Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!

Grayson Perry – Alan Measles and Claire Visit the Rust Belt (one side), 2017

The New York Review of Books has a nice review of a recent exhibition of work by English artist Grayson Perry at the Serpent Galleries — “Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!” Perry, an irreverent iconoclast of English art (he won the Turner Prize in 2003), is probably known as much for his cross-dressing and cheeky wit as for his clever ceramic vases. He belongs to the Arts and Crafts tradition of using decorative art as a subversive strategy; his vases, tapestries, woodcuts, and banners blur the lines between high and low culture, fine art and trade-union propaganda.

In an article for London Times back in 2006, “Let the Artisans Craft Our Future,” Perry made his commitment to an artisanal utopian vision clear: “Maybe I am being sentimental and nostalgic about horny-handed men in leather aprons wielding a spokeshave, but I think that there is a place for the commissioned one-off handmade object in our future because, as we know, the future has to be green…Handmade is often a byword for pricey, and local means unadventurous or lack of choice. But what about when the oil runs out and the forests are all cut down, when we can’t just drive to Furniture Barn and buy a table, designed in Scandinavia, made in China with wood from South America, for the price of a round of drinks?”

From the review:

“The deepest appeal [of Perry’s art] lies in the combination of original concepts and craftsmanship. Perry makes his own pots, but most of his art is collaborative and he’s the first to acknowledge the astounding skill of the foundry workers and tapestry weavers involved. He returns constantly, too, to the people’s art, the folk art of Africa, or of Ruritania and Lithuania, the junk creations of outsider artists—like a totemic Alan Measles made from pebbles and sea-shore debris—and to the banners, and the bikes and sheds and graffiti, of “ordinary people.” It’s here, in showing that craft is also “art,” and that it belongs to us all, even more than in his overt political statements, that Perry is truly democratic and profoundly “popular.”

Henry George and Silicon Valley

I’ve done some research and writing on once-popular but now obscure economist, Henry George (particularly his influence on Arts and Crafts colony, Rose Valley). I wrote a short article for the Craftsman newsletter about William Morris’s revealing transition from George fan to harsh critic. But I was resigned to the fact that George’s bestselling 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, is now largely gathering dust on library bookshelves.

George might be having a brief reappearance in the spotlight, however, thanks to a Vanity Fair article discussing George’s relevance to new forms of “unproductive capitalism” such as the finance industry. It’s an intriguing argument. George posited the theory of unearned increment: Land was once held in common, the shared property of all, but over time fewer and fewer people owned land. For these land monopolists, speculating on the ever-increasing value of real estate, “labor” consisted entirely of collecting higher and higher rent, or “unearned increment.” Workers who did not own land had only their own labor to sell. As rents increased, small businesses could no longer afford to lease real estate. That left industrial corporations and conglomerates with the power to monopolize available land.

George’s solution had the advantage of elegant simplicity: only one tax (his famous “Single Tax”) would be necessary to level the playing field. Land (not the means of production) would become the common property of the state. If the government imposed a single tax on unearned increment, the burden would be on the landowners to make their land productive, to produce wealth enough to offset the single tax and still make a profit. Equal access to land would enable laborers to become self-sufficient while employers (land owning capitalists) would have to raise wages to meet the demand for maximizing land value.

What does this have to do with Silicon Valley? Author Michael Kinsley provocatively draws a comparison between “unearned increment” and new finance industries where money begets money:

You’ve got to think of “land” as a metaphor for all unproductive forms of capitalism. Much of the financial industry, for example: hedge funds, private equity, I.P.O.’s and I.R.A.’s. Some might defend finance as an industry that makes the making of what other industries make more efficient. But when you read that Goldman Sachs is getting some enormous fee for fuck-all or that two companies are merging that unmerged a few years ago and will unmerge again in a few years, you gotta wonder.

Take a look at the Forbes 400 list. The No. 1 slot has been occupied for many years by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft. As it happens, Microsoft and Gates are a notable exception: Gates grew rich the traditional way, producing real products that people were willing to pay for. But, as Forbes admits, 93 of the Forbes 400 made their money by just playing with money: “All together this group is worth a combined $491 billion—20% of the Forbes 400’s total $2.4 trillion net worth.”

