Saturday, 15 June 2019

John Ruskin and William Morris: Institutional Departures

We will be thinking closely about the relationship between Ruskin and Morris during this, the former’s bicentenary year; and such thought will mostly address the two men’s aesthetic and social positions.  Could Morris have been Morris without Ruskin-on-Gothic in the background?  Did he need Marx to sharpen up his thinking in ways that Ruskin alone couldn’t or, conversely, did his debt to Ruskin allow him to bring to Marxism things that that more explicitly political tradition had hitherto neglected?  Or, in the most contemporary formulation of all, can a new, bicentenary rethinking of Ruskin in our age of climate crisis, social media and rising rightwing populism, lead to new insights into Morris’s utopianism which might make it tell more, socially and politically?

Another way of thinking about the Ruskin-Morris relationship, though, is through the institutions which help to sustain both men’s reputations today – which I am taking here to be the Morris Society at work in the basement of Kelmscott House and the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University.  At the Society’s AGM a few weeks back, the former trade-unionist and Labour Party General Secretary Tom Sawyer eloquently launched an appeal for funds to strengthen the Society’s library and reading-room - the latter being a very pleasant, book-lined space which opens out into the stretch of back garden that the Society has available to it.

In referring to the Ruskin Library at Lancaster, however, I am being deliberately anachronistic, since that building has recently rebranded itself.  It has become ‘The Ruskin’, dropping what it seems to regard as the antiquated term ‘library’ just as it has ripped out its former, spacious and well-lit reading-room and turned this into a lecture- and performance-space as the building metamorphoses, under the energetic directorship of Sandra Kemp, into a ‘Museum of the Near Future’.  Its most recent seminar theme, in keeping with this new, contemporary focus, has been ‘Ruskin and Steampunk’.

There could hardly be two more different directions for these institutions to go in, with the Morris Society asserting the civilised value of the quiet, private reading of physical books, and The Ruskin shifting to bold, iconoclastic, collective explorations of early-twenty-first-century culture and politics instead.  I’m not here recommending one over the other.  Indeed, they strike me, in Theodor Adorno’s great phrase, as the ‘torn halves of an integral freedom to which, however, they do not add up’.


Tony Pinkney said...

Hum, it appears that a blog can run on for so long that its originator forgets some of its earlier contents! For I have just discovered that I already have my own statement on Steampunk from nine years ago at:

Kotick said...

Well, I suppose it's easy for the Ruskin project at Lancaster to venture into more avantgarde activities, Tony, because it has Brantwood relatively close by to handle the more traditional side of Ruskin's thought and reputation. Perhaps the William Morris Gallery and Kelmscott House could come to some such division of labour between them - Kelmscott Manor being rather too far away to be part of such an arrangement.