William Morris and the Politics of Artistic Production

Jonathan Dyck

In 1889, William Morris delivered a lecture titled “The Arts and Crafts of Today,” which addressed the degraded state of labour and commerce in industrial England by working through the question of art’s purpose in everyday life. Not simply an indictment of late Victorian society, Morris’s lecture functions as a manifesto, justifying his radical position to an audience of artists while laying out the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement. Like the manifestos of later design movements, such as The Bauhaus, Morris’s lecture assumes a close relationship between what he calls the “applied arts” and the complex form of society at large. For both movements, the design manifesto is a polemical call to all creative labourers to recognize their collective capacity to overturn and transform the status quo; it is an attempt to articulate an alternative vision of society in which art does not simply mask reality but actually improves it.

Modernist aesthetics can be seen as a direct engagement with the question of technology and its increasing dominance within industrial capitalism. In this way, the lineage of early twentieth century movements like The Bauhaus can be traced back to Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. If the design manifesto is itself the outgrowth of a modernist attitude toward art and life, it retains the same dialectical impulse that drove Morris to understand the applied arts as a sign of collective solidarity: it is at once critical of its immediate context and pragmatic about how to change it. As Morris’s 1889 lecture demonstrates, the rise of the applied arts as a discipline directly follows from art’s confrontation with capitalist modes of production and social inequality.

In a landscape saturated with advertising and mass production, the applied arts provided Morris with tangible opportunities for intervention. His 1889 lecture recognizes this discipline as a site of labour that must be reconciled with degraded labour of the industrial factory. Art, according to Morris, has two related purposes. The first purpose has to do with use and consumption: art adds beauty to functional objects, it enables the enjoyment of everyday activities. Here, Morris suggests that in some forms of human labour (certain moments in agriculture, fishing, carpentry, etc.) beauty is already inherent in nature, or it would be if we recognized that this sort of work is necessary and dignified. Art’s second purpose is to add pleasure to labour. Nature again figures into this definition because it models this relationship for us by making necessary activities like eating enjoyable.

For Morris, the vast separation between art and life was symptomatic of England’s social and economic inequality. In his lecture, he points out that artists frequently fixate on a particular style or method and consequently lose sight of what that style might achieve. Such artwork finally expresses nothing more than the vanity of the artist: his self-satisfied ability to render a “clever” product, which simply mystifies and alienates his audience rather than working towards its edification. Within the conditions of capitalism, art cannot be commonly experienced: it becomes the lofty domain of aristocratic enjoyment; meanwhile, the factory work that sustains England’s economy is stripped down to bare utility.

Removing art from utility does not make utility somehow more neutral; it rather works against the human spirit and against social progress. If we simply adhere to utility, suggests Morris, we have the choice between two dystopian futures. Either society will be organized in a way that allows for the exploitation of the many by the few (fascism), or, as a strict system of compulsory egalitarianism, not unlike the form of communism that would later envelop Eastern Europe. In either case everyday life is defined by the drudgery of work, which destroys creativity and instrumentalizes human energy.

In contrast, the true work of art for Morris must point to the unified bond of true society, where every individual endeavour is grounded, inspired, and made possible by collective interest. In this way, Morris’s philosophy was grounded in the “constructivism” that would come to define the avant-garde in the early twentieth century: art is distinguished not by the finished product but by the social process that surrounds it and makes possible its creation (McGann 56). For Morris and, later, for The Bauhaus this impulse toward collective interest culminated in the work of architecture. In “The Bauhaus Manifesto” Walter Gropius suggests argues that arts and crafts must work together in unity in order to create complete objects, the most important of which is “the complete building.” Like Gropius, Morris recognized architecture as a way to understand how art and life could influence one another. Even the fine arts, such as painting or sculpture, must be considered within the context of architecture and can aid in the construction of a unified space. The building, argues Morris, is “a unit of art”: it is the pure expression of the lives of its builders and inhabitants. What bound these two groups together in previous societies was a common tradition. By Morris’s time, that tradition had been superseded by the irrational demands of the market, all of which have led increased specialization and alienation for working classes. In this setup, ornamentation (what used to belong to the domain of art) is mass produced as an afterthought to utility, the ultimate purpose of which is to quicken commerce. The end of objects produced in this kind of context is profit, pure and simple. Beautiful work can therefore only be oppositional because it must, by definition, take into account the mutual conditions of production and consumption.

In his lecture Morris sees the buildings of industrial Britain standing in stark contrast to the cathedrals of the middle ages, not only because of their orientation towards commerce, but because such spaces reduce workers to blunt instruments. Because he is driven solely by commercial interest, Morris argues, the capitalist will either have machines do work of production or rely on “human machines”: workers whose desire and creativity must be channeled into spare moments of leisure time. Under such conditions, the working classes are doomed to produce objects of mere utility. In other words, if ornamentation does make an appearance in factory products, it has no purpose beyond the self-interest of those who own the means of production.

Where other social critics of Victorian England, such as John Ruskin or Thomas Carlyle, valourized work as an inherently ennobling activity and risked having their arguments used to justify the further exploitation of the working classes, Morris was convinced that simple labour reform would not solve the problems of capitalism (Breton 43). Commerce, according to Morris, can only encourage exploitation and treat beauty as a superfluous ornament. When those engaged in the applied arts take seriously their conditions of production, they cannot but be aligned with rebellion. For Morris the free labours of applied artists are therefore the concrete appearance of utopian possibility; they carve out a space of critique and a space of hope. Such work, in other words, reminds us of what the industrial age has forgotten: that labour can be pleasurable, that social equality is attainable, and that both possibilities depend on one another.

Jonathan Dyck blogs at Church Going. He is a co-editor of the Catholic Commons

Works Cited

Breton, Rob. “WorkPerfect: William Morris and the Gospel of Work.”Utopian Studies 13.1 (2002): 43-56.Gropius, Walter. “The Bauhaus Manifesto.” Maria Buszek, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.

McGann, Jerome. “‘A Thing to Mind’: The Materialist Aesthetic of William Morris.” Huntington Library Quarterly 55.1 (Winter, 1992): 55-74.Morris, William. “The Arts and Crafts of Today.” Marxists Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.
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2 thoughts on “William Morris and the Politics of Artistic Production

  1. Great article. Do you know if William Morris ever interacted with the work of F. D. Maurice? There seems to be a lot of resonance there. I wonder if Morris was influenced by Maurice, or if he interacted with any of the Christian socialists.

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