Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: British Socialism

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.”

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters

Pete Korn - Why We Make Things

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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

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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.”

Guardian review of Morris exhibition at National Portrait Gallery

MacCarthy - Morris

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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]