William Morris’s Philosophy of Art

Michelle Weinroth


Like a vanishing mediator,[1] William Morris has been a significant but oft forgotten catalyst of artistic innovation, burgeoning in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Europe. His design work and accompanying aesthetic precepts have impinged on a host of artistic developments (e.g., Art Nouveau, the Bauhaus, Symbolism, the Arts and Crafts Movement, among others), yet only rarely and ephemerally does Morris’s name feature within the pantheon of aesthetic theorists, even while the English neo-Hegelian Bosanquet regarded him as “the culmination of German aesthetic thought from Goethe to Hegel.”[2] Drawing heavily on renowned Ruskinian principles,[3] Morris’s public lectures of the 1870s and 1880s[4] underscored the declining condition of art in Victorian society, the epistemic value of seeing aesthetically,[5] and the imperatives of art for society’s regeneration. Conspicuously absent on the map of philosophy, his writings on aesthetics have often been consigned to the ‘lesser’[6] realm of craft, a site of artistic practice spurned by the institution of ‘high’ art―be it modernist or classical.[7] His legacy is thus a victim of the very institutional elitism and class division against which he tussled in his own day. Not only did he condemn this cleavage, exemplified in the towering elevation of ‘intellectual’ over ‘manual’ art, he turned it into the quintessential problem of contemporary art itself; class divisions became the driving force of his aesthetic preoccupations, while the ideal of a classless society was, conversely, both the indispensable premise and crowning condition of his humanist aesthetics. “It is only a society of equals which can choose the life it will live, which can choose to forgo (sic) gross luxury and base utilitarianism in return for the un-wearying pleasure of tasting the fullness of life,”[8] in other words, life lived aesthetically. Morris’s unswerving mission was to create textual and decorative models,[9] suggestive of how art might breed social happiness, economic well-being, and ethical rectitude in modern society.

            Underlying his endeavour lay a Kantian question: How is a genuinely salutary art possible? To be sure, Morris did not formulate his philosophical thoughts in the idiom of German idealism, nor in any vocabulary intended for the initiated few, nor even in a compendium as tightly and meticulously organized as Kant’s Critique of Judgement. Yet, through his lectures and writings of the 1870s and early 80s, the makings of what I shall call a Critique of Aesthetic Praxis are discernible.[10] As Jeffrey Petts writes, Morris’s theory is “sufficiently coherent and sophisticated to be worth investigating for its relevance to contemporary debates in analytic aesthetics” and “in the history of aesthetics it is a forerunner of, or at least has intellectual associations with, pragmatist aesthetics (yet it is often unacknowledged within that paradigm …) and shares ground associated with the Everyday Aesthetics movement.”[11]

            Coherent and worthy of study, Morris’s theory of art is also controversial; and it is precisely in its controversy that reasons for its exclusion from the canon may be adduced. Written in plain speech,[12] accessible to the ordinary man, his ideas represent both a theoretical critique of, and a practical protest against, the inherently esoteric character of academic discourse. But if language distinguishes Morris from the circle of artists and thinkers who preserve their exclusive knowledge through hermetic idioms, political dissent, which is inextricably bound to his chosen linguistic register, constitutes a fundamental cause of his marginality. For where others hold disquieting issues (e.g., economics, politics, ethics, etc.) at a considerable remove from the appraisal of aesthetics, stressing its disinterestedness and autonomy, Morris ventures to say that aesthetics consists in an appreciation of beauty, but also embraces matters of utility, ethics, and production. In this unorthodox claim lies Morris’s ‘heresy’; for the consideration of beauty in tandem with utility challenges the fundamental premise of an idealist philosophy: i.e., that aesthetic judgments, notably as Kant sees them, must be without interest and purpose, aloof from thorny questions of sensuous nature (causality) and labour.  Refusing to eschew these factors, Morris insists that beauty cannot be validated by separating out the categories of politico-economic power and aesthetic contemplation.[13] Aesthetic judgements can only be truly sound if intimately tied to society’s moral and material needs. So, whereas in Kant beauty is disinterested, in Morris it is intertwined with utility. Out of this fundamental difference springs the distinction between an idealist aesthetics (Kant)―later appropriated and deployed as an ideology serving the interests of modern society[14]—and a materialist aesthetics (Morris) that outlines an ontology of social being[15] for a post-capitalist future.

