Today the United Kingdom turns into one giant art gallery, with 57 famous art-works from Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of Elizabeth I to Peter Blake’s Pop Art cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album and beyond, appearing on poster and billboard sites up and down the country for the next two weeks. Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts will be glad that Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts, Millais’s Ophelia, Madox Brown’s The Last of England and Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallott are represented here. Those of us with twentieth-century aesthetic interests will be pleased to see a good deal of modernism and postmodernism, and even a sprinkling of political art too (Bob and Roberta Smith’s 1997 Make Art Not War).
It will, I agree, be pleasant to have commercial advertising imagery driven off these public sites for the next fortnight, but does this really constitute ‘bringing art to the masses’, as The Guardian newspaper calls it? Depends what you mean by art, of course; and the great, radical insight of William Morris’s work is given in his insistence that ‘first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art’ (1883). Art for Morris is first and foremost pleasure, creativity and self-direction in the labour process, in the world of everyday work; and art in the conventional sense – works by Hilliard, Millais and Peter Blake – are only spin-offs from this wider social creativity, ‘superstructure’ to its formative ‘base’, to borrow that old Marxist distinction.
In a culture in which, as we have been learning recently, companies such as McDonalds, Sports Direct, Wetherspoons, Boots, Amazon and many others have up to a million workers being ruthlessly exploited by zero-hour contracts, there clearly is precious little creativity, happiness and self-direction in the world of UK work at the moment. ‘Art Everywhere’ is certainly a good Morrisian slogan, but, as he makes clear in his 1884 talk ‘At a Picture Show’, unless you take the demand for art (in the expanded sense) into the world of work – which immediately takes you to socialist and communist politics – you are just pussy-footing round the real issue here in a mild, liberal-philanthropic sort of way.