Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left (Marxism and Culture)

Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left (Marxism and Culture)

by Andrew Hemingway

ISBN: 9780745323305

Publisher Pluto Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Reference, Arts & Photography/History & Criticism, Nonfiction/Politics, History/General, Children's Books/Arts & Music, Nonfiction/Social Sciences

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Sample Chapter


William Morris: Decoration and Materialism

Caroline Arscott

From the late 1870s William Morris delivered lectures on art and society, and published articles on the subject, seeking to promote a new vision of art that would rescue it from the position to which it had been relegated by modern social conditions. His involvement in liberal anti-war politics in the period 1876-78 and his subsequent involvement in socialist politics in the 1880s and beyond led him to articulate a politicised art theory that ought to be recognised as the first English-language attempt to produce a Marxist theory of art. The debate over whether Morris's Marxist politics were compatible with his art practice (producing handcrafted luxury goods for bourgeois consumers) is a tired one and I do not intend to repeat the standard terms of the debate, which is one with which Morris himself was wearily, if anxiously, familiar. Walter Crane's comment on the fact that Morris produced 'costly things for the rich' while campaigning for socialism puts the issue starkly in terms of the alternative, within a capitalist era, of making cheap goods for the common people. He explained Morris's view that

according to the quality of the production must be its cost; and that the cheapness of the cheapest things of modern manufacture is generally at the cost of the cheapening of modern labour and life, which is a costly kind of cheapness after all.

The questions that this chapter seeks to address are: 'How did Morris's politics shape his understanding of the nature of art?' and 'What currents of thought were available to Morris to help him develop his aesthetic theory?' I suggest that, although he was working in the absence of an established repertoire of Marxist writings on art, cultural debates in the latter part of the nineteenth century foregrounded the question of development and degeneration. The terms of these debates and the polarisation of positions that emerged played a part in the way he understood art. It is well established that Morris's concern over the state of modern art and craft production, his efforts to put modern art into a historical perspective and his efforts to lay out the prospects for art derived in part from John Ruskin's example. Ruskin in his early works, such as Modern Painters (1843-60) and The Stones of Venice (1851-53) laid the groundwork for Morris's view of the pitiable state of modern art and craft in comparison to the flourishing, expressive and idiosyncratic work of medieval producers. Ruskin insisted on two central suppositions: that the artistic standards of an age are an index of the religious and ethical values of that age and that they were shaped by the conditions under which artistic labour was undertaken. Modern art and architecture were seen to be lacking; the remedy was to address the values of the age and the social organisation of labour. Morris adopted and adapted these tenets to produce a body of theory very different in its political complexion from the often conservative or reactionary work of Ruskin. This chapter aims to add some other reference points, not as documented sources for Morris's thought but as intellectual resources, some of which he could have accessed, directly or indirectly, to contribute to his formulations about the link between art and society, and the question of the development and/or decline of art.

In a memoir, George Bernard Shaw recalls that Morris became friendly with him following Shaw's denunciation of the book by Max Simon Nordau, Degeneration (1892). Nordau was a physician who had moved into journalism and had emerged as a prominent social critic. Morris read the English translation which appeared in 1895 and expressed disgust at the following attracted by the book. Nordau, drawing on Cesare Lombroso's sociological writings, characterised the cultural products of the modern age as degenerate. The whole culture was displaying pathological symptoms, he argued, 'a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria' which involved 'weakness of the higher cerebral centres', failings in the functioning of sense perception and excessive preoccupation with licentious ideas. Altogether these indicated a sickness in society at large comparable to the effects in an individual of an exhausted nervous system. Morris was attacked by name, along with Ruskin and the English Pre-Raphaelites, who were said to display the mystical tendency (as were Baudelaire, Verlaine, Tolstoy and Wagner). The recurrent faults, 'vague and incoherent thought, the tyranny of the association of ideas, the presence of obsessions, erotic excitability and religious enthusiasm', were thought to mark out these artists as degenerates as surely as the earlobes or cranium, or the give-away tattoos, of a criminal, prostitute, anarchist or lunatic. Their 'anthropological family' was, Nordau claimed, akin to that of the atavistic social deviants documented by Lombroso. These artists, who were effectively modern savages, were spreading the plague of aesthetic debauchery: 'every one of their qualities is atavistic', 'they confound all the arts, and lead them back to the primitive forms they had before evolution differentiated them'. Nordau, like Ruskin, was concerned with the link between art and society, and the question of aesthetic retrogression. He drew on right-wing anthropology and psychiatry to stigmatise the advanced practitioners in European art, music and literature and to drum up a sense of cultural crisis, calling for purity committees to undertake vigilante action and for the medical and psychiatric profession to publish denunciations of public figures. It is not surprising that the venerable Morris was disgusted, not least because Nordau's broad-brush cultural critique was hailed by some as powerful and vested in a principled socialism. The Daily Chronicle, for instance, reviewing another translated work by Nordau with Degeneration, said 'the book is a fervid revolutionary protest in which much powerful political, economic, and social criticism is blended with the declamatory rhetoric, the Secularism and Socialist platforms.' Nordau was particularly poisonous because he adopted some of the assumptions and strategies on which Ruskin and even Morris depended. The tradition of allying social criticism to aesthetic judgement, the summary presentation of large sweeps of history and the rhetorical move of evoking a future in which current conditions had worsened disastrously were to be found in Ruskin and Morris. In this chapter I will be suggesting, in addition, that anthropology, the resource of Nordau, was a relevant reference point for Morris's writings on art too, though not the right-wing anthropology of Lombroso. It was possible for Morris to give a positive value to 'primitive' people, to understand artistic impulses as existing in 'primitive' society and even to take on something of the identity of 'the savage'.

