Anarchy & Beauty

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At the centre of his understanding of art, William Morris saw an inseparable connection between the imagination of the worker and his or her labour.

His concept of art was not simply making art objects to place in galleries or hang on rich people’s walls, but the human labour involved in making all the objects of our lives. He argued ideas of beauty were integral to us as human beings. Art was a result of the pleasure gained in the process of making something beautiful.

For Morris capitalism, its exploitation and division of labour, resulted in the vast majority of working people being involved in useless toil, making profit for the idle classes. He called it “general misery”.

He also argued that capitalism robbed human beings of their life by destroying the pleasure that can be found in work. In this he was close to the theory of alienation developed by Marx.

For art to be restored to the masses, exploitation had to be destroyed. In this respect he became a revolutionary socialist — not a passive onlooker but an active participant in a movement for change.

At the beginning of this exhibition Morris is clearly shown as a pioneer of the socialist movement that was developing in the late 19th century. The entrance to the gallery is dominated by a massive reproduction of the membership card for the Socialist League designed by Walter Crane.

The first half of the exhibition is a joy, displaying objects made by Morris and others, who later became known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.

It is clear from the start that the movement, in its many forms, had a common underpinning desire among its practitioners for change. Objects not seen before on display are placed alongside paintings rarely seen. There is a wonderful self-portrait by Sylvia Pankhurst, but no mention of her socialism.

Fiona McCarthy, the curator, understands and shows clearly that Morris was a socialist. But she replaces Morris’s argument about work, labour and most importantly his hatred of capitalism, with the idea that his main desire was that every home should have beautiful hand made objects in it.

She perpetuates the myth that he was only a dreamer and an aesthete. To imply Morris was only concerned with beautiful home furnishings is to dull the edge of his sword.

As the exhibition continues socialism is replaced by craftsmanship until, at the end, we are asked to accept the Festival of Britain (held in 1951 to show off British manufacturing) and Terence Conran (founder of Habitat) as carrying on Morris’s legacy. His real legacy resides elsewhere — where the making of art meets the struggle to change the world.