Wednesday 29 June 2011

J30: Public Sector Strikes and the New Art

‘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.

Saturday 25 June 2011

Namesakes in Morris

Trawling through the Collected Works for any namesakes I can come up with, I’ve had mixed results. There is an Anthony in Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair, and since he serves with the men around Jack of the Tofts, he ought to be a decent, if somewhat rough, sort of chap; but unfortunately he doesn’t actually feature in the work, he is merely named in absentia.

So I then turn to the Anthony who appears in The Water of the Wondrous Isles. ‘He was a grizzled-haired man of over fifty summers by seeming’, so he fits me closely enough in age range. However, he has a nasty voyeuristic habit of spying on attractive young women as they take their daily bath; for as he tells the heroine Birdalone, ‘never saw I ... a fairer body than came like rosy-tinted pearl fresh out of the water while I lay hidden in yonder thorn-brake’. Given the current gender distribution of students in university English Literature Departments, I shall have to be careful not to adopt this particular Morrisian namesake as any kind of role model in my professional life.

So let’s try Morris’s unfinished poem ‘Anthony’. There initially seems rather more hope here, for this Anthony is on his way to Norway to rescue his sister; and I like to think that in the unlikely event that my sister Carole were kidnapped by Vikings, I too would promptly get off my backside and try to remedy the situation. But this Anthony is, all the same, a decidedly doleful figure, a ‘restless helpless loveless man’, as he describes himself, ‘since earth is all at strife with all I am’; and we have anyway no idea how the poem is to end. No real luck with namesakes yet, then; and the quest continues.

Sunday 19 June 2011

New College of the Humanities

There’s much controversy around the philosopher A.C. Grayling’s New College of the Humanities, a project for a new private university which would charge its students an eye-watering £18,000 a year in fees. At a time when the public university sector is in such confusion and crisis (much exacerbated by the managerial brutalism which now dominates it), one can certainly see the temptation to get out altogether; but Grayling’s scheme will, of course, simply entrench educational inequality even faster than the current government is doing so.

But suppose we take the Grayling scheme as a metaphor rather than a reality, as a heuristic tool rather than a politically obnoxious fact. We might then think of William Morris, say, not just as a colourful individual Victorian, but rather as a ‘new college of humanities’ in his own right. What might a student signing up to this Morrisian programme for the humanities actually study?

Well, there would be some busy preliminary learning of languages, which would include Icelandic, Middle English and Anglo-Saxon. There would be practical hands-on sessions in the various ‘decorative arts’ (pattern design, weaving and tapestry, stained glass, calligraphy and so on), accompanied by a rigorous course in the history of all of these crafts across the centuries. There would be intensive modules on Victorian history, painting and poetry (with some attention to twentieth-century developments in the latter two fields).

In the advanced phase of the programme, the languages would be put to work, in the study of sagas, romances and Beowulf. Craft work would move from basic skills and history to original composition in all those different modes. There would be a lively course in the history of socialism and Marxist theory, followed by a survey of utopian writing from Thomas More to Kim Stanley Robinson. Study of medieval romance would eventually give way to more advanced work on the contemporary genre of fantasy writing, from Morris’s own late romances to Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet. And, as with craft work, one would be expected to contribute original work of one’s own in the genres of utopia and fantasy as well as study the masterpieces of the past.

All this to be accompanied by brisk sessions of rowing up and down the Thames and regular participation in political marches and demonstrations to keep body healthy as well as mind; and our three undergraduate years in the Morrisian College of Humanities will, I believe, have been time well spent.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Celebrating Bloomsday

I always tell my students, in a bid to encourage them to read the book, that James Joyce’s Ulysses is simultaneously the most difficult, the most comic and the rudest novel in the English language. The book recounts in stupendous detail the events in Joyce’s imaginary Dublin of 16 June 1904; and this great modernist work is therefore now celebrated every year in that city on that day by a whole host of festive activities. It’s hard to imagine Londoners taking Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to heart in quite the same way.

