A Guardian article/interview with Chicago-based artist, Theaster Gates, makes it clear that the “poster boy for socially engaged art” has a lot in common with William Morris. It’s unsurprising that Morris’s commitment to art as anti-capitalist activism would resonate with contemporary artists. His interest in the relationship between craft, labor, and the environment still seems ahead of its time, not to mention his trenchant criticisms of a capitalist system in which art is reduced to an exchangeable commodity, sold to the highest (richest) bidder, such as the recent sale of a Picasso for a mind-boggling $179 million.
Asked if he were a superhero Gates says he would be the Unknown Craftsman: “You know! Mask and cape, making anonymous interventions, changing the city forever.” Sounds like a man after Morris’s heart. Gates, son of a roofer, adheres to a “philosophy of pride in things done well, made well,” which he calls part of his “strategy of hope” for urban renewal and repurposing houses in low-income neighborhoods. His first show at White Cube was called My Labor is My Protest, an apt expression for Morris’s insistence that joyful labor would help combat social ills. Like Morris, Gates is interested in workshop practice and communal production, investing in wood and metal shops. When asked directly if William Morris influences his work, he answered:
“I think, as William Morris realised, as new power structures emerged, some things were being lost for ever. I am into that. I’d rather have a communal cinematheque than Netflix, so I’ll make one. The people I work with, they love each other now. They are like family. All of the scales are exciting for me, from wanting to make a pot to getting 60 people to make something well. It’s the same feeling. We believe in the things we make.”
The fact that Gates, one of the most exciting contemporary artists working today, shares many of the same values as William Morris (and is confronting many of the same entrenched social problems) proves the ongoing relevance of Morris’s thought. I think Morris would consider Gates one of history’s “pilgrims of hope,” using labor as a form of protest and work as a form of communal uplift and renewal.