See the rest of the article here…

Athletic Aesthetics: Art, Craft and Bolton Brown

I contributed a short essay about ornery and trailblazing lithographer / mountaineer / painter, Bolton Brown, to the the latest issue of Art in Print. Here’s the first paragraph:

Bolton Coit Brown (1864–1936) liked to set himself seemingly insurmountable physical and artistic challenges. Best known today as the collaborating printer of George Bellows’s (1882–1925) great lithographs of the 1920s, Brown was also an accomplished mountaineer and a serious artist in his own right. He made several coveted “first ascents” in the Sierra Nevada in the 1890s, and played a key role in the founding of the Arts and Crafts community of Byrdcliffe, in Woodstock, New York, in 1902. In 1913 one of his paintings (now lost) was included in the Armory Show; and in the 1910s, when he was over 50, he revived the languishing fine art of lithography in the United States.

Check out the rest of the essay here. 

William Morris (1834-1896)

Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful – all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth. Nor can I think of anything worth having which does not come under one or other of these heads. But think, I beseech you, of the product of England, the workshop of the world, and will you not be bewildered, as I am, at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes – and sells?

— William Morris, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” (1884)

Henry George and William Morris

Henry George - Progress and PovertyThe Journal of the Craftsman Farms Foundation has published a short article I wrote, “The Aesthetics of Social Reform: Henry George and William Morris” in their latest issue, adapted from a talk I gave at the Craftsman Farms Emerging Scholars Symposium back in fall 2013.  The topic is Morris’s increasing disenchantment with Henry George’s Single Tax plan as a panacea to solve society’s ills. I focus on the difference between unearned increment (George’s theory of rentier exploitation) and surplus value (Marx’s theory of capitalist exploitation) to help account for why Morris threw his lot in with Marx, not George. In Morris’s view, George’s study, Progress and Poverty (1879), for all its merits, ultimately  failed to account for why poverty persisted (even thrived) in the most advanced civilizations — a problem that persists to this day.

Here’s the PDF: Craftsman Farms – George and Morris

Here’s the first few paragraphs:

It is difficult now to grasp the magnitude of Henry George’s influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Currently gathering dust in libraries, George’s 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, was a sensation in its day; the 3 million copies sold in the United States made it one of the century’s bestselling books, inspiring a quasi-religious following (“Georgists”) and a political movement. An early version of the board game Monopoly was invented to introduce players to George’s ideas.

William Morris, the British poet-craftsman-socialist, was initially a George enthusiast. The American economist had made a triumphant tour of England in 1882, and Morris admired his trenchant attacks on competitive capitalism and industrial society. Yet throughout the course of the 1880s, as Morris became a more active and committed socialist, his attitude towards George markedly soured. Morris went from thinking of George as a prophet of socialism to one of its most insidious enemies; private admiration curdled into public opposition. For Ruth Kinna, author of William Morris: The Art of Socialism (2002), “Morris’s disenchantment with George’s work marked the first major shift in his thinking.”

What was this shift? To measure Morris’s about-face regarding George, we have to measure the distance he traveled from enthusiasm to eventual disappointment. Whatever his conclusions, Morris at least thought George was asking the right questions. How can it be, George wondered, that: “Where the conditions to which material progress everywhere tends are most fully realized—that is to say, where population is densest, wealth greatest, and the machinery of production and exchange most highly developed—we find the deepest poverty, the sharpest struggle for existence, and the most enforced idleness.”

Voldemort as Richard III

Richard III - Ralph Fiennes LondonOver at Bardolatry my mom has a vivid review of Almeida theater’s production of Richard III starring the brilliant Ralph Fiennes (best known for playing Voldemort from the Harry Potter films). Fiennes has racked up an impressive list of villains on stage and screen: Amon Goethe (Schindler’s List), Voldemort, and now Shakespeare’s most wickedly charismatic villain (well, maybe a close second to Iago…), Richard III.

One night this spring, my eldest daughter and I stayed up half the night, US West Coast time, to snag tickets the moment they went on sale for this production. Knowing that the theatre was small and the stars big, we figured tickets would go fast. We even bought a membership in the Almeida so we could book a week early.