            Received wisdom, however, has overlooked the consistency of Morris’s contribution to philosophy; it has tended to treat him as an un-theoretical, unsystematic thinker,[16] deservedly sequestered in the shadow of the great minds. In reversing this assumption, I propose that Morris’s philosophical thought is not only significant,[17] but radical; piercing modern (idealist) philosophy and modern society at their core, it is then quashed by the very institutions and social structures it challenges. Morris’s Critique of Aesthetic Praxis both displays his intellectual merit and discloses the vulnerability of his legacy. On the one hand, the innovative qualities of his thinking foreground the central contradictions in a heritage of Enlightenment thought; on the other, his strikingly transformative ideas meet with prejudice, resistance, and misapprehension; they are, thus, shelved or dismissed.

            To investigate an individual’s exclusion from a given canon or a learned community can, no doubt, prove difficult. The marginalized figure will have been shunned on the grounds of taste, not rational justification. He will have been quietly ushered aside, while the reasons underpinning this genteel expulsion will be less than obvious. In the case of Morris, readers attending to his literary and artistic work have sensed (almost smelled) his difference, his ec-centricity. They have cast aspersions on his “antiquarian” style of poetry,[18] declared his fiction wanting in authorial intensity,[19] and charged his utopian romance, News from Nowhere, with impracticality, naivete and fantasy, etc.[20] A litany of criticisms, accrued over time, could be invoked to explain, if only sporadically and impressionistically, why Morris fails to garner wide-ranging appeal. But these judgements remain matters of taste and cannot, in themselves, rationalize why, as Jeffrey Skoblow has it, the Morris industry “has operated somewhat on the fringes of the mainstream―Morris [having been] consigned by the literary industry at large to the major-minor bin”[21] or why, in the halls of philosophy, Morris appears largely absent. There is, some might say, the ‘whiff’ of politics surrounding many of Morris’s writings and conceivably this incurs unease for contemporary philosophers of art. Still, if questions of taste remain opaque and ‘indisputable,’ we can nonetheless locate more abiding issues that underscore the distinctiveness of Morris’s critical thought. In this respect, the subtle discomfiture exhibited towards his work in mutterings of distaste can be read as the surface fissures of a profound epistemic rift. Morris, ultimately, stands apart from his contemporaries (and followers) in fundamental ways; indeed, his whole philosophy of art constitutes a groundbreaking interrogation of the dualist thinking embedded in two centuries of modernity, and articulated by Kant in his three Critiques. To be sure, Morris’s materialist aesthetics are not directed at any one thinker, yet they jar with the philosophical heritage of Kantian idealism, as well as with the theoretical assumptions of literary modernists—the disillusioned legatees of the Enlightenment project, upon whom the imprint of Kantian dualism leaves its mark.[22] Thus, Wilde, Yeats, Pater, Pound, Lawrence, among others, draw inspiration from Morris’s aesthetic innovations, but recoil from his social vision that threatens to undercut the premises of their self-assigned artistic autonomy[23] and of the divided society upon which their art and philosophy depend.

            My principal aim here is to foreground and reclaim Morris’s relevance to contemporary philosophical debates, and to underscore the extent and consequences of his subversive thinking. To this end I will identify the problems of Kantian idealism, which Morris’s theory of art confronts. Specifically, I will revisit the category of beauty in Kant’s Third Critique (Critique of Judgement), showing how the internal contradictions and reversals of this aesthetic judgement embody, in miniature, the structures of modern society that Morris’s theory of materialist aesthetics both condemns and proposes to overcome.[24]


Kantian Beauty

            A literal reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgement typically explicates the relation of subjective perceptions to judgements of beauty and the means through which subjective feeling can be declared objectively valid. Yet the core agenda of the Third Critique, I suggest, is both more far-reaching and penetrating: implicitly Kant’s aim here is to determine how the individual can at once exercise freedom autonomously and coexist harmoniously with his fellow being. Will the individual submit slavishly to the whole, surrendering his own particularity to the oppressive laws of the universal, society’s totalizing norms? Or will the whole surrender to the part, the mass to the autocratic rule of one? The category of beauty represents the abstract prism through which the individual’s possibility of exercising his freedom within society can be imagined as a perfectly concordant relation between individual and community, and this thanks to judgements of taste. Kant (unlike Morris) is thus concerned with how men can agree to live together peaceably, not on how they can actually live together happily.

