Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Tag: socialism

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.”

New York Observer review of Left Front

3_geller_untitledfactory_c1930s-p19daoitk31golaags5rbsoAnother very thoughtful take on The Left Front courtesy of David Ebony, writing for the New York Observer. I’m really gratified that Mr. Ebony grasped an important (though not overt) motivation for curating the show in the first place: using the 1930s as a lens through which to consider the relationship between art and politics today:

In the context of today’s relentlessly market-driven art world, with its emphasis on individualistic expression, and success gauged in terms of auction results, the concept of “culture workers” seems a bit like a fantasy that took place in a remote time and place.

This is a crucial point to make about the activist art of the 1930s. I’ve been asked by visitors and journalists whether I think The Left Front is a “dark” or “pessimistic” exhibition. It certainly features art with bleak subject matter: breadlines, police brutality, exploited workers, and the twin evils of industrialized capitalism and fascism. Yet there is a less obvious optimism in the artworks: namely, the profound and deep-seated optimism about the power of art itself. The power of art to change hearts and minds, and the power of artists as “culture workers” linking arms with the organized working class. As Ebony writes:

In one sense, “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ ” is a study of idealism, an examination of a less cynical time, when artists believed that they could actually change the world, or at least contribute to progressive causes in meaningful ways. Theirs was a grass-roots effort, in which artists bravely ran against the grain of the status quo. Whether or not they were successful is practically irrelevant, as their noble aims remain poignant and prescient.

Today, as union members make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and economic disparity gets more extreme by the day, it might be the time for artists and the intelligentsia to take another look at America’s “socialist moment” that is so thoughtfully and skillfully illuminated in this show.