Saturday, 18 January 2014

Art Turning Left

Liverpool Tate’s ‘Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, 1789-2013’ announces itself as ‘an exhibition to be used’, so one can either accept its own juxtapositions of radical art from different cultures and periods or – better – try out a few additional montages of one’s own. Thus, though they are in different rooms, I wanted to hold in a single mental image Walter Crane’s spectacular banner for the Workers Union, Holloway branch (1898), with its proletarians from different continents dancing merrily round a globe, and the banner of the International Union of Sex Workers from a century later (1998). Heaven knows what Crane would have made of the latter, but if there is a common factor here, it might be the lavish use of curvilinear organic forms in contrast to, say, the dynamic geometric abstractions of El Lissitsky’s Soviet ‘New Man’.

I then found myself playing a similar mental game with the Morris items gathered here. For one can juxtapose books as well as banners, contrasting the gorgeous Kelmscott Press News from Nowhere on display with Tim Rollins’s 'Amerika – for Karl' (1989), where disadvantaged South Bronx schoolchildren have produced eerie, Salvador Dali-like doodlings all over the pages of Kafka’s novel Amerika. Or you could play off against each other, as images of community, a sober photograph of the Hammersmith Socialist Society from 1893 with a romanticised folk-art painting of ‘The Production Brigade’s Reading Room’ (1975) from the Chinese Cultural revolution. Other paintings in this group introduce the motif of the abundance of nature – great swarms of fish and ducks – which is also there in the Morris Rose and Thistle fabric displayed here, but isn’t much in evidence elsewhere.

The Morris corner of this very rich exhibition (which includes wonderful things like Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive and witty Situationist d√©tournements which I don’t have space to notice here) sits next to the Office of Useful Art, one of whose formative principles is: ‘Re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation’; and that – for both Morris and for us today – is the right note on which to end this post.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Who Killed William Morris?

In 1951 E.P. Thompson published an article with the dramatic title ‘The Murder of William Morris’, though the killing to which he referred was metaphorical rather than literal, a matter of the depoliticising of Morris’s life and work by the American biographer Lloyd Eric Grey. Still, just occasionally Morris scholars have taken Thompson’s title more literally and suggested how their subject might indeed have been killed rather than dying in his bed from the complications of diabetes in October 1896.

A. Clutton-Brock memorably gives us two such scenarios in his 1914 study of Morris. In the chapter on ‘Morris as a Socialist’, he writes: ‘we cannot doubt that, if the revolution which he hoped for had come in his time, he would have been a revolutionary leader; or that, if it had failed, he would have been put to death by the victors. He might also, if it had degenerated into a terror, have been put to death by the victors of his own side. But even, then, we may be sure, he would have died with courage and without despair’ (p.150).

It has been one of the recurrent motifs of this blog, prompted by the extraordinary rise of creative writing courses in university English Literature departments in recent years, that creative means may avail where history, criticism or scholarship let us down. We may not have had that Morrisian revolution in the UK, but could not some aspiring short story writer out there take up Clutton-Brock’s two imaginary scenarios and narratively flesh out for us his powerful political answers to the title of this post: who killed William Morris?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Splinters in your Eye

The German Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno once remarked that ‘in psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’, a mischievous thought second only (in my view) to Karl Kraus’s witty observation that psychoanalysis was the illness to which it believed itself to be the cure. Whether Adorno was correct or not in his assessment of Freudianism, he certainly had a striking belief in the power of exaggeration; as Martin Jay notes, for Adorno, ‘essential to any valid cognition is “an element of exaggeration, of over-shooting the object, of self-detachment from the weight of the actual”’. Such acts of exaggeration might, however, take very minimal linguistic form, as in the sharply observed vignettes of Adorno’s masterly Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life.

We might argue, then, that Theodor Adorno gave us something like a theory of blogging avant la lettre. In its brief compass, a blog post pushes an insight or argument as hard as it can, making a case which is almost certainly too forceful, which lacks ultimately necessary reservations and qualifications (of the kind for which Raymond Williams’s occasionally stodgy prose was so famous or notorious); but which none the less, by force or excess of argument, hopefully illuminates its object in new ways. Thus a blog post may become, in its challenge and difficulty, a splinter in one’s eye, to borrow from another memorable Adorno dictum: ‘the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’. It is in that provocative spirit that I intend to continue blogging through 2014. Happy New Year, readers – better put your protective goggles on now!