Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Blake and the End Times

Photo credit: The Block Museum of Art

On Feb. 7th I had the privilege of participating in a public program organized by the Block Museum (Northwestern University) as part of its William Blake in the Age of Aquarius exhibition. My talk considered the way artists and intellectuals in the sixties looked to Blake as a prophet of nuclear apocalypse. In his book Where the Wasteland Ends, Theodore Roszak — who popularized the word “counterculture” in the late 60s — argued that Blake spoke to an “apocalyptic era” threatened by nuclear holocaust. Blake “saw in the steady advance of science and machines,” Roszak wrote, “a terrifying aggression against precious human potentialities—and especially against visionary imagination.” For Roszak, Blake had embodied modern society’s self-destructive hyper-rationality in the figure of Urizen, the

William Blake – Ancient of Days

personification of abstract law, order, and reason – seen measuring the universe with a compass in the iconic Ancient of Days. In a seminar on Blake, poet Allen Ginsberg claimed the “triumph of Urizonic mentality is the “neutron bomb.” As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “A madman isn’t someone who’s lost his reason. He’s someone who has lost everything except his reason.” Urizen, for Roszak and Allen Ginsberg, prefigured the kind of insane “reason” Kubrick satirized in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and the Blakean Bruce Conner in his Bombhead (2002).

Ivan Albright – Newberry Library Seminar

John Murphy in front of Ivan Albright’s ‘And Man Created God In His Own Image’ (1930/31)

On January 26 I enjoyed workshopping a paper on the enigmatic and provocative Chicago painter Ivan Albright (1897-1983) as part of the Newberry Library’s seminar on American Art and Visual Culture. The seminar took place at the Art Institute of Chicago, so we were able to bring some Albrights out of storage to look at them in all their gruesome glory, including And Man Created God In His Own Image (1930/31). Here’s my abstract for the paper, titled “Flesh: Ivan Albright’s Weird, Ugly Realism”:

When avant-garde French painter Jean Dubuffet visited Chicago in 1951, there was one artist he wanted to meet: Ivan Albright. By 1951, Albright had established a reputation as one of American modernism’s most inscrutable and independent artists, a “master of the macabre” best known for his painstakingly executed paintings of morbid subjects: decaying bodies, rotting doors, and funereal still lifes. “There are few pictures as alarming as those of Albright,” said Dubuffet; Albright had abolished totally “what were our canons of beauty,” and swept away “all the criteria of order.” Dubuffet, a champion of art brut (raw art), recognized in Albright a kindred spirit, an antihumanist who employed Old Master techniques in order to undermine the most cherished beliefs and values of Western civilization. Drawing on archival research and unpublished source material (including Albright’s fifty notebooks housed at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries), I argue that Albright, who seemed to have few contemporaries as a painter, is more productively understood as an antihumanist philosopher investigating the “aesthetics of ugliness” and the flat ontologies of humans and objects. Albright’s paintings offer a disturbing parody of empiricism—his obsessively detailed transcription of the visible world (it could take him up to ten years to finish a painting) result in unmooring objects from their apparent stability and opening up fissures in the ground of reality. The “horror” of Albright’s paintings, I conclude, owes less to their ostensible ugliness or morbidity than to this profoundly unsettling sense that an unfathomable reality lurks beneath the phenomenal world.

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius

New York Times art critic Holland Cotter has selected William Blake in the Age of Aquarius as one of the best art books of 2017. Stephen Eisenman’s essay for the catalog is a rich monograph unto-itself, detailing the ways artists in the decades after WWII discovered in William Blake an intellectual and artistic hero who challenged established views about war, sex, religion, law and nature. The great WJT Mitchell closes the catalog with a brief but trenchant reflection on how Blake might “help us see the madness of our own times with a new clarity.” My contribution to the catalog, “Building Golgonooza in the Age of Aquarius,” considers Blake’s influence on utopian communalism in the 60s and 70s, particularly his vision of Golgonooza as an eternal “city of art” to which all creative laborers contribute. The exhibition is currently up at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art (Northwestern University, Evanston, IL) through spring 2018.

Review of Counterculture Conference

I had the pleasure of attending an interdisciplinary academic conference in San Francisco, “Revisiting the Summer of Love, rethinking the counterculture,” on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love.” Co-sponsored by Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement and the California Historical Society, the conference offered a compelling “history-from-below” focused more on grassroots community organizing and coalition-building than the usual suspects (Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, et al). The editors of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture  gave me the opportunity to reflect on the conference and offer some summary/synthesis. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:

The season has passed into myth: San Francisco’s 1967 “Summer of Love,” a sybaritic outpouring of song, sex, dance, poetry, and drugs when tens-of-thousands of young people flooded into the Haight-Ashbury district in search of a hippie utopia. That winter the Human Be-In marked a “gathering of the tribes” in Golden Gate Park: Allen Ginsberg chanted, the Grateful Dead provided the soundtrack, the Diggers distributed free food, and Timothy Leary enjoined the crowd to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” By then the North Beach beat bohemia had flowered into the Haight-Ashbury’s psychedelic subculture, with musicians, poets, and artists living semi-communally in rundown Victorian houses. The “San Francisco Five” designed iconic acid rock posters for performances by the likes of the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish at the Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore. The Monterey Pop Festival made legends out of then relatively unknown performers, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Fifty years later, another “gathering of the tribes” convened in San Francisco – nearly 175 scholars, students, archivists, activists, and counterculture veterans – to make sense of what had happened half-a-century earlier. Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement partnered with the California Historical Society to present “Revisiting the Summer of Love, Rethinking the Counterculture,” an interdisciplinary academic conference with the stated goal of “celebrating and reexamining the Summer of Love and its associated events, contexts, and implications.” Director of the Center, Dan Lewis, outlined some of the ambitions for the conference in his introductory remarks. He hoped that participants would model new methods and approaches to a period too often caricatured in pop culture or dismissed in academic circles. He issued, in effect, an institutional mandate for universities to get serious about the counterculture, to “reset the agenda,” in his words. In his plenary address, historian Michael J. Kramer (Northwestern University) suggested a methodology drawn from the counterculture itself: a “kaleidoscopic” openness to history as multifaceted, open-ended, and variegated, oscillating psychedelically between micro- and macrocosmic perspectives.

Here’s a link to the review.

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…
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