by Clifford Slapper
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.
William Morris, The Beauty Of Life, 1880
William Morris, 1834-1896, was a visionary socialist in nineteenth century England, as well as an artist, poet and textile designer who was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts And Crafts Movement. Many will have enjoyed his exquisite designs for wallpaper or furniture, or have taken pleasure from his poetry and medievalism. For him, however, it was impossible to consider true art separately from the social context in which it was being created.
In 1884 he founded the Socialist League which stood for a global democratic revolution in which private or state ownership of productive resources would be replaced with a new commonwealth of humanity. On the basis of common ownership and democratic control of the social production of wealth, he argued, we could finally rid society of its brutal contradictions, conflicts and poverty. With that liberation of people and of work itself from monetary constraints, the division between art and everyday life might be dissolved, as usefulness, beauty and harmony could then all blossom together within human productivity.
Morris’ legacy is enormous in several areas and to explore that is a grand and rewarding project in itself. For now, however, those interested might start with some of the reading below and perhaps a visit to London’s Kelmscott House by the river at Hammersmith, where he lived from 1878 and which is now the home of the William Morris Society.
We can study his politics as a doorway to understanding his fascinating and compelling ideas about art. Likewise one may start by exploring his writings about art as a clue to the birth of his revolutionary commitment to social transformation. Either path of study will pay dividends to the reader, as his was a truly unified and balanced perception, in which art was seen as an intrinsic part of the human endeavour, and would only ever be half developed whilst society remained fraught with alienation and exploitation.
Of course, there are those modern critics who will choose to respect that “art” which is born from misery and decadence, or nurtured in the mire of brutal parasitic exploitation, but Morris’s view does not need to trip over quibbles of definition. The whole point about the world view which he vigorously and tirelessly expounded throughout his incredibly productive life, is that his is a positive-minded manifesto celebrating the transformative power which our species might have, once artificial and anachronistic social constraints are removed.
Showing balance at every level, he thus combined social activism for a global revolution to end capitalism in every form (a project which remains hitherto essentially untried even more than a century later) with a personal crusade to be artistic, productive and positive in the influence he left on the world he inherited:
With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on.
William Morris, The Well At The World’s End: Volume I, 1896
Works by or on William Morris, suggested as further reading:
- News From Nowhere, William Morris, 1890
- Thompson, E. P., William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1955. An essential study by a social historian which places Morris in his rightful position as a founder of the socialist/communist movement in Britain.
- William Morris and News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time, Edit. Stephen Coleman, Paddy O’Sullivan, 1991 (with a précis of the text of News From Nowhere by Clifford Slapper).
- Art And Socialism, William Morris, 1884.
- Signs Of Change: How We Live And How We Might Live, William Morris, 1888.
- For further information about William Morris and about Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, London, where he spent his later years, please go to www.williammorrissociety.org
Clifford Slapper is a London-based musician and socialist, currently working on a biography of pianist Mike Garson.