Wednesday, 20 November 2013

50 Years of Morris Studies

I certainly can’t match Peter Faulkner’s peerless erudition as he told the tale at of the 50 years of Morris studies in which he has been involved at Kelmscott House on Saturday. But I did have a feeling that I might want to tell the story in a rather different way. After all, Peter’s starting point, 1963, was also the very year in which my parents, as a young working-class couple with three children, moved from their rented first-floor flat to the new house they had just bought directly across the road, and three or four years later they bought their first car too.

My father was working very long hours to afford this – full days in the Ekco television factory followed by four-hour evening shifts there too – but still, British society was clearly entering a quite new phase of capitalism; and as such consumerism set in, debates about the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the working class were in full swing too. This new economic and cultural phase could not but have a considerable impact on ‘Morris studies’. For Morris himself, art was the explosive ‘outside’ of a philistine capitalist economy; but now – in what would eventually become full postmodernism – art was increasingly part of economic innovation and production. Could Morris still be of use in such a context, and if so, how?

In fact, I think the very phrase ‘Morris studies’ – as if it were an autonomous academic region, with its own laws and temporality – may not be very helpful. What we have, always, are mutations in capitalism and attempts at popular or socialist resistance to this; and the question is then to what extent Morris can be a resource for the latter. We have had another major mutation of capitalism and its ideologies in our own time – everything that the terms ‘globalisation’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ gesture towards – and so the question comes up freshly for us too: how can we make Morris’s thought and art newly useful to us in all this, how can we secure its relevance for the next 50 years?

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