            Like Kant, Morris’s preoccupation with aesthetics is not narrowly conceived; rather it is tied to questions of commonweal and human happiness. Through the minutiae of their respective treatises on art and aesthetic judgements, both Kant and Morris are, in fact, engaged in forging a political theory that will accommodate individuals and collectivities. In short, they conceive of aesthetic judgements and (in Morris’s case) of creative praxis as barometers of the integrity of political society. This is where Morris and Kant converge. But Kant’s formalist delineation of aesthetic judgements (notably his stress on disinterestedness) opens itself up to possible outcomes that contradict his political ideals of harmony and collective well-being. (I explore these possible outcomes in part II of this essay.) In short, his abstract theory is insufficiently mediated with the interests of the empirical commonweal to which his Third Critique refers. Morris, by contrast, calls for a social world where genuine democracy is concretely actualized, not merely represented, where the sensuousness of matter is fully embraced, not relegated to unknowability. Kant and Morris thus diverge on the question of how a universalising or rational system can be reconciled with the particular (i.e., with society’s concrete needs). My argument unfolds along the axis of this fundamental tension.


            Kant’s judgement of beauty offers a structure of total unanimity, yet it is one that is utterly formal. Purposelessly purposive and disinterested,[25] it stands at a remove from the grit and grind of sensuous nature. Conceptless,[26] it is free to legislate itself in its unique way and avoid subscribing to any objective universal law. In this, it relieves its spokesperson, the judging subject, from the cognitive labour otherwise required to make sense of an object and defend its validity through proofs and logical reasoning.[27] Through imaginative ‘free play,’[28] the judgement of beauty invokes other means[29] to exhibit its ‘truth’. In the subject’s imagination, the faculties of feeling and understanding harmonize perfectly, proffering a measure of validity defined by their combined purposiveness and integrity; these are implicitly signs of coherence in aesthetic guise.  Indeed, in this idiosyncratic mode of validating judgements, the category of beauty offers the subject a break from the tortuous route of conceptual reasoning. With this exemption, it enables the subject to experience two converging moments of pleasure, each marked by an emancipation from mental and rhetorical strain: first, the distinctive features of the object of beauty appeal readily to the senses and are thus immediately legible to the faculty of understanding. Second (and in the same breath), the judging subject is confident that this perceptual experience is not only subjectively felt but universally shared. Individual perception and social norms, the part and the whole are reconciled―at least in appearance. In Kantian beauty, everything pivots on immediacy (spontaneity); judgement is instantaneous; cognitive analysis and inquiries into the empirical properties of the aesthetic object are foreclosed. In short, debate is forbidden (De gustibus non disputandum). And thanks to this censoring law, which dispels contradiction, the subject is liberated from rhetorical labour; he is free to express his views uninhibitedly, and with this liberty, may happily assume, nay expect, that all men will offer their nod of consent.[30] This seamless convergence between subjective perception and societal validation would seem to produce an ideal consensus, even at the cost of expunging all difference.[31] “To judge aesthetically,” as Eagleton argues, “is implicitly to declare that a wholly subjective response is of the kind that every individual must necessarily experience, one that must elicit spontaneous agreement from them all.”[32]

            In both the perceptual and declarative moments of Kant’s judgement of beauty, then, the individual secures freedom through the elimination of labour.[33] Free to declare his taste, the judging subject stands untrammelled, certain that his view is irrefutable. Admittedly, if we are to accept Eagleton’s gloss on Kant, “what aesthetic judgement signifies … is essentially a form of altruism. In responding to an artefact, or to natural beauty, [the subject places his] own contingent aversions and appetencies in brackets, putting [himself] instead in everyone’s place and thus judging from the standpoint of a universal subjectivity.”[34] But the implications of Kant’s category may also produce the reverse scenario, a situation in which the subject enjoys and legitimizes his individualist autonomy by disregarding the sensuous properties of his object, and by imputing universal validity to his own singular viewpoint in lieu of proving that a supporting consensus for his views actually exists. The subject legislates that everyone else will share his subjective stance, the premise being that all are equally “disinterested” and comparably disposed in their contemplation of beauty. A universal consensus is thus fabricated in the mind of the Kantian subject; the conformity of the whole (society) to the part (the individual judge) is orchestrated by the faculty of the imagination, which, through mere imputation, can exercise laws of aesthetic agreement, while converting a singular perception into a universal consensus.