What would a Morrisian analysis of Joyce’s great novel look like? Morris’s last public talk was given to the Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising, so perhaps he wouldn’t have been wholly sympathetic to Joyce’s hero, the advertising canvasser Leopold Bloom. On the other hand he might have enjoyed the novel's utopian dimension, with its vision of the ‘new Bloomusalem’, and with his own ‘robust and daring parts’ (Burne-Jones’s neat phrase) he might have relished some of its earthy rudeness too.

But a Morrisian analysis is not the same as Morris’s personal literary tastes. The former would focus on that great structural split which tears Ulysses apart right down the middle. On the one hand, we have the uniquely encyclopaedic detail of that vigorous day in Dublin, as Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom and all the others go about their interlinked business. On the other hand, at some radically other level of textual and readerly attention, we have the great mythic underpinnings of the plot, the numinous archetypes embodied by it: Bloom = Odysseus; Stephen = Telemachus; Molly = Penelope.

There is no Hardyesque ‘convergence of the twain’ here. Colourful surface detail and its underlying mythic meaning, the sensory and the semantic, simply do not add up, do not in any way come together; they remain schizophrenically alternative reading modes. All the good work that Morris’s News from Nowhere did in unravelling the stark binary oppositions of capitalism – city vs country, work vs pleasure, gentleman vs artisan - is here undone. Binary opposition reasserts itself forcefully in a mode of modernism that articulates an opaque society whose immediate experience absolutely cannot grasp its underlying structural determinants.

Exuberant though it is in so many ways, Ulysses is tragic in this particular one; and its brand of structurally fissured modernism is, as it were, what you get when the Morrisian revolution does not take place. This, alas, must be the literary-critical ‘skull at the feast’ of today’s merry celebrations.

Kelmscott, Australia; or, Happy Birthday, Auntie June!

Today is not only Bloomsday but also the birthday of my Auntie June in Australia – she and Uncle Bill and their children having emigrated out there from Deal in Kent in 1969 (along with 80,000 other ‘Ten Pound Poms’ in that year). Before she moved to her current address in Armadale, she used to live in Kelmscott, a south-eastern suburb of Perth. I’d always been struck by the name, of course, and for a while (carefully not checking the facts) liked to imagine that it was originally a utopian community set up in the Antipodes by Morrisians who had got tired of the old country and its intractable politics.

Alas, that is not it at all (as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock might say). Kelmscott, Australia was indeed named after Kelmscott, Oxfordshire; but that is because the latter was the birthplace of the first Anglican clergyman in the Swan River Colony, of which Kelmscott was one of the earliest towns. The Reverend Thomas Hobbes Scott lived from 1783 to 1860, and since the antipodean Kelmscott was founded in 1830, it predates William Morris altogether. So we still await a full-blooded Kelmscottian utopian experiment; and happy birthday to my dear aussie Aunt in the meantime.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Bows and Arrows

‘Bows and Arrows’ in literature is the topic of this week’s Guardian Review ‘Ten of the Best’ column, in which (among others) Homer’s Odysseus, George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth and the Tolkienian Elf Legolas all feature by virtue of the memorable quality of their marksmanship.

I would be inclined to add a few more instances from Morris and his contemporaries. Felix Aquila, in Richard Jeffries’s After London (1885), is rather shamefaced about his awesome prowess with the bow, since in the post-apocalyptic feudal society he inhabits it is the sword alone which is considered the noble aristocratic weapon. From Morris’s own copious oeuvre, A Dream of John Ball gives us in its opening Kentish battle a spectacular lesson in the power of ‘one of the most terrible weapons which a strong man has ever carried, the English long-bow and cloth-yard shaft’ (ch.V); and the most gifted of all Morrisian archers, who are surely worthy of comparison with Tolkien’s elvish marksman, are the bowmen of the Woodlanders and the Wolf in The Roots of the Mountains, ‘huntsmen, cragsmen, and scourers of the Waste; men who could shoot the chaffinch on the twig a hundred yards aloof’ (ch.43).

