When you visit the International Arts and Crafts show, on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through Jan. 22, you'll see a wonderful array of superbly designed objects. From furniture to stained glass, silverware to wall hangings, these things are not only beautiful, they suggest that a better way of living is possible.
The Progressive chapter in American history is rich, if underappreciated in our current political climate. It was a period of avant-garde daring in the arts, scientific discovery and social reforms that included child labor laws and the eight-hour day.
Many of these objects are 100 years old. But the messages they send about what constitutes "the good life" are fresh as can be.
This show hasn't been assembled to blow your mind with other-worldly opulence. There are no jewel-encrusted Easter eggs or gold-plated chamber pots; this is not necessarily the kind of stuff found in the attics of czars or pharaohs. In fact, the Arts and Crafts Movement, which got its start in England in the late 1800s, was less interested in royalty than it was with people like you and me. As Linda Parry and Karen Livingstone put it in their Introduction to the International Arts and Crafts catalogue: "It was originally based on an idealistic set of principles for living and working which were taken up and adapted in many parts of the world to meet specific social and national needs, integrating heritage, local skills and resources."
As the show makes clear, the American Midwest became one of the movement's hot spots. Chicago, of course, was a major engine for architecture and design, and the show gives well-deserved prominence to Frank Lloyd Wright. Overlooked, though, is consideration of the rich Midwestern philosophical, spiritual and political ferment that made a visionary like Wright possible.
Wright came into his own during the Progressive Era. Progressivism was a response to the industrialization and monopoly capitalism that swept the nation at the end of the 19th century. As the scholar J. Ronald Engel has observed in his book, Sacred Sands, Progressivism amounted to a kind of religion of democracy. "Gathered mostly from the farms and small towns of the Midwest hinterland, the Chicago Progressives participated in the myth of the Midwest as the redemptive heartland of the nation that had remained true to the founding Jeffersonian ideals. At its best, their experience of democracy was the experience of equals who, through the give and take of a variety of points of view, and through the pooling of a variety of skills and talents, built a better way of life to be shared by all."
The Chicago Progressives consisted of artists like Wright, Carl Sandburg and Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry Magazine. There were also scientists like Henry Cowles, who initiated the study of ecology. Finally, there were social reformers, like Jane Addams, the creator of Hull House, and Indiana's Eugene Debs, the labor leader and socialist candidate for president, who once said, "Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say it now, that while there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
The Indiana Dunes at the southern tip of Lake Michigan was holy ground for Progressives, a place of great, aboriginal power. In 1917, a pageant to establish a park in the Dunes drew between 24,000 and 40,000 people, many of whom came dressed as Spanish conquistadors, French voyageurs, British soldiers or Miami, Mohegan and Pottawattomie Indians.
Efforts to rescue the Dunes from the encroachments of the steel industry in northwest Indiana epitomized the tension between the desire to preserve our natural resources and the impulse to exploit them. The campaign to save the Dunes, led by an old Progressive, Paul Douglas, U.S. senator from Illinois, resulted in creation of the largest national park in close proximity to a major city in the United States.
The Progressive chapter in American history is rich, if underappreciated in our current political climate. It was a period of avant-garde daring in the arts, scientific discovery and social reforms that included child labor laws and the eight-hour day. As the exhibition at the IMA amply demonstrates, Progressive linkages with the international Arts and Crafts Movement simultaneously expressed a great cosmopolitanism and an intensely felt sense of the local. Bridging these macro and micro ways of relating to the world was a participatory vision of democracy that equally rejected corporate trusts and communism.
In many ways, the artists who made the objects in the International Arts and Crafts show feel like our contemporaries. They wanted to be citizens of the world, but without losing the identities of specific places, customs or their own ways of being. They expressed themselves by making beautiful things. These objects were not meant to pay homage to bosses or big shots. They were acts of resistance to thoughtless force - dazzling reminders that politics begins by paying attention to where we live and who we are.