright’s definition of Art was “structural tradition, whose craft is fashioned upon the handicraft ideal, ancient or modern.” Key in Wright’s definition of Art is directed labor to create a beautiful effect. Art requires work. The Machine, however is a tool to make work easier and to do work for people. There are many aspects to the Machine, from simple tools to complex industry.
As an example of the way the Machine does damage to Art Wright uses architecture and printing. Wright says, “Down to Gutenberg, architecture is the principal writing-the universal writing of humanity.” Although this concept is at first slightly obscure it begins to make more sense when considered from a historical standpoint.
Many ancient cultures used buildings as a form of “writing.” Early Sumerians built their ziggurats as lasting testimony to their culture and powerful rulers. These forms of expression would last through the years so that people of future generations could “read” about the people that built them. The pharaohs built their pyramids as a similar sort of “writing.” They also used physical writing on their tombs and temples, hieroglyphics about their victories and achievements. To this day archaeologists can read this writing left behind.
Wright’s argument is that the Machine, in this case Gutenberg’s press, made printing a better form of expression. Architecture was no longer the best way to create a lasting effect. It was cheaper and easier to print books that could be disseminated for many people to see. Wright calls the Renaissance “the setting sun which we mistake for dawn.” The Renaissance promoted the beautification of the exterior. Buildings were built for facades, cornings, and other external features. The possibility of beauty in the layout and functionality of the house was no longer important. In one statement Wright summarizes the greatest power and danger of the Machine:
“The Machine is Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that the plastic art may live; that the margin of leisure and strength by which man’s life upon the earth can be made beautiful, may immeasurably widen; its function ultimately to emancipate human expression.”
The Machine gives people a broader palette of expression to work with it. For example, printing gives rise to new forms of Art such as novel writing. However, the ever present danger is to become so dependent on the Machine that Art becomes something too easy. If the Machine makes it easier to accomplish formerly difficult tasks then will people still be willing to do difficult things for the sake of Art?
Wright explains the pattern of human Art: “Every age has done its work, produced its art with the best tools or contrivances it knew, the tools most successful in saving the most precious thing in the world-human effort.” People naturally want to accomplish the most with the least amount of work. But when the Machine makes something easy to do there may or may not be a trade off. One aspect that Wright considers is mass production.
“Here we find the most deadly perversion of all-the magnificent prowess of the machine bombarding the civilized world with mangled corpses of strenuous horrors that once stood for cultivated luxury-standing now for a species of fatty degeneration simply vulgar.”
Wright makes the argument that the Machine cheapens Art. By making it possible to create nearly worthless reproductions of formerly valuable works of art the Machine makes these pieces of art less valuable. Wright views these products of the Machine as “false beauty.”
But according to Wright, these negative aspects of the Machine do not make the Machine itself an evil thing. Any bad results of the Machine are due to misuse. Wright then goes on to describe the proper use of the Machine.
To Wright the important thing about Art is simplicity. Through simplicity the artist can bring out the natural beauty intrinsic in the ingredients that he uses. A favorite example that Wright uses throughout his critical writings about architecture is that of wood. In the past wood was something to be subdued by man. People attempted to carve, twist and form wood to their specifications. The true beauty of wood, epitomized by wood veneer according to Wright, was only available to the rich in the past. Wood veneer took a long time to produce and was therefore very expensive. However, the Machine makes it possible to produce larger, more perfect sheets of wood veneer that are much less expensive. Used properly the Machine broadens the artist’s palette without sacrificing quality.
“Falling Water” is a classic example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural approach of letting nature beautify a structure.
Wright explains his feelings with regard to the Machine’s use and power:
“Now let us ask ourselves whether the fear of the higher artistic expression demanded by the Machine, so thoroughly grounded in the arts and crafts, is founded upon a finely guarded reticence, a recognition of inherent weakness or plain ignorance! Let us, to be just, assume that it is equal parts of all three, and try to imagine an Arts and Crafts Society that may educate itself to prepare to make some good impression upon the Machine, the destroyer of present ideals and tendencies, their salvation in disguise.”
Wright proposes that teams of artisans and engineers make excursions to factories to study the processes available. By studying the Machine and its powers, Wright believes, people will be better able to make use of it as a tool without letting it get out of control. Wright concludes “The Art and Craft of the Machine” with a beautiful description of the Machine itself in all its mechanical complexity. He ends with the words:
And the texture of the tissue of this great thing, this Forerunner of Democracy, the Machine, has been deposited particle by particle, in blind obedience to organic law, the law to which the great solar universe is but an obedient machine.
Thus is the thing into which the forces of Art are to breathe the thrill of ideality! A SOUL!
Wright says that the Machine itself is a creation that is bound to develop piece by piece, ever increasing in complexity. It is up to Art to give this Machine a purpose and a reason.
“The Art and Craft of the Machine” is a very fascinating piece with broad implications and reasonings. Reading it today, I wonder what Wright would think about the modern Information Age. The realm of machines has passed from the mechanical to the digital. No longer are machines as focused on making work easier. Instead they are focused on making thinking easier. What effects does this new Information Machine have on Art? Just as the Machine of Wright’s time needed to be controlled, likewise the Machine of today should be harnessed and directed.
I feel that Frank Lloyd Wright’s “The Art and Craft of the Machine” is a piece that has modern applications and meaning. I would recommend that all people interested in architecture, society, and art read “The Art and Craft of the Machine.”