Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

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.

R.I.P. Catherine Coulson

Ashland, OR, where my family lives, is mourning the passing of a beloved community member and Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor, Catherine Coulson.

Although she played an astonishing array of characters on stage, she will forever be identified with the iconic role of the “Log Lady” on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It’s a pretty awesome legacy, in my opinion (as you might tell by my pen and ink drawing of her in the role), and one that Catherine embraced wholeheartedly. When my dad told her it was my birthday and that I was a fan of Twin Peaks she sent me a signed postcard and reminded me that “the Owls are not what they seem.” It was just one small example of the generosity and benevolence she was known for in the Ashland community. I’m deeply saddened I won’t be able to see her on the boards at the OSF or revel in her resuming her role as the Log Lady for the Showtime reboot of the series, but I know that she’s reunited with her log in the White Lodge.

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters

Pete Korn - Why We Make Things

Available from Amazon. Click here.

Peter Korn’s Why We Making Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman is a smart and engaging bildungsroman — the story of how the pot-smoking, draft-dodging son of a lawyer and doctor became one of the country’s most acclaimed furniture designer-makers. It is no accident, in Korn’s account, that a thoughtful college kid looking for a meaningful life in the early 1970s would turn to “craft” for answers—the road had been laid in the late 19th century by John Ruskin and William Morris, the founding fathers of the British Arts and Crafts movement. “Craft” as a concept—a way of thinking and interpreting the world—arguably begins with the Arts and Crafts challenge to the Industrial Revolution (with its exploited labor, polluted cities, crass commercialism and mass-manufactured commodities). An inheritor of Ruskin and Morris’s theories, Korn draws a parallel between making furniture with “simplicity, integrity, and grace” and arriving at “a vision of how life could and should be lived.”

Peter Korn - woodworking-basics

Available from Amazon, click here.

It is important to remember that “craft” as we understand it (artisanal, handmade, non-alienated, combining manual and intellectual labor) was invented by socialists. It was a politicized concept from the beginning. Craft became a means to designate an aesthetic and social system in radical opposition to prevailing modes of capitalist production. If the Craftsman has become a mythic, Romanticized figure—sure-of-hand, morally upright, and industrious in idyllic surrounding—that owed in large measure to the compensatory and utopian quality of the Arts and Crafts ideas about  the nature of joyful labor, the moral welfare of the worker, the health of society, and the holistic interconnectedness of those issues. As Korn observes, “Furniture, after all, is more than an object of contemplation; it is a prescription for the life to be lived around it.”

Korn’s answers to the question Why We Make Things and Why It Matters closely resemble Ruskin’s and Morris’s before him. Craft offers a practical form of building Utopia. (Utopia considered not as a static place but as a process.) One of Korn’s insights from a life of craftwork is that “a good life was not some Shangri-La waiting to be stumbled upon. One constructed it from the materials at hand.”

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