I 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.”
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.”
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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.”
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.
I’ve been a longtime reader and fan of J. Hoberman’s movie reviews for Village Voice, so it’s very gratifying to see his thoughtful take on “The Left Front” for Tablet magazine. He’s correct to note that “many, if not most, of the artists in “The Left Front” are Jewish immigrants or their children. In an essay “On the ‘Jewishness’ of American Jewish Radical Artists,” included in the handsomely designed free broadsheet available at the show, historian Ezra Mendelsohn suggests that the most “Jewish” thing about these artists was “their commitment to universalism”—whether a revolt against parochial tradition or a prophetic vision of a new world.” This is a good point (by Hoberman via Mendelsohn), but would only add that this “commitment to universalism” and “prophetic vision of a new world” dovetailed with the artists’ utopian investments in Communism. “The Left Front” became (for me) an interesting case study in curatorial emphasis; the same artists who appear in the exhibition (Topchevsky, Todros Geller, Louis Lozowick, etc.) could appear in a show about Jewish artists, immigrant artists, or artists employed by the Works Progress Administration. One of the main goals of “The Left Front” was to reclaim a political identity for artists either neglected by art history generally, or else slotted neatly into Cold War narratives of American Abstract Expressionism triumphing over stodgy social realism. So I especially enjoyed Hoberman’s cheeky headline, “Occupy Wall Street! The Jewish CP-Friendly 1930s Version.”
Last 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.
As 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.