Plenty of archery in Morris, then. I’ve occasionally wondered what the William Morris Society might look like if it modelled its activities and fellowship, not on its hero’s craft or political practices, but rather on the fictional world of his late romances. Might we all then be reaching for our longbows for a spot of target practice with the butts in the fields around Kelmscott manor?

Sunday 12 June 2011

Cycling in Utopia

I’ve written before in this blog about May Morris’s passion for cycling (2 August 2008), but it can hardly be said that this enthusiasm is shared by society at large today. In an interim assessment of the current ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’ study, Dave Horton remarks that ‘many people barely recognise the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange’ (The Guardian, 4 June 2011). So we need to find all the positive images of cycling we can to pit against this indifference or hostility, and utopia, I’m glad to say, offers us a good many.

In A Modern Utopia (1905) H.G. Wells gives us a Darwinianly kinetic utopia which will embody what he calls ‘the travel age of mankind’. Transport systems are accordingly an important part of his futuristic vision, and it is encouraging to know that ‘cycle tracks will abound in Utopia, sometimes following beside the great high roads, but often taking their own more agreeable line amidst woods and crops and pastures’.

Spinning briskly down those genial tracks will presumably be the admirable bicycle that Joanna Russ imagines in her utopian Whileaway in The Female Man (1975), ‘a stout machine, with broad tires (compared to ours) and a receiver for registering radio beacons ... Her bicycle was singing the musical tone that lets you know you’re on course, a very lovely sound to hear over the empty fields’. So there you are: sat-nav decades avant la lettre.

But my favourite utopian bicycles are those in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge (1990), which won’t need H.G. Wells’s cycle tracks at all because they are, after some rugged muscular work to get their propellors going, aerial rather than terrestrial: ‘Kevin would hear a voice from above, and looking up he would see her in her little Hughes Dragonfly, making a cyclist’s whirr and waving down like a sweaty air spirit’ These wonderful flying bikes will certainly take some beating; so let us hope that future utopian writers can rise to the challenge!

Wednesday 8 June 2011

William Morris Pub

Swift visit to Oxford today to see how our son Justin is bearing up after his shoulder operation yesterday. To cheer him up as the anaesthetic wears off, we took him out for a drink to an Oxford pub called ... the William Morris! But lest this conjure up a scene of genial medieval fellowship akin to that in the Rose tavern in chapter two of A Dream of John Ball, I have sadly to inform you that this public house is named not after our socialist William Morris, but rather after the Oxonian capitalist William Morris (1877-1963), who from modest beginnings in his small garage in Longwall Street eventually ran a giant car-manufacturing empire, became Viscount Nuffield and founded a postgraduate Oxford college which he had named after him.

Sigmund Freud has an important essay on ‘the antithetical meaning of primal words’ (1910); and with these two radically opposite William Morrises before us, I think we will have to extend his model to personal names too. The capitalist William Morris has won out over our man, not least in the naming of this pub, but even he can’t in the end escape from antithetical meanings, because the William Morris pub is situated in Between Towns Road in Cowley, which is exactly where Raymond Williams’s fine Oxford novel, Second Generation (1964), begins.

Williams, as a great socialist theorist in the Morris tradition, is interested in the social liminality evoked by that most peculiar street name, the way it indicates an indeterminate no man’s land or ‘border country’ (to use his favourite metaphor) between the dreaming spires of Oxonian middle-class intellect and the hard-pressed working-class lives of the Cowley car factories. So, even if the pub is named after the wrong William Morris, we can down our pints in it in Between Towns Road and warmly remember Williams’s socialist novel as we wipe the froth from our lips.

Friday 3 June 2011

Wearing William and Mrs Morris

‘Wearing William’ is a 75 cm gypsum cast of a male bottom decorated with colourful patterns loosely based on Morris designs; its counterpart, ‘Mrs Morris’ is a little more muted in its colour scheme, but more than makes up for that by its sheer callipygous breadth. Both are the products of Kent-based artist C.J. Munn, and the former featured recently on the BBC’s ‘Show Me The Monet’ show, in which it got the critics’ votes it needed in order to be displayed at the Royal College of Art where, if you were so moved, you could have bought this handsome Morris rump for £2100.