            Kant’s portrayal of the aesthetic in the Third Critique offers a vista from which to grasp the idea of a liberated subjectivity, conceived, articulated, and vindicated by the great 18th-century minds. His treatise is a philosophical index of modernity’s break from the chains of a feudal past, its extrication from the binding laws of tradition and authoritarian rule. In the abstract, the Critique delineates a sphere of aesthetic contemplation that will eventually become society’s laboratory, where freedom (with its associated attributes―spontaneity, creativity, individuality) can be sampled in judgements of taste, discourses of sensibility, and in the gaze upon nature and genteel artefacts. But the freedom that Kant’s Critique promotes is, in the end, an expulsion of necessity from the terrain of subjectivity. The highly patterned shape of his argument (its symmetrically reasoned analytics of aesthetic judgements) constitutes the design for an earthly paradise, devoid of the tangles of existence; here liberty, autonomy, and community fall onto the lap of the subject as manna from heaven, or as luscious peaches dropping into his palms (see Marvell’s The Garden). Labour is eclipsed, for it threatens to mar the perfection of the Elysium. This utopian world is schematized with all the necessary conditions (recall Kant’s various caveats: disinterestedness, purposelessness, conceptlessness) to preclude mental, manual, and rhetorical effort from disturbing its aesthetic embodiment of all-consuming pleasure. If the judgement of beauty speaks to the way in which society can be harmoniously coordinated, it does so by prescribing that causality (sensuous nature) and all manner of labour are expelled from that formalist model. For labour here is associated with sin and stigmatized as pain and punishment. It will be Morris’s task to reverse this Christian assumption and propose an alternative to the dualism of aesthetics and work that typifies modern thinking.


Aesthetics as Ideology

Kant’s own political society was not, of course, by any means of a fully-developed bourgeois kind; and to speak of him as a bourgeois philosopher may therefore seem to some merely anachronistic. There are many ways, however, in which his thought adumbrates the ideals of middle-class liberalism―in which his thinking is utopian in that positive, enriching sense. From the heart of autocracy, Kant speaks up bravely for values which will prove ultimately subversive of that regime; but it is curiously one-sided to claim Kant in this style as a liberal champion, and to overlook the ways in which his thought is already disclosing some of the problems and contradictions of the emergent middle-class order. [35]  

Terry Eagleton

The aesthetic act is itself ideological, and the production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right, with the function of inventing imaginary or formal "solutions" to unresolvable social contradictions. [36]

Fredric Jameson

            As an abstract paradigm, the aesthetic judgement both raises Kant’s ideals to the height of universal freedom, but also forecloses their realization. The judgement’s formalism incurs reversals that will compromise the philosopher’s worthy ethical aspirations and visions, indeed, will expose the limits of his otherwise revolutionary thought. For Morris (but also for Marx and Hegel), the problem with the Kantian aesthetic model is its disengagement from causality, and from the human necessity to labour for survival. By relegating this imperative to obscurity, Kant creates a utopian world of beautiful concord, yet one that is wrought of two opposing parts: an upper sphere in which judgements of beauty are declared as the measure of emancipated and enhanced subjectivity, and an underside―to which he seems oblivious—where the conditions for this subjective freedom are generated by the invisible hand of an exploited labouring community. Kant’s removal of substance, interest, and purpose from the formal structure of beauty sets the appearance of a beautiful world of likeminded subjects apart from its source. And this cleavage hints at two important though not wholly obvious features of this Kantian category: 1) that contrary to its claims, the aesthetic of beauty is not universally shared, but only enjoyed by those endowed with the power to declare their judgements and to discourse in the public sphere―gentlemen, whose opportunity for spontaneous and creative experience is secured thanks to the privations of other men and women; and 2) that given its formalism and disinterestedness, the aesthetic of beauty can serve as a suitable trope of political (notably, nationalist) discourse that thrives on its apparent universality and impartiality. Here, a rhetorician will seek to represent the whole of society, assuming, with neither proof nor investigative effort, a consensual support for his (subjective) claims. This is precisely how the judgement of beauty operates, declaring its universal validity in default of conceptual or empirical grounds. Indeed, in appearing to wield consensus, both the rhetorician of nationhood and the judge of beauty privilege their subjective stance by voicing their persuasion as if it were a direct echo of the popular will or of prevailing social taste. In both, the disarming ingredient of rhetoric is the pleasure associated with belonging to a community of fellow beings, in other words, with the beautiful formalism of social agreement.