Even outside the scholarly books and journals of the anthropologists it is clear that the idea of a modern primitive sensibility had some currency as a positive quality. Andrew Lang in his essay of 1886 for a general middleclass readership, 'Realism and Romance', suggested that civilisation is laid on over a savage interior, and consequently mankind would still thrill to the wildness of adventure and the marvels of romance despite the effects of the rational side of modern existence. Lang was a friend of Morris and we can assume that Morris was familiar with his ideas. He was arguing for the value of a rousing story such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped as superior in some ways to the grim realism and intellectual rigour of a work by Dostoyevsky. He imagined a future man who has lost the hair and nails that modern man possesses as heritage of his wild past, but stated that, for the present, there is a taste for those tales that 'may be "savage survivals"' telling of battles and monsters. 'Not for nothing did Nature leave us all savages under our white skins: she has wrought thus that we might have many delights, among others "the joy of adventurous living" and of reading about adventurous living'. The white skin may be, he is arguing, a sign of our advanced civilisation, our increased civility and urbane manners, but what about the savage self that survives under the surface, under the skin, or in the extruding hair and nails? Lang the poet, classicist, collector of fairy tales and writer on folklore and totemism is surely referring with the phrase 'savage survivals' to Edward Tylor, who was well known for his arguments about savage survivals in Primitive Culture (1871). Tylor set out to refute the idea that inhabitants of primitive cultures were devoid of intelligence and lacked any religious sense, and above all he wished to challenge the idea that existing 'primitive' peoples are to be understood as having degenerated from a former state of higher culture. Degeneration could occur in pockets but overall the history of humankind showed a continuity and a progress, he thought. According to Tylor modern culture in games, certain kinds of ritual, and superstitions contained survivals of an early sense of religion. These survivals were used by him as evidence for the continuing existence of a religious sense which could be traced back to earliest society where belief in spiritual beings or, as he termed it, animism coexisted with a practical rationality and problem solving, a 'rude, shrewd sense taking up the facts of common life'. The one constant feature of human society from its dawn to modern times was a belief in spiritual entities. The greatest rupture was not between savage and civilised man, but that occurring in modern times between those who acknowledged the existence of divine being and those materialists who denied the existence of God. Tylor then, with his model of development rather than degeneration, envisaged an affinity between modern people and primitive people. The liberal implications of this formulation made it a version of the savage-in-the-modern which stood at the opposite extreme from that account of the degenerate modern savage given by Nordau.

