‘First I must ask you to extend the word art’, Morris remarks in his great 1883 Oxford lecture on ‘Art under Plutocracy’. He wants his audience to expand the term beyond painting and sculpture to ‘the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds’. But I think we need to take one step further still, and extend the word ‘art’ to encompass tomorrow’s coordinated strike action of so many public sector workers against government cuts to pension provision.
Morris himself, I think, doesn’t quite make that semantic extension. His view of the matter, as expressed in his November 1893 letter on the miners’ strike of that year, is a future-oriented one: ‘The first step, therefore, towards the birth of a new art must be a definite rise in the condition of the workers’. For Morris, every strike is a building block towards an eventual new culture that would itself be aesthetic rather than utilitarian, based on Ruskinian creativity-in-labour rather than the subjection of human inventiveness to the vagaries of the world market.
But one of the big slogans of 1960s identity politics was that you must be the change which you aim to bring about, i.e. that you must incarnate its values in the present, not just project them distantly into the future (thereby separating ends from means), so we therefore need to understand strike action as an aesthetic as well as economic activity. Walter Benjamin made the point even earlier when he noted of ‘refined and spiritual things’ (i.e. aesthetic values) that ‘it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humour, cunning and fortitude’. That Morrisian ‘new art’ is then already at work in us as soon as we actively begin to challenge our political and economic masters.
Art isn’t just something that happens in the Royal Academy summer exhibition in Piccadilly, but will rather be active on our streets tomorrow in the collective protest of so many good people against a rightwing government determined to reinstate Victorian levels of economic inequality.