            The judgement of beauty lends itself then to two scenarios: a moment of reception, of aesthetic communion for the privileged classes, and a moment of political persuasion on the national stage. In the first, the aesthetic judgement features in a shared, but circumscribed, discourse of the senses, of ‘gentlemanly’ conduct and cultural practices.[37] Here, genteel fellowship produces an aura of personal freedom and dignity; the individual no longer feels governed by the laws of reason and the state, but by those commanding directives of the heart. Still, if the discourse of beautiful aesthetics affords the individual a sense of autonomy, it is only an imagined one, restricted to a world of cultural rituals; significantly, also, such a discourse is contingent on disregarding the uneven relations of economic production and consumption upon which this imagined autonomy ultimately rests. But in generating an illusion of freedom, and therewith an all-consuming satisfaction that dulls critical thinking and forecloses inquiry, the judgement of beauty lends itself to more than privileged middle-class communing. In a second instance, it surfaces in a larger public sphere as a trope of political rhetoric that mollifies the public with the pleasures of national belonging and advances the interests of ideologues in the name of the national good. Being the epitome of unanimous agreement, the aesthetic of beauty harbours the requisite qualities for a political discourse that confidently pronounces its truths as universally shared with but patriotic advertisement as its supporting proof. [38]

            Paradoxically, in spite of Kant’s egalitarian intentions, the disinterested aesthetic performs (or has the potential to perform) an instrumental role. The absolute formalism of Kant’s logic, that all men have the inherent capacity to share in the judgement of beauty, and experience and judge it uniformly, is both a revolutionary notion, exhibiting unerring impartiality, and, as we have seen, an empty abstraction, destined to collapse. Kant’s model of absolute equality, applied to a society still severed by class distinctions, can only result in the vain attempt to square the circle. By bracketing out contradictions, he severs his aesthetic paradigm of societal harmony (the judgement of beauty) into a universal abstraction (noble, communitarian ideals) and an unmentionable other (a hidden world of vying appetites and social antagonism).

            Considered in the realm of civil society, judgements of taste embody moments of inter-subjectivity among middle-class subjects. Yet these same actors (who under contemplative conditions commune over beauty) relinquish fellowship, freedom, and mutual respect when in the competitive sphere of the market, dissolving into agents driven by an appetite for power and wealth. This forced separation of beautiful aesthetic form from real material frictions (class and other social divisions), Morris would argue, is symptomatic of the obscured asymmetry of modern society. Illusory appearances are maintained so long as the spheres of exploitative work (the market) and aesthetics are held apart; the energy expended to scaffold the image of the beautiful—wasted human life or “useless toil,” as Morris dubs it―remains largely imperceptible to the public eye. Thus, as he shows in “Art, Wealth and Riches,” the prevailing (deceptive) impression is one of equality and fairness.

Down to a certain class, that of the educated gentleman, as he is called, there is indeed equality of manners and bearing, and if the commoners still choose to humble themselves and play the flunkey, that is their own affair; but below that class there is, as it were, the stroke of a knife, and gentlemen and non-gentlemen divide the world.[39]

            Morris’s radical critique of this societal rift and its attendant duplicity surfaces in his provocative lecture of 1883, “Art under Plutocracy.”

Do not be deceived by the outside appearance of order in our plutocratic society. It fares with it as it does with the older forms of war, that there is an outside look of quiet wonderful order about it; how neat and comforting the steady march of the regiment; how quiet and respectable the sergeants look; how clean the polished cannon; neat as a new pin are the storehouses of murder; the books of adjutant and sergeant as innocent-looking as may be; nay, the very orders for destruction and plunder are given with a quiet precision which seems the very token of a good conscience; this is the mask that lies before the ruined cornfield and the burning cottage, the mangled bodies, the untimely death of worthy men, the desolated home. All this, the results of the order and sobriety which is the face which civilized soldiering turns towards us stay-at-homes, we have been told often and eloquently enough to consider; often enough we have been shown the wrong side of the glories of war, nor can we be shown it too often or too eloquently. Yet I say even such a mask is worn by competitive commerce, with its respectable prim order, its talk of peace and the blessings of intercommunication of countries and the like; and all the while its whole energy, its whole organized precision is employed in one thing, the wrenching the means of living from others…[40]

The regularity of military step, the sergeants’ respectable demeanour, the precise articulation of military instruction, the sheen of the canon, in short, the aesthetics of military ceremony recall the alluring mask of competitive commerce, with its rhetoric of cordial and egalitarian inter-subjectivity: fair and formal exchanges are held on an ‘equal’ playing field.[41] Both war and competitive commerce (class war) flaunt beautiful forms―uniforms, medals, polished canons, fetishised commodities—while engaging in the violation of humanity; and this is surely the quintessential doubleness of the aesthetic judgement when exploited in political discourse: its beautiful shape (e.g., order, coherence, eloquence, and seeming universality) can serve the destructive military ends of patriotism, and comparably, the destructive energies of competitive commerce. In both instances, one part of society is wasted, de-formed by ill-health or death, while society’s ideological apparel, an image of wondrous consensus, maintains a beautiful form.

