Monday, 12 August 2013

Art Everywhere: A Morrisian Critique

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.


Marsi Frelock said...

Tony, Shouldn’t we be taking a more positive view of Art Everywhere than you do here? Ok, it might not be everything you want, and it does only last a fortnight, but still, you can see from all the tweets and Facebook posts it generates when people spot one of these artworks at their own bus stop or local bill-board that it’s arousing a lot of interest and pleasure. And that must be a good thing, surely? So shouldn’t we be grateful for small mercies in the present rather than just hankering after the complete artistic/social transformation we aren’t very likely to get any time soon?

Jan Marsh said...

I agree with Tony on 'art everywhere'. Surely WM's hope was 'art for everyone' as creators not consumers

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for your support, Jan. The argument about "palliatives" or partial measures - "small mercies", as in the first comment here - is always a difficult one, as Morris himself found in the field of politics (e.g. parliamentary elections). Are they a useful first step that at least gets you underway towards where you want to end up, or do they become ends in themselves which somehow make sure you actually get no further after all?

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