Sitting in Islington, reading William Morris as England and the state it forms a part of melt into nothing feels right.
William Morris was a 19th-century socialist, textile designer, writer, speaker and what we now sneeringly* call an “activist”. This collection of four essays written between 1888 and 1894 is massive socialist propaganda, focusing on the destruction of artisanal production in the age of the machine, and looking towards the possibility of a future where beauty and craftsmanship is again recognised as worthy.
Morris was speaking (correct verb, most were speeches) similar ideas to many expressed now, he was railing against a pattern that was fresh, but has continued ever since. Morris was objecting to capitalism, to commercialisation, to mass production, to conformity, to uniformity and to dull, smooth, architecture. Having read this slim volume of under 100 pages, I could surmise with quiet confidence how Morris would have reacted to every major artistic movement over the 20th century, especially as regards architecture. Brutalism, especially structures utilising concrete texturing/surface effects with huge socialist ideology behind them, he would’ve loved. The glass and steel of contemporary skyscrapers, now comfortably into their fifth decade of regularity, he would’ve fucking hated. He’d’ve especially hated the kind of useless work that went on inside them.
Morris is a man who hates office work, almost as much as he hates idleness. In some ways, I found that he made a lotta sense, but in other ways, crucial ways, Morris seemed to believe in the same fantasy world as Jeremy Corbyn does, a world where people share responsibilities and hardship and no one is idle and no one takes advantage of the system and no one is selfish.
In the fantasy of these middle class white men, no one would be selfish because they wouldn’t need to be, everyone’s life would be dreamlike and the required toil society needs to continue (agriculture, mining) would be completed by hardy volunteers when machines couldn’t hack the work. But what about things that need knowledge? Bunkum, Morris believed, doctors and lawyers are charlatans, and would be unnecessary in an ideal world, where no rules would exist and nothing bad would ever happen.
Idealism, idealism, idealism, idealism.
Idealism is a word that’s been thrown around a lot recently, especially by me, because I live a couple of miles away from the centre of Jeremy Corbyn’s fragile empire, and his ideology is very much like that of Mr Morris’: outdated, impractical and reeking of affluent, comfortable, privilege. I hate Jeremy Corbyn, and Useless Work v. Useless Toil forced me to think about him the entire time I was reading. In short, this book made me angry. Though it also made me feel informed. It was a good companion to thought, because my responses to it were regular and engaged. In fact, I enjoyed thinking and learning and confronting opinions both in line and opposed to my own, so would actually say this was a great book for me to read, especially at this point in my life.
One of William Morris’ key interests was in the importance of the decorative arts, of the craftsman and of decorated items, decorated to be beautiful, rather than decorated to retail at a higher price. Morris argued that, historically, every item produced for the home was embellished with carvings and artwork in order to make it more pleasant. Every historic craftsman cared about every individual item he made and thus his pleasure and workmanlike joy (yes, it is a bit patronising) would be expressed through the decor on the chair, barrel, spade, plate, that he made. These kind of items are also known as “folk art”, and this is something I’m keenly interested in as I’m about to start working in the office of a company that sells antique and contemporary folk art. Morris argued with real passion the same things as my new employer does, he sees the disappearance of beautiful items from the average home as a real social loss. He writes, in an essay called ‘Gothic Architecture’ about how utilitarian buildings are dull, whereas the big, grand, cathedrals produced hundreds of years ago are marvellous for their intricate detail, and for their lack of uniformity. The Gothic revivalism of his own century is false and much less charming, he believes, than what it seeks to emulate because it does not look or feel like something organically created by a town full of skilled workers. Every sculpture looks identical, every glass window matches – Gothic architecture, true, Gothic architecture, was visibly created by many individuals, not a Lego-style mass production where everything slots together neatly. 19th century buildings seeking to look like something rooted in ideas of tradition and community whilst syncing up with “modern” ideas of conformity and rigid identicalism would be understandably frustrating to someone also pissed off by the common usage of the phrase “lesser art” to mean decorative (i.e. not High) art.
Morris makes an aggressive and serious point about the risk of all embellishment, all arts, slowly disappearing from society as it becomes more mechanised and more yoked to industrialisation – as household objects maintain their lost beauty, next falls the construction of interesting buildings, then the interior design of homes (whitewashed walls replacing wallpaper), then the words that describe things losing any sheen, then music not being needed, then poetry, then paintings, then society itself, for what is the difference between an ants’ nest and a city without culture?
As beauty becomes depreciated by a capitalist society, the world risks losing everything that makes humans more elevated than the slugs. There is some truth in this statement – think about how many people you know who dress in terrible, comfortable, practical**, clothes, or how many people you know who use the same cutlery in their early 30s that they bought from Poundland the first day they slept in a bed that was theirs but no longer under their parents’ roof. Isn’t this sad?
BUT, and this is the big problem, Morris thinks the way towards a reclamation of detail and decoration and beauty in the lives of the everyman is through the creation of a socialist state. Once the machines have been created to remove all unpleasant labour, the good people who run the country can make sure everyone gets the food and the sustenance they need, and thus the leisure time to create beautiful objects or a beautiful garden or write beautiful prose. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s utterly unfeasible.
Morris is a dream-weaving Corbynista, whose acknowledgement of a sad truth mis-sees it as a solvable problem. It is not.
There are too many people in the world for life to return to how it was 400 years ago, and too many people are selfish, hungry, or eager to make sure they and their family are never hungry. The motivation of selfish action is not always necessarily selfish, but the reality of a world where everyone helps everyone and the state maintains the glorious status quo and moves food around the country to where it is needed is a childish dream. People are dicks, people are selfish, self-important, greedy bastards; power corrupts, and nothing beautiful ever lasts, beauty is something easily broken, easily dead. Morris’ ideas are charming and pleasant, but in reality they are impractical and sadly impossible. Exactly like those espoused by my friend in the North Islington constituency.
A good read, especially for Corbynistas.
* Certainly I presume there’s a sneer in the sentence when the word “activist” is used. I’ve never heard it spoken aloud, so I don’t know whether it can be said without contempt. It would be an interesting thing to find out.
** Definitely a sneer here.
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