            Morris’s critique of aesthetics in a plutocratic society is invariably a critique of society itself.  All art, he writes, is inextricably bound to “the labour of the mass of mankind, and ... any pretensions which may be made for even the highest intellectual art to be independent of these general conditions are futile and vain; that is to say, that any art which professes to be founded on the special education or refinement of a limited body or class must of necessity be unreal and short-lived.”[42] Divided and divisive economic conditions, privileging one social group over another, can only darken society’s fate.

… all those who know what art means will agree with me in asserting that pleasure is a necessary companion to the making of everything that can be called a work of art. … Let us face the truth, and admit that a society which allows little other human and degrading pleasure to the greater part of its toilers save the pleasure that comes of rest after the torment of weary work - that such a society should not be stable if it is; that it is but natural that such a society should be honeycombed with corruption and sick with oft-repeated sordid crimes. [43]

Just as society spirals downwards, so art grows deficient; its partial character―literally benefiting one particular class—exhibits a wanting anatomy. Its two significant limbs, material production and consumption, are buried, while representation is its only visible facet. Art, the rhetorical conduit of social cohesion, sustains but an ethereal presence; it is the Cheshire cat’s smile, perceptible only as a free-floating image. Against this idealism, Morris engenders an ontological theory of art, turning us away from the ideology of the aesthetic to the wholesome and salubrious character of art as creative praxis.


Genuine Beauty: What’s labour got to do with it?

[T]he aim of those who look on the popular arts seriously is, that we should be masters of our work, and be able to say what we will have and what we will do; and the price which we must pay for the attainment of that aim is, to speak quite plainly, the recasting of society.[44] 

            Many of Morris’s lectures of the 1870s and 1880s are indictments of the sham character of art in modern society. But this repudiation is not confined to critique, nor does it vitiate into cynicism. His grievances grow into a galvanizing, transformative spirit. Out of the ashes of capitalism’s dying culture, Morris erects a theory, which aims to return the public’s aesthetic sensibility to its material roots; art is to be studied both from the angle of production and reception. This quasi-anthropological restoration of the ontological foundations of art―humanity’s drive for fulfillment and dignity―presupposes a shift in thinking; indeed, it hinges 1) on seeing art as universal and inherent in all healthy humans:

... what I mean by an art is some creation of man which appeals to his emotions and his intellect by means of his senses. All the greater arts appeal directly to that intricate combination of intuitive perceptions, feelings, experience, and memory which is called imagination. … But we must never forget that all men who are not naturally deficient … have imagination in some measure, … so that they also are partakers of the greater arts, and the masters of them have not to speak under their breath to half-a-dozen chosen men, but rather their due audience is the whole race of man properly and healthily developed … (My italics)[45]

and 2) on acknowledging a wholesale reconfiguration of society where labour ceases to be exploitative, depleting, or ascetic, as when subjected to the Victorian gospel of work; instead, in its optimal form, it is creative and ludic.[46] Thus transfigured, labour can appear without the slightest blush of shame; it can be exhibited as freely as Morris portrays Boffin, the Golden Dustman of News from Nowhere (an inversion of Dickens’s character from Our Mutual Friend). Disclosed through his decorative attire―an ornamental marker of his creative task—, Boffin engages in labour that is so worthy and satisfying that it blends into art. Decorated in, rather than exchanged for, gold, his dress suggests that market exchange, profit, and waste have been superseded in Nowhere by creative praxis, a wholesome existence embodied in Boffin himself.[47] Neither physically wasted, nor demeaned by carrying out degrading work, his waste management constitutes healthy (because creative) activity, reflected in his fine demeanour and striking build. Uninhibitedly showy in his dress, Boffin advertises the Nowherian premise that even labour serving material needs can be exalted as a measure of human dignity and elegance. For in Morris’s eyes, genuine beauty is endowed with ethical, productive and contemplative attributes, all inextricably linked to aesthetic praxis as the fount of human happiness.

            By contrast, labour performed for a wage is, for most, both a sustaining force and a hated beast; it can never coexist on the public stage along with rituals and discourses of civic beauty. It must remain hidden in some nether Dickensian world, at once reviled and required to fuel the machine of capital. Liberating labour from its Caliban state, Morris transforms it into its contrary: a creative activity where the expenditure of (physical and mental) energy is harnessed to purposeful (both useful and beautiful) aesthetic form. The idealist shame over bringing labour into the company of art is now dispelled. For labour has now joined the ranks of art itself. Removed from enslavement (alienated activity), it becomes the latter’s sheer opposite: sensuously gratifying, socially, and spiritually enhancing―the measure of human fulfillment and well-being.

