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.

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