Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: Real Utopias

Theaster Gates and William Morris

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.

wpid-theaster_gatesAsked 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.


Capitalism & Socialism conference in New Harmony

New Harmony conferenceLast month I had the pleasure of delivering a paper at a conference sponsored by the Center for Communal Studies (University of Southern Indiana) at New Harmony: Capitalism & Socialism: Utopia, Globalization, and Revolution (Nov. 6-8). My paper—“Joy in Labor: William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Utopia”—explored a theme central to my work (and to this blog): the Arts & Crafts aspiration (“utopian”? that, indeed, is the question) of achieving a society based on joyful labor in a healthy relationship to the environment. I’ll be posting selections from the paper over the next few weeks, but I just wanted to offer some general comments about the conference itself, which was richly rewarding and stimulating.

Wright - Envisioning Real UtopiasAs a historically utopian community itself, New Harmony was an appropriate venue for thought experiments in alternative models of living: political, cultural, and social. “Utopia” as a theme threaded through the conference. Erik Olin Wright, a Marxist sociologist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, delivered a keynote lecture on “Real Utopias” derived from his book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), which considered alternatives within and beyond capitalism.

Wright is a charismatic, thoughtful speaker (not relying on a prewritten text or even notes) and his talk explored intersections of the “real” and the “utopian” with some compelling (if not always totally convincing) examples: public libraries (yes!), Wikipedia (I get the idea – it’s a collective enterprise available for free, but Wikipedia has its problems), different forms of currency (currency measured in “labor time” as opposed to exchange value), workers co-operatives, urban agriculture (community gardens and farms), and the universal basic income. Wright’s website is a treasure trove of material made freely available, but visit only if you have plenty of free time and an insatiable intellectual appetite.

Other books by Erik Olin Wright:

American Society: How It Really Works (2011)

Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (several editions)


And here’s a taste of Olin Wright’s smart but approachable speaking style: