Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Tag: Arts and Crafts

Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!

Grayson Perry – Alan Measles and Claire Visit the Rust Belt (one side), 2017

The New York Review of Books has a nice review of a recent exhibition of work by English artist Grayson Perry at the Serpent Galleries — “Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!” Perry, an irreverent iconoclast of English art (he won the Turner Prize in 2003), is probably known as much for his cross-dressing and cheeky wit as for his clever ceramic vases. He belongs to the Arts and Crafts tradition of using decorative art as a subversive strategy; his vases, tapestries, woodcuts, and banners blur the lines between high and low culture, fine art and trade-union propaganda.

In an article for London Times back in 2006, “Let the Artisans Craft Our Future,” Perry made his commitment to an artisanal utopian vision clear: “Maybe I am being sentimental and nostalgic about horny-handed men in leather aprons wielding a spokeshave, but I think that there is a place for the commissioned one-off handmade object in our future because, as we know, the future has to be green…Handmade is often a byword for pricey, and local means unadventurous or lack of choice. But what about when the oil runs out and the forests are all cut down, when we can’t just drive to Furniture Barn and buy a table, designed in Scandinavia, made in China with wood from South America, for the price of a round of drinks?”

From the review:

“The deepest appeal [of Perry’s art] lies in the combination of original concepts and craftsmanship. Perry makes his own pots, but most of his art is collaborative and he’s the first to acknowledge the astounding skill of the foundry workers and tapestry weavers involved. He returns constantly, too, to the people’s art, the folk art of Africa, or of Ruritania and Lithuania, the junk creations of outsider artists—like a totemic Alan Measles made from pebbles and sea-shore debris—and to the banners, and the bikes and sheds and graffiti, of “ordinary people.” It’s here, in showing that craft is also “art,” and that it belongs to us all, even more than in his overt political statements, that Perry is truly democratic and profoundly “popular.”

Henry George and Silicon Valley

I’ve done some research and writing on once-popular but now obscure economist, Henry George (particularly his influence on Arts and Crafts colony, Rose Valley). I wrote a short article for the Craftsman newsletter about William Morris’s revealing transition from George fan to harsh critic. But I was resigned to the fact that George’s bestselling 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, is now largely gathering dust on library bookshelves.

George might be having a brief reappearance in the spotlight, however, thanks to a Vanity Fair article discussing George’s relevance to new forms of “unproductive capitalism” such as the finance industry. It’s an intriguing argument. George posited the theory of unearned increment: Land was once held in common, the shared property of all, but over time fewer and fewer people owned land. For these land monopolists, speculating on the ever-increasing value of real estate, “labor” consisted entirely of collecting higher and higher rent, or “unearned increment.” Workers who did not own land had only their own labor to sell. As rents increased, small businesses could no longer afford to lease real estate. That left industrial corporations and conglomerates with the power to monopolize available land.

George’s solution had the advantage of elegant simplicity: only one tax (his famous “Single Tax”) would be necessary to level the playing field. Land (not the means of production) would become the common property of the state. If the government imposed a single tax on unearned increment, the burden would be on the landowners to make their land productive, to produce wealth enough to offset the single tax and still make a profit. Equal access to land would enable laborers to become self-sufficient while employers (land owning capitalists) would have to raise wages to meet the demand for maximizing land value.

What does this have to do with Silicon Valley? Author Michael Kinsley provocatively draws a comparison between “unearned increment” and new finance industries where money begets money:

You’ve got to think of “land” as a metaphor for all unproductive forms of capitalism. Much of the financial industry, for example: hedge funds, private equity, I.P.O.’s and I.R.A.’s. Some might defend finance as an industry that makes the making of what other industries make more efficient. But when you read that Goldman Sachs is getting some enormous fee for fuck-all or that two companies are merging that unmerged a few years ago and will unmerge again in a few years, you gotta wonder.

Take a look at the Forbes 400 list. The No. 1 slot has been occupied for many years by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft. As it happens, Microsoft and Gates are a notable exception: Gates grew rich the traditional way, producing real products that people were willing to pay for. But, as Forbes admits, 93 of the Forbes 400 made their money by just playing with money: “All together this group is worth a combined $491 billion—20% of the Forbes 400’s total $2.4 trillion net worth.”

See the rest of the article here…

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters

Pete Korn - Why We Make Things

Available from Amazon. Click here.

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.”

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

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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.