            “Useful Work versus Useless Toil,” the title of Morris’s 1884 lecture, poignantly captures this dramatic contrast between attractive and alienated work. Indeed, the very ‘evils’ and defects of alienated labour would seem to be the starting points for Morris’s conception of creative praxis. His projected ideal encompasses four principal criteria: 1) that the end and purpose of work should be obvious to the worker; implicitly, he must hold its rationale and objective in mind to secure a master vision of his project; 2) that work should be of short duration; this averts the unrelenting strain that eventually obscures the end and purpose of strenuous activity; 3) that work should be varied; dynamic vitality and enthusiasm are thus maintained; and 4) that such work should occur in pleasant surroundings, conducive to pleasurable production.[48] These four criteria for joyful work are precise ripostes to alienated labour 1) where the benefits, end product, and purpose of the worker’s task are withheld from him; indeed, where his labour is without gratification; 2)  where work exceeds reasonable limits and the worker is physically spent (hence the appeals for shorter working hours during the nineteenth century); 3) where work is wearisome and the worker is both mentally dulled and physiologically weakened; and 4) where work occurs in soulless institutions or prison-like factories and the worker’s aesthetic sensibility is stifled; here, the inhospitable space exacerbates an already debilitating task. Useless toil clearly portends the labourer’s physical and spiritual decline; by contrast, useful work fosters regenerative, life-enhancing productivity. The former transforms the worker into a slave; the latter renders him a master of his own undertakings, capable of setting goals and mobilizing his ideas autonomously. To guarantee such autonomy, the worker must be endowed with a vision of his overall endeavour; he must be the purposeful architect of his work. This is his defiance against the amorphousness of waste: squandered human life and gutted nature.     

            Offering an alternative to Kant’s dualism, Morris’s creative praxis produces a material autonomy, which the eighteenth-century gentleman can experience only in thought. Proposing that the aesthetic of beauty need not be confined to appearances, to judgements of taste that evade the resistances posed by necessity, labour, and human activity generally, Morris presents four caveats that afford the individual a mastery over his material conditions―not through evasion, but through interventions that quell the pain associated with all-consuming exertion. In a first instance, lengthy labour, which expands indifferently to the individual’s human needs and which, if not curbed, comes to resemble sheer survival, is shortened. This alters the very complexion of relentless effort imposed by nature’s exigencies (and by an exploitative system). Second, Morris’s proposal that space be redesigned to introduce balance and continuity between the subject and the outer world envisages a way of superseding nature’s indifference to humanity, and, conversely, of overcoming humanity’s insensitivity to nature. Third, variety serves to annul the relentlessness of consuming effort: ‘a change is as good as a rest.’ Finally, the artist-workman’s capacity to grasp the goal of his endeavour guarantees his autonomy; his encompassing architectural vision graces him with designing power. Morris’s four reconfigurations of labour are, in this sense, modes of creating rest within activity, repose within dynamism, relief from the subject’s complete immersion in activity, and from his potential loss of purpose. By injecting artistic conditions into human praxis, in short, by redesigning labour itself, Morris overcomes the need to expel labour from art.

            Now, while the Kantian judge of aesthetic beauty is engaged exclusively in contemplative practice, his pleasure and sense of liberated subjectivity are contingent on pre-existing and defining conditions, not altogether different from those that Morris prescribes for artist-labourers. Mastery or visualization of purpose, questions of time, space (setting), and variety surface here, too. To experience a degree of autonomy, the Kantian subject momentarily acts as a designing master of his judgment, declaring his irrefutable point of view; time does not enslave him, since he contemplates beauty freely (in leisure); variety offers him relief from uneventful leisure; and finally, his social space (or setting) is enhanced by a pleasing décor and constitutes a site of concord with fellow gentlemen. No doubt, where Morris’s artist-labourer must create the conditions of autonomy, rest, and satisfaction from within his activity (and this thanks to a fair division of labour in a society that guarantees men freedom from poverty and fear), Kant’s judging subject enjoys his free subjectivity but is blind to the preconditions of his contemplative experience, secured through someone else’s efforts.

