If I were writing in 1919 instead of 2019 I wouldn’t feel the need to explain who William Morris is. He was a Big Deal in his day and had significant influence in a number of fields, including aesthetics, literature and politics. These days, however, he’s become rather an esoteric interest, which I find a great pity. He has much to offer us denizens of the modern world because he had his head on straight and talked plain.
I first came across his works about 20 years ago, quite by chance as I stumbled around in what Virginia Woolf called “the lumber room” of Victorian literature. Morris was squarely in the Victorian period as his dates show: he was born in 1834 (in Walthamstow, a country village at the time of his birth but now a suburb of Greater London) and died in Hammersmith (Kensington’s downmarket neighbor) in 1896. He was hardly a typical Victorian, however. That’s why he’s so interesting.
But as I said, I don’t expect anybody these days to know who he is or what he was up to. So allow me to fill in that blank with some information from his Wikipedia page (here):
Morris is recognised as one of the most significant cultural figures of Victorian Britain. He was best known in his lifetime as a poet, although he posthumously became better known for his designs. The William Morris Society founded in 1955 is devoted to his legacy, while multiple biographies and studies of his work have been published. Many of the buildings associated with his life are open to visitors, much of his work can be found in art galleries and museums, and his designs are still in production.
And rather than do a laundry list of dates and facts, here are some quotes:
- I can’t enter into politico-social subjects with any interest, for on the whole, I see that things are in a muddle, and I have no power or vocation to set them right in ever so little a degree.
- Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
- I want a real revolution, a real change in society: society, a great organic mass of well-regulated forces used for the bringing-about a happy life for all.
- Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.
- What shall I say concerning its mastery of and its waste of mechanical power, its commonwealth so poor, its enemies of the commonwealth so rich, its stupendous organization — for the misery of life! Its contempt of simple pleasures which everyone could enjoy but for its folly? Its eyeless vulgarity which has destroyed art, the one certain solace of labour? All this I felt then as now, but I did not know why it was so. The hope of the past times was gone, the struggles of mankind for many ages had produced nothing but this sordid, aimless, ugly confusion.
- I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.
- The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people’s ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment. Even when we explain that we use the word revolution in its etymological sense, and mean by it a change in the basis of society, people are scared at the idea of such a vast change, and beg that you will speak of reform and not revolution. As, however, we Socialists do not at all mean by our word revolution what these worthy people mean by their word reform, I can’t help thinking that it would be a mistake to use it, whatever projects we might conceal beneath its harmless envelope. So we will stick to our word, which means a change of the basis of society; it may frighten people, but it will at least warn them that there is something to be frightened about, which will be no less dangerous for being ignored; and also it may encourage some people, and will mean to them at least not a fear, but a hope.
As you can see, he had a lot to say. He wasn’t a firebrand but his opinions were firm and his position as a voice for the progressive tendencies of Victorian society was valuable and valued. As we look back on him now I expect one of the things that most stands out is his backward glance to the past. He was fully on board with the medievalist strain of his times. It was in the Victorian period that Gothic Revival architecture (for example, the Houses of Parliament) became a thing. The works of the architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin (who designed the Houses of Parliament) are a perfect example. Morris worked in more domestic media and was interested in bringing art into the reach of daily life through designs for home products and books but in those areas also embraced the Gothic style. His endeavors in that arena were quite successful and his designs are still in use to this day.
As a writer of literature Morris has fared much more poorly. Although immensely articulate he wasn’t a literary type by nature. His literary writing serves to promote the agenda of his artistic and political interests. Perhaps for that reason the novels and poems are given scant attention these days — they fail to capture the imagination on purely artistic terms, although they are as useful as ever with regard to revealing Morris’s thoughts on society and the progress of art across the ages.
I own several of Morris’s works and find him an engaging authorial voice no matter what his subject. The piece I want to discuss in this post is his address entitled “The Beauty of Life” given in 1890, the same year in which his utopian novel News From Nowhere appeared. His topic is the need to restore art into the fabric of daily life — art to his mind being a certain consonance between beauty and utility that existed before the Industrial Revolution ruined everything. In that regard it’s aesthetically revanchist and idealistic — some might say (hopelessly) Romantic. We can never go back to the days when people carved their own spoons from wood lying about the place. Nor would I ever ascribe to the notion that we should all use wooden spoons artfully carved by Tyrolean peasants in the Austrian Alps because they’re more aesthetic. Such things these days bring to mind some tourist chachka you’d buy in a souvenir shop — hardly what Morris had in mind. From the perspective of this year of our Lord 2019 it does at times seem that the anachronizing tendency in Morris presents a major impediment to his arguments. I shudder to think what he would think if he went into a cafe today and saw 90% of the people with their faces buried in their smartphones. He’d have a good deal more to complain about than the arbitrary separation of beauty and utility, there’s little doubt about that.
That said, I find his essay on the beauty of life an excellent reminder to remain mindful of how I configure my own experience. While not wishing to run about in homespun woolen clothing or make my own window glass with all the bubbles in it as was done in the Middle Ages, I find that Morris offers an important insight in to the business of giving aesthetic texture to daily life. The world has progressed — which may indeed be the wrong word to use — to the point that the societal juggernauts Morris chided against have completely taken over. He would find himself dismissed as a crank these days by insisting on the incorporation of aesthetics into the means of production. Beauty and utility parted ways in the Industrial Revolution and never again the twain shall meet as Morris imagined them. People make nothing for themselves any longer. Fewer and fewer people even cook their own food regularly. Daily life is impinged upon by mass production and standardization at every turn. In a major way the business of living has been outsourced. It’s somebody else’s business to do it, you just pay and keep moving.
But the ideas Morris sets out still have value for those of us interested in reclaiming some aesthetic authenticity in daily life. Since coming into contact with his ideas lo these many years ago I’ve always held his viewpoint as one tool in my toolkit. It offers a valuable lens through which to view my own manner of living. To that end I quote from the essay to bring forward a few of his major points:
As I look round on this assemblage, and think of all that it represents, I cannot choose but be moved to the soul by the troubles of the life of civilised man, and the hope that thrusts itself through them; I cannot refrain from giving you once again the message with which, as it seems, some chance-hap has charged me: that message is, in short, to call on you to face the latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling toward the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts, and thereby enslave simple people to them, and themselves to themselves, and so at last drag the world into a second barbarism more ignoble, and a thousandfold more hopeless, than the first.
Now of you who are listenting to me, there are some, I feel sure, who have received this message, and taken it to heart, and are day by day fighting the battle that it calls on you to fight: to you I can say nothing but that if any word I speak discourage you, I shall beartily wish I had never spoken at all: but to be shown the enemy, and the castle we have got to storm, is not to be bidden to run from him: nor am I telling you to sit down deedless in the desert because between you and the promised land lies many a trouble, and death itself maybe: the hope before you you know, and nothing that I can say can take it away from you, but friend may with advantage cry out to friend in the battle that a stroke is coming from this side or that: take my hasty words in that sense, I beg of you.
The danger [is] that the present course of civilisation will destroy the beauty of life — these are hard words, and I wish I could mend them, but I cannot, while I speak what I believe to be the truth.
That the beauty of life is a thing of no moment, I suppose few people would venture to assert, and yet most civilised people act as it it were of none, and in so doing are wronging both themselves and those that are to come after them; for that beauty, which is what is meant by ART,; using the word in its widest sense, is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life, if we are to live as nature meant us to; that is, unless we are content to be less than men.
Now I ask you, as I have been asking myself this long while, what proportion of the population in civilised countries has any share at all in that necessity of life?
I say that the answer which must be made to that question justifies my fear that modern civilisation is on the road to trample out all the beauty of life, and to make us less than men.
Lest we think that such cogitations belong only to the 19th century, let me add a quotation from a 20th century source with a wildly different background: Theodor Adorno, one of the Frankfurt School gang I’ve written about in other posts. This piece comes from his book Minima Moralia (1951) in the English translation by Edmund Jephcott (appearing as number 18 in Part 1):
Refuge for the homeless. — The predicament of private life today is shown by its arena. Dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible. The traditional residences we grew up in have grown intolerable: each trait of comfort in them is paid for with a betrayal of knowledge, each vestige of comfort with the musty pact of family interests. The functional modem habitations designed from a rabula rasa, are living-cases manufactured by experts for philistines, or factory sites that have strayed into the consumption sphere, devoid of all relation to the occupant: in them even the nostalgia for independent existence, defunct in any case, is sent packing. Modern man wishes to sleep close to the ground like an animal, a German magazine decreed with prophetic masochism before Hitler, abolishing with the bed the threshold between waking and dreaming. The sleepless are on call at any hour, un-
resistingly ready for anything, alert and unconscious at once. Anyone seeking refuge in a genuine, but purchased, period-style house, embalms himself alive. The attempt to evade responsibility for one’s residence by moving into a hotel or furnished rooms, makes the enforced conditions of emigration a wisely-chosen norm. The hardest hit, as everywhere, are those who have no choice. They live, if not in slums, in bungalows that tomorrow may be leaf-huts, trailers, cars, camps or the open air. The house is past. The bombings of European cities, as well as the labour and concentration camps, merely proceed as executors, with what the imminent development of technology had long decided was to be the fate of houses. These are good now only to be thrown away like used food cans. The possibility of residence is annihilated by socialist society, which, once missed, saps the foundations of bourgeous life. No individual can resist this process. He need only take an interest in furniture design or interior decoration to find himself developing the arty-crafty sensibilities of the bibliophile, however firmly he may oppose arts-and-crafts in the narrower sense. From a distance the Vienna Workshops and the Bauhaus is no longer so considerable. Purely functional curves, having broken free of their purpose, are now becoming just as ornamental as the basic structures of Cubism. The best mode of conduct in face of all this still seems an uncommitted, suspended one: to lead a private life, as far as the social order and one’s own needs will tolerate nothing else, but not to attach weight to it as still socially substantial and individually appropriate. ‘It is even my good fortune not to be a house-owner,’ Nietzsche already wrote in The Gay Science. Today we should have to add: it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home. This gives some indication of the difficult relationship in which the individual now stands to his property, as long as he still possesses anything at all. The trick is to keep in view, and to express, the fact that private property no longer belongs to one, in the sense that consumer goods have potentially become so abundant that no individual has the right to cling to the principle of their limitation; but that one must nevertheless have possessions, if one is not to sink into that dependence and need which serves the blind perpetuation of property relations. But the thesis of this paradox leads to destruction, a loveless disregard for things which necessarily turns against people too; and the antithesis, no sooner uttered, is an ideology for those with a bad conscience to keep what they have. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.
That last sentence is both spot on and quite a zinger. Adorno wrote the piece toward the end of World War II after having escaped Nazi Germany and fled into exile in the United States, which explains the hard edge to its thought. But here we are in 2019, still living in houses — at least some of us — and in nothing so dire a situation as either Morris or Adorno describes. Or are we?
At the collective level we’re screwed as far as the basic premises of both Morris and Adorno are concerned. Things have gotten too far out of hand at this point even to think about putting the industrial, mass-produced, globally standardized genie back into the bottle. Another germane issue one thinks to oneself in the solitude of one’s home but doesn’t say out loud is that most people don’t have any taste to begin with. Give somebody a few million dollars and what do they do with it? Buy gold taps, probably. It all fits into a style I call “Oligarch Trash.” The result is that anyone who subscribes to the ideas of Morris or Adorno is left up the creek. What to do in a world where Furniture Barn or Ikea is the only place left to get stuff? Who makes their own dining room set from black walnut anymore? Does black walnut even still exist? It’s much more likely to be rubber tree wood from Malaysia. Even more likely is plastic veneer over chipboard.
It’s a bit late in the day to be talking about a revival of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, and Adorno is right: no matter how screwed we are aesthetically we still gotta have stuff. This puts the entire burden on the individual to make aesthetic sense out of living daily life. So here’s my take on what an individual person can do in the modern era to live handsomely.
Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. That’s excellent advice that I’ve taken on board for ages. It means that I choose things for living, not for “decor.” That results, for example, in my having a wood dining table that lasts for 50 years and never needs to be replaced. How cool is that? It also results in my not buying furniture that I can’t move myself. I’d rather have wing chairs strategically placed in the living room than one of those mega sofa sets that take up a quarter of an acre. The chairs are perfectly useful and I find their form quite handsome. They can be moved to a corner with a lamp to make a great reading corner. Then if it’s party time they get marshalled into groups for conversation. As for accoutrements, I only pick things that have a clear purpose anybody can discern on first glance. Stacking endtables are a good example. They can be deployed as needed and then returned to their compact, tidy state after the party finishes.
In the kitchen it’s a question of marrying beauty and utility, as well. I only need one set of cookware so I want it to be a pleasure to use as well as built to last. Everything I have in my gadget drawer gets used, believe it or not. If I don’t use something within a year’s time I give it away or ditch it. When I walk into the kitchen I feel like a gymnast heading to a workout on the parallel bars — I’ve got my kit and I know exactly where everything is and what to do with it. That’s a very nice feeling. It makes the sometimes cumbersome routines of daily life more pleasantly manageable. My guiding principle I take from Morris: nothing that I do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Sometimes the beauty of an item is expressed entirely by its utility — for example, there’s only so much you can do to doll up a potato masher — but in that finely tuned utility and the fitness of the material to its purpose is indeed a kind of beauty I appreciate. It’s the purpose and the life potential the material assemblage offers that’s beautiful when it comes to the kitchen. It doesn’t have to come from Italian tiles and granite countertops.
As I look at how I’ve configured living space and daily life over the years I discover that the closer I come to the idea Morris expressed, the happier I am. Adorno is right, too, however, when he decries the abasement of the house into a commodity. There’s little we can do to stem that tide in our age of subdivisions with their boxes made of ticky-tacky, as Malvina Reynolds famously styled them. All the same, it is possible to take Morris at his word and live with the intent to weld together beauty and utility. The end result in 2019 will not, of course, be what Morris had in mind in the 19th century, but in a pinch it works as well as it can. As I said, the more I configure life in that way, the happier I am.
So thanks, Bill, for a great tip. It’s was good advice in 1890 and it still holds true in 2019. Cowabunga, dude. 🙂