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.
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.”
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.