Late nineteenth-century investigations of folklore and non-European culture and debates about the vigorous or exhausted condition of modern western society were subtended by the involvement of the European powers in imperialist adventures. When Morris came to read Nordau's Degeneration in 1895 or 1896, in the last year of his life, he had been active in left-wing politics for well over a decade; 1883 was the year in which he had read Marx's Capital. As has often been recounted (most vividly by E. P. Thompson) he was drawn into politics through the anti-war movement of 1876-78, when the Conservative government's foreign policy, in support of Turkish involvement in Bulgaria, became the focus of agitation. It is significant that his path into politics was marked by opposition to imperialism and that he maintained a robust opposition to imperialism in his writings until the end of his life. This in turn inflected his formulation of a politicised aesthetic. As his political views developed he became alive to the limitations of Gladstone's bourgeois liberalism and moved towards the explicit class politics of Hyndman's Democratic Federation, which he joined in January 1883. For the rest of his life he involved himself in the day-to-day work of the revolutionary socialist movement, maintaining a position against the parliamentary road proposed by Hyndman and Aveling and later, in 1890, against the anarchist politics of Lane, Kitz and Mowbray.

Morris in his art theory encouraged the practice of handcraft with its possibilities for individual expressiveness. He allowed for a temperate use of the machine to reduce labour, but with the proviso that in a capitalist mode of production the machine was inevitably annexed to the drive for profit and the inequitable class system. The extraction of surplus value had made it impossible for machines to be used rationally for the abatement of toil. His scathing comments on the tag 'labour-saving' as a description of machines in modern capitalist enterprises (when they were just saving wages and boosting output) and his positive regard for handcrafted goods might lead one to assume that he was hostile to the machine per se, but a close reading of his comments shows that this is not the case. He could conceive of the benefits of the use of machines. The worker would have to decide. The decision to compromise, and sacrifice the verve and pleasing quirkiness of hand finish for the speed and convenience of machine production, might indeed be reasonable, he argued, but that compromise could only really be assessed and accepted in some other (future) era, in which the machine and the worker were freed from the exigencies of accumulating profit and the worker existed in social equality with his or her fellows. It is clear then that Morris's art theory after 1883 only really concerns the role of art in socialist society; he can merely consider its adumbration in the capitalist era. As such, art is the locus of hope for the future and simultaneously the vehicle of regret for what is impossible in the present. It is entirely characteristic of Morris that the hope and the regret should be twinned in this manner. So he found handwork commendable but could not exactly be said to advocate a return to handcraft (and here the distance from his mentor John Ruskin is crucial). Handwork should allow the worker to take pride and pleasure in producing something, whether plain or ornamental – and will do so in a communist era. Indeed it will allow all workers to participate in the making of art and to realise most fully the human potential for aesthetic activity. Ornament would then arise from the fact of unalienated labour, where the pleasure and satisfaction that existed already in making a utilitarian object were simply amplified by the beautifying of it, in conditions where sheer need did not preclude the spending of additional time on the object. Morris considered that art serves two purposes: the enhancement of leisure in the contemplation of art and the channelling of energies in pleasurable work. In capitalism it cannot truly fulfil either purpose and yet there is an assumption in Morris that is of central importance for the case argued in this chapter, that the taking of pleasure in art is a constant factor in human society, only forfeited under the most extreme conditions.

As he contemplated the slide of the world into intensified misery, that bleak alternative to the victory of the working class and the founding of a socialist society, Morris imagined the extinction of hope, the degradation of the working class pursued to such an extent that overwork, dirt, ignorance and brutality came to have total sway. The loss of hope would be the extinction of the feeling for art in the working class; art then is an index of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. Its extinction in the defeat of the working class would be mirrored by the inability of the ruling class to experience or foster aesthetic pleasure. He imagined the burdening of the world with hideous high-tech structures driven by a perverse science. He imagined as the only outcome 'some terrible cataclysm' and a revisiting of the primitive struggle with nature for survival. I should point out that there is always a degree of ambivalence in Morris's account of the functioning/ malfunctioning of art in capitalist society. This dystopian vision is here offered as a horrible alternate future. At times though, it stands, in his accounts, as the wretched state of existence at the present. He pushed the dystopian vision further. The visiting of 'some terrible cataclysm' would at least be a deliverance from the unhealth and injustice and despair of class society where the ruling class has definitive unchallenged sway. The benefit would be the eventual revival of an inherent feeling for art in a reprise of human development.

Man may, after some terrible cataclysm, learn to strive towards a healthy animalism, may grow from a tolerable animal into a savage, from a savage into a barbarian, and so on; and some thousands of years hence he may be beginning once more those arts which we have now lost, and be carving interlacements like the New Zealanders, or scratching forms of animals on their cleaned blade-bones, like the pre-historic men of the drift.

Excerpted from "Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left (Marxism and Culture)" by Andrew Hemingway. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Hemingway. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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