Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Crafts in a Time of Crisis

My blog is relatively weak on the crafts side of Morris, I have to acknowledge that, though I hope it compensates on the literary and political dimensions of his work. Fortunately we do have other blogs out there which give stronger coverage of the arts and crafts aspects; see, for example, ‘William Morris Fan Club’ and ‘William Morris and Quilting’. But after a week in which so many English cities have seen such violent social unrest, perhaps it isn’t amiss to try and restate (as I understand it) the importance of craft activities in the wider Morrisian scheme of things.

When I read last week’s announcements about restoration of the Morris embroidery known as the Lanercost Dossal (kept just up the road from me at Lanercost Priory in Cumbria), my first thought was: hum, is this not a rather remote and antiquarian bypath when our cities are burning and our fellow-citizens are being killed (both by police bullets and by rioters’ violence)? And I think, yes, one does initially have to keep that extraordinary disjunction of different social realms – delicate embroidery versus flames in the streets – firmly in mind.

And yet it is, after all, surely the crucial importance of Morris that he brings these two things – craft activities and social upheaval – inextricably together. So my second and better thought is: it is precisely because capitalism cannot give its citizens work which has the kind of dignity or creativity which the Lanercost Dossal or any other craft artefact embodies (and oftentimes cannot offer them any work or hope at all), that people in their frustration at what Morris famously terms ‘useless toil’ (or no toil at all) will rise up in sporadic violent revolt against it. Only very serious political leadership could ever hope to get beyond such fruitless local riots into a principled challenge to the entire underlying economic system.

So all Morrisian craft works, then, as I have written elsewhere of the Kelmscott Press books, ‘are not evidences of medievalist nostalgia and political withdrawal, but are rather time-travellers from some far future we can as yet barely imagine, showing how lovingly artefacts might be crafted in the socialist world that is to come’. Such, at any rate, would be my own take on the Lanercost Dossal and its fellow works. If your own differs, as it well may, I look forward to learning of it.

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