Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: Beauty

The Pope, Morris, and the Environment

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, has generated a massive amount of press coverage, commentary and controversy. I really appreciate a Pope who short-circuits the easy and predigested categories of “red” and “blue” politics: he is too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals (meaning, I guess, that he’s an orthodox Catholic). This has caused mass confusion bordering on hysteria among the culture warriors bent on “us vs. them” logic. “Laudato Si” is a plea for a rapid and holistic response to the environmental crisis, and the terms in which Pope Francis couches his argument are familiar to anyone interested in the Arts and Crafts movement. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history,” Pope Francis writes, decrying the evil effects of economic industrialization on the poor and the environment.  There is a suspicion of so-called “progress” and the way technology “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” and sacrifices the economically and ecologically vulnerable along the way. There is an aesthetic as well as moral and spiritual dimension to the Pope’s plea for urgent action: ““The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

For William Morris, the beauty of the natural world was the source and summit of artistic expression. His socialism was in no small measure a response to how capitalism degraded and exploited the environment for profit.  An active member of early environmental and conservation organizations, Morris understood that a vital aspect of restoring joy and dignity to labor would be reintegrating workers with their environment. Labor should belong to the natural cycle of things, not to a system of exploitation and destruction for profit or gain. No one, he wrote, should be “allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape: neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.” Morris would have approved, I think, of Pope Francis’ simple assertion that “everything is connected,” and the implications that follow for how to “care for our common home.”

 

Guardian review of Morris exhibition at National Portrait Gallery

MacCarthy - Morris

Available from Amazon. Click here.

With all the Left Front hullabaloo dying down, I’m finally able to catch up on some overdue reading from the last couple of months. That includes reviews of shows I desperately wish I’d had the time and travel funds to see this past year. Particularly Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960, a National Portrait Gallery exhibition curated by Morris biographer Fiona MacCarthy that closed earlier this year. The exhibition received predictably mixed reviews. I say “predictably” only because Morris remains a controversial and divisive figure — someone whose promethean energy (which found channels in poetry, design, publishing, and socialist politics) is impossible to adequately capture in a single exhibition.

264_Anarchy_Beauty

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That said, a brief review of Anarchy and Beauty by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian manages to be condescending, confusing, and historically inaccurate all in a breathlessly meagre few paragraphs, rendering the author’s negative judgment on the exhibition suspect.

The review begins promisingly enough by protesting that the exhibition reduced Morris to liberal pieties (fair enough: turning firebrands like William Blake and Morris into homegrown heroes evinces the culture industry’s endless ingenuity at de-fanging radical criticism). But it turns out that Jones is impatient with the exhibition’s “nostalgic assumption that [Morris] must be cherished as a hero of the left,” an assumption that “invites the obvious – yet here never contemplated – response that his social vision failed.”

This is a bizarre argument. Morris remains a hero to the left precisely because (not only his) social vision failed (a vision that included environmental conservation, joyful labor, and beauty-infused everyday life) and global capitalism continues to dominate the world economy. Morris vehemently protested the environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and violent imperialism attendant to the “rise of the consumer society”; that is exactly why his social message is as vital and necessary today as in his own time. And in a sentence as condescending as it is ill-informed, Jones writes that Morris “never seems to have understood that his bids to set up alternative, small-scale workshops making things that were unquestionably luxuries would not threaten capitalism at all, but give ideas to entrepreneurs.” Morris never pretended his company threatened capitalism, and it was a source of acute anger that he spent his career (in his own words) “Ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”

Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design

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In a weird bit of non-logic, Jones objects to the way the exhibition so takes for granted “that Morris is an inspiring hero that it forgets to set out a coherent case for his creative achievement.” Well, isn’t making Morris the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery already a (not particularly tacit) case for creative achievement? And asking whether Morris was a great designer (as Jones says he wishes the exhibition had done) would be like asking whether Matisse was a great painter … in an exhibition about Matisse. What’s the point? And Jones seems to have forgotten his skepticism regarding Morris’s designs by the end of the review when he claims that Morris’s “creative brilliance” “helped to build modernism.” But Jones doesn’t even try to make his own case that “Morris was a true revolutionary, but his vision led not so much to the Red Flag as to Matisse’s Red Studio,” since there is simply no case to make. For an informed discussion of the link between Morris and modernism, see Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. When a review is as both negative and nonsensical as Jones’s, it has the opposite effect of making me even more eager to see the exhibition. Unfortunately I’ll have to settle for the exhibition catalog.

Anarchy & Beauty

Anarchy_Beauty. William Morris and His Legacy

Exciting news this month for all William Morris enthusiasts, disciples, aficionados, etc. A major exhibition devoted to Morris opened October 16th in London’s National Portrait Gallery: Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960. It runs through January 11, 2015.

Fiona MacCarthy, author of William Morris: A Life for Our Time (1995) and The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones
burne jones - last pre-raphaeliteand the Victorian Imagination (2012), curated the exhibition, which features work by Morris acolytes such as Eric Gill (subject of a very good McCarthy biography), potter Bernard Leach (author of A Potter’s Book, advocating utilitarian function over “fine art pots”), and Mary Lowndes, the stained-glass designing suffragist.

In related programming, contemporary views on Morris will be offered by an interesting lineup including A.S. Byatt (author of Possession) and Ken Loach, the socialist filmmaker and director of the Palme d’Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley, starring he-of-the-hypnotically-blue-peepers, Cillian Murphy.

MacCarthy - Morris, A Life for Our Time

I’m sorry to admit I’ve yet to read MacCarthy’s book on Morris, partly because I have a hard time imagining anyone could improve on E.P. Thompson’s magisterial William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. But I appreciate that the timeline of her exhibition tracks Morris’s influence well into the 20th century. And the subtitle of her Morris bio (“A Life for Our Time”) expresses one of my firmest convictions about Morris: that his ideas about art, society, labor, and the environment are more relevant and urgent than ever. It sounds like this is a theme of the exhibition as well.

Here’s a sort of trailer for the exhibit:

[youtube width=”580″ height=”400″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sbKcifk8YU[/youtube]