Introducing her sculpture to the panel of critics, C.J. Munn attacked artistic work based solely on ‘shock value’ and argued for a ‘return to a time when old-fashioned aesthetic values become important again’; art shouldn’t just be based on clever instant gimmicks, but should ‘still be lovely in 30 years time’. Well, there’s something a little disingenuous in this. Morris floral designs may have the requisite aesthetic loveliness, but a Morris arse is in itself, clearly, a piece of ‘shock art’; for, as one of the critics aptly remarked, ‘William Morris would be turning in his chintz shroud’.

The Morrisian visual artist David Mabb has said that his own aesthetic aim is to make Morris designs ‘nasty’, which is in his view the only way to prevent them collapsing into kitsch. Do Munn’s male and female Morris bottoms succeed in this? Perhaps to a degree; for the ‘Wearing William’ cast, in particular, disturbingly resembles the whole-body colourful floral tattoos of the Japanese yakuza or mafia. But I think in the end that the graceful organic curves of the Morris-inspired patterns and the organic curves of the human (and particularly the steatopygous ‘Mrs Morris’) anatomy are too comforting, and dissolve the initial visual shock value of the artefacts into contemplative and mildly eroticised pleasure.

‘It’s ridiculous, but yes’, remarked one of the BBC judges in giving his vote. So I’m glad ‘Wearing William’ has graced the walls of the Royal College of Art; anything that draws renewed attention to Morris’s work and thought is a good thing. But we will need more challenging reinterpretations of his designs if we are truly to remake them – to effect a Brechtian Unfunktionierung of them - for our own century.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Morris Kitsch

‘Morris is everywhere’, David Mabb declared at his excellent talk on ‘Morris Kitsch’ at the Society AGM in the Kelmscott Coach House the other day; and in his extraordinary slideshow of artefacts decorated with Morris designs, which included boots, tea-towels, bags, trays, garden tools and even Strawberry Thief bondage knickers, he certainly persuaded an astonished audience that, as he put it, ‘it’s all been Morrised!’

If kitsch takes a challenging form of art and makes it anodyne, mechanical, easily digestible, then Morris kitsch, like any other form, is a cheapening of our hero’s utopian patterns, bleeding them dry of every trace of aesthetic or political radicalism. And yet, on the other hand, many people – as Mabb’s own audience attested - first arrive at an interest in Morris through kitsch, whether this be Daisy notelets or a Willow-decorated bath-towel. Moreover, Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay on ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, gave us a stronger framework for thinking about all this. To have the Mona Lisa on the front of your T-shirt is for Benjamin a welcome democratisation, breaking open the intimidating bourgeois ‘aura’ of the great work hanging on the walls of the Louvre.

I wonder, however, whether a Jacques Derrida-inspired model might be more helpful here. So that it is not just that kitsch supervenes upon Morris’s works from outside, degrading and cheapening them, but rather that a certain ‘kitschiness’ perhaps already inheres in them from the start. After all, could we not argue that Morris ‘kitschified’ his own poetry, as he abandoned the difficult, edgy, angular rhythms of his Guenevere volume for the somnolent mellifluousness of the Earthly Paradise style?

And in the realm of design itself, I wonder if there isn’t a too gentle, genial, lullingly upper Thames-style Englishness in patterns like Daisy and Willow which makes them too easily appropriable for the middle-class consumerist pleasures of kitsch? If Morris had taken his designs from the Icelandic sublime rather than from such bland English beauty, from volcanoes, razor-sharp lava-fields and raging glacial rivers, then there might indeed be some radical resistance in the raw material to any subsequent ‘kitschification’.

So: there may be positive dimensions to kitsch itself (Benjamin), and a certain ‘kitsch-icity’ may anyway inhere in the original. The relations between Morris and kitsch are a complex dialectic, not a simple ethical binary opposition of good versus evil.