 Two hours and untold server crashes later, we got ’em. At an incredibly affordable price, membership included.
And I’m delighted to report that our efforts were far from wasted. The Shakespearean highlight of our 2016 England trip during this, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, was easily our attendance at this fantastic, frightful, ferocious, and occasionally funny production, directed by Rupert Goold and starring Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave.
Read the rest of the review here…

RIP David Bowie

Ashes to Ashes, stardust to stardust…

In Conversation with Regina Mamou

regina mamouI had the pleasure of talking recently with the talented and thoughtful artist Regina Mamou about her site-responsive installation, Electrum, at Chicago’s Mission Gallery (1431 W. Chicago Ave). CAN-TV was on hand to film our conversation, which ranged over the last five years or so of her work, including the 2012 photographic series that originally brought her to my attention, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. Much of the conversation revolved around Regina’s abiding interest in blurring the boundaries between science and spirituality, the visible and the invisible, and the ways mechanical devices such as cameras or electropsychometers fail (poignantly, frustratingly) to capture the ineffable. In my review of Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (a series of photographs of defunct utopian communities) I wrote, “seeing the unseen, the mystery—this comes close to the heart of Mamou’s project, I think.”

Check out Regina’s website here.

My review of that series for Contemporaneity is available here.

Our gallery conversation is available via CAN-TV’s YouTube channel:

A Fair and Foul “Macbeth”

Macbeth (2015)Over at Bardolatry, my mom has an insightful review of the new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, directed by Justin Kurzel.

I cannot tell you with what excitement we in Clan Murphy anticipated the Michael Fasbender/Marion Cotillard Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel. The trailers looked amazing. This, we all thought, was going to be the adaptation we’d been waiting for–cinematic, powerful, spooky. We were there the first showing of the first day it opened here in Ashland at the Varsity.

And yet we left the theatre a little less than two hours later disgruntled. Or at least, as Bertie Wooster might say, less than gruntled.

Twin Peaks theory

Twin Peaks Gold EditionWhile Twin Peaks fans have been mourning the loss of Log Lady, Catherine Coulson, we’ve also been eagerly anticipating the reboot and wondering how it’s going to fill that log-shaped void. Twin Peaks was a sensation when it premiered in 1989; no one had ever seen anything like it on primetime national television. What strikes most folks on first viewing, understandably, is how bizarre the show is. (One of my favorite bits of dialogue: Dale Cooper to Sheriff Truman: “Who’s the lady with the log?” Sheriff Truman: “We call her the Log Lady.”) An FBI agent who employs Zen Buddhist detecting techniques? A dancing dwarf in a red room? A giant who gives cryptic clues? A schizophrenic one-armed shoe salesman? What the hell is going on? (Given the nature of the “Black Lodge,” that might actually be the right question.)

A few things struck me on second viewing. First, the second season (or let’s say everything after the Laura Palmer plot has been “resolved”) is not as bad as I remembered. It helped that I skipped all the scenes involving James and Nadine. Heather Graham was not as terrible as I had first thought—her stilted delivery could generously be ascribed to her character’s awkward attempt to readjust to society after a spell in a convent—and her character actually is an intriguing love interest for Dale Cooper (although Cooper’s IQ seems to plummet precipitously once he turns doe-eyed suitor.) But the second season’s bad guy, Wyndham Earle, is a poor man’s Hannibal Lecter and a tired cliche compared to the chthonic terror of Bob.

Twin Peaks tarotAnd that, I think, is what made the Laura Palmer story arc so deeply satisfying. All the Lynchian weirdness spiced up what is, in essence, an ancient and archetypal story. Twin Peaks is a medieval allegory. Bob is the dragon terrorizing the village. Laura Palmer is “virgin” princess (the Prom Queen) made sacrificial victim. Dale Cooper is the Knight in shining armor, defender of the good and upholder of an ancient code of honor. Sheriff Truman is the trusted squire and noble companion. Andy is the Village Idiot. Benjamin Horne is the gluttonous King (are there any scenes of him not eating something?) and Catherine the malevolent Queen. The Log Lady is the Mystic (or maybe her log is? Or Sergeant Briggs?). Harold is the Hermit (J’ai une âme solitaire.) And so on. The whole dramatis personae is effectively a Tarot deck (an idea some clever artist has actually exploited.) Twin Peaks at its best taps into deep, powerfully unshakable archetypes—the weirdness is the just the garnish.

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