            At this juncture, it may be objected that I have pitted Morris’s holistic theory of art (which includes creative/productive and evaluative/receptive moments) against Kant’s exclusively evaluative aesthetics, omitting his discussion of the creative or productive facet of art. True. But Kant’s concept of the production of fine (beautiful) art shows that it relies on genius, in itself an exclusionary and singular model that precludes democratic possibilities. Genius is the talent (or natural gift) which gives the rule to art … It is entirely opposed to the spirit of imitation,[49] and therefore cannot be taught. It is not widely accessible and loses the apparently democratic aspect assigned to the judgement of beauty, where all men (in theory) can participate in evaluative aesthetic declarations.  More importantly, since genius is a gift bequeathed at birth, it operates through spontaneity and intuition; vigorous labour is anathema to it. Geniuses and beautiful art achieve an integrity (a purposiveness) like that of nature, yet without any trace of rule-bound activity.

            For Morris, the severance of necessary labour from aesthetic judgments or from an exceptional ideal such as “genius” leads to society’s perennial tensions, divisions, and eventual decline. In response, he offers a dialectical model of labour, exemplified in the medieval Gothic artist―the craftsman[50] par excellence. Often charged with idealization (how really free was the medieval worker?), this model of creative praxis, nonetheless, constitutes an important epistemological standpoint from which Morris erects his idea of labour as cooperative, free, and fulfilling.

Men whose hands were skilled in fashioning things could not help thinking the while, and soon found out that their deft fingers could express some part of the tangle of their thoughts, and that this new pleasure hindered not their daily work, for in their very labour that they lived by lay the material in which their thought could be embodied; and thus though they laboured, they laboured somewhat for their pleasure and uncompelled, and had conquered the curse of toil, and were men.[51]

In this ideal-type of medieval craft, the aesthetic dimension, only partially serving contemplative ends, acts as an appeasing component of an otherwise strenuous expenditure of energy. Fully implicated in fashioning matter into form, it sweetens the bitterness of labour’s exertions, giving rationale to the ‘tangle’ of individual and social existence. Here, for a brief moment, Kant and Morris meet again.  For, as the governing principle of creative praxis, the Morrisian aesthetic category carries a pleasure principle akin to the Kantian aesthetic judgement: i.e., the immediate recognition of wholeness that satisfies the senses. But where Kant’s category is an intuitive (and thus instantly gratifying) grasp of the ‘idea’ of beauty, validated by a judgment imputed to all men, Morris’s aesthetic is a material creation of wholeness, which the artist-worker captures mentally through his own artistic efforts and goal-setting designs (teleological positings).[52] The gratification in perceiving wholeness is thus common to both Kantian and Morrisian categories, but where the experience of pleasure in Kant is contingent on the immediacy of perception and judgment, dissociated from strenuous physical and cognitive effort, in Morris, pleasure is a practically defined experience that mingles with, and crowns, the sensuous and mental endeavour.

            Finally, just as the Kantian aesthetic of beauty arises out of more than an individualist perception of wholeness, indeed, out of social validation (albeit an imputed consensus), so in Morris’s creative praxis, a communitarian spirit (a true sensus communis) is necessary for the production and validation of genuine beauty, ultimately the measure of a shared ethos of artistic co-production. Gratifying experience for the individual must coincide with the pleasure of others; it cannot, as in bourgeois aesthetic taste, be oblivious to the matter of social cost. This ethical dimension of Morris’s aesthetic theory surfaces out of his reading of Ruskin’s Modern Painters where aesthetics and ethics unite in a critique of the “appetite of tasteful cruelty,” notably the cruelty of the Victorian elite, whose flaunted refinement and ‘good taste’ derive from an exploited underclass. We “pamper the palate with deadly meats,” writes Ruskin, “until the appetite of tasteful cruelty is lost in its sickened satiety, incapable of pleasure unless, Caligula like, it concentrates the labour of a million lives into the sensation of an hour.” [53]  

            Secularizing Ruskin’s ethical aesthetics, grounded as they are in Christian theology,[54] Morris suggests that production and consumption be coordinated in a cooperative practice, underpinned by an ethos of reciprocity between user (consumer) and producer (maker); in this scenario, no pleasure is consumed by the few while the many suffer want.  For Morris, the epitome of such a practice, which underscores social equality, artistic inter-subjectivity and mutually beneficial labour, is architectural art. 

The user, the consumer, must choose his wares to be so and so, and the maker of them must agree with his choice. The fashion of them must not be forced on either the user or the maker; the two must be of one mind, and be capable under easily conceivable circumstances of exchanging their parts of user and maker. The carpenter makes a chest for the goldsmith one day, