What is William Morris Trying To Say in his “Art of The People” Speech?- Social Realism?

“The stream of civilization is against us, and we cannot battle against it.”

English: Portrait of William Morris by George ...
English: Portrait of William Morris by George Frederic Watts, oil on canvas, original 25 1/2 in. x 20 1/2 in. (648 mm x 521 mm), 1870. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

William Morris is basically arguing that art has not only been an intrinsic consequence of the need and demands of building things, either because of economics or politics, but it is also done because it brings people happiness.

Although Morris establishes a well defined difference between the hardships of labour and those of art, he makes it clear that both are pretty much the same thing, and the world cannot be devoid of one or the other.

The reason being that art is found everywhere, and even in people’s market system labours. He uses the example of British India, where Eastern art was being destroyed because they were called useless commodities, yet in Britain it was hailed as beautiful art.

Interestingly, there is this important dichotomy and relationships between economic structures and art which Morris highlights exclusively, yet he does not leave out the human element– which is quite admirable.

In essence he says, that economics and art have one major commonality. The hardships of producing, by the producer, are intrinsically the same thing, which is why his/her happiness must be considered duly.

The way that happiness can be achieved in this means is by following the two virtues outlined by him: honesty and simplicity of life. And through these the happiness of the maker will become a reality, as capitalist market forces would not force him/her into slavery.

In essence, Morris proclaims that through these virtues, Art becomes something for the people, by the people, as happiness for the maker and the user. Can you hear Marx?

It is without a doubt that William Morris, a self-proclaimed Marxist, is arguing that art can become a beautiful things for the maker, if greed and capitalist hegemony is eliminated within civilization and society.

Although there is no particular mention of class strife, it is obvious that he is appealing to a sort of anarcho-communist ideal that each man can choose his means of living, and thus finding happiness.

The maker of art, and the maker of products can achieve his happiness through simplicity in life and honesty. What?

Morris says that what he means by honesty is not to ever gain through another man’s loss( in the local and broader market systems). What is “simplicity”, then?

Again, Morris defines “simplicity” as one’s ability to deprive himself herself of luxury to achieve a better life, and an enjoyable one.

Although, Morris argues quite distinctly in terms of the producer, maker and artist of art and products. His bold term art for the people, by the people is a stark reminded of the Social Realism that became the only acceptable form of art in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’ China.

Social Realism is basically art mass produced by people, for the people. In other words it is propaganda that was used by mos totalitarian systems. Not just the Soviet Union, but also Nazi Germany.

Usually, this type of art depicts a simple and “honest” depiction people, essentially made by other people. In the case of the Soviets  it would be working men and women. And in case of Hitler’s Germany, Aryan soldiers looking to the East.

The point of this is that Social Realism was the art of totalitarian regimes, and mostly communist regimes in the 20th century. Did Morris have an affect on the creation of such ideals well before the turn of the century?

I do not believe he was a direct influence, but he remains a perfect example of the way the Marxist ideal of art and culture was being molded to fit the paradigms of Marxist connotations and ideals.

Morris’ insisted that the destructive and greedy market forces, were the reason why art was failing in his time, and more importantly why artists were failing.

You know very well I do not like abstractions, and Morris seems to base his arguments in things that are so broad he become conceited in his ideas. What do I mean?

Do you honestly believe that art, and the process of art making is solely can be solely describes as a consequential factor of market forces and economics?

Let us say that you make art with “honesty” and “simplicity” devoid of capitalist greed, is that enough to make you happy? Or do you need emotion? Maybe cultural factors as well?

Morris has oversimplified the complexities in the factors that lead to the creation of art to mere economic theories. Something which is being done all too much in today’s society.

Overall, my point is that Marxism is also far more complicated than mere economics. The course of history is far more complex than mere economics and market evolutions and classes. Culture, politics and the human element cannot be downplayed when taking the Marxist perspectives of things.

Do no get me wrong, I do not deplore thinking of something in a Marxist perspective, but please do not let it become your dogma, and try to understand that the world is far more complicated than thinking in pure economic means.

Speech: http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1882/hopes/chapters/chapter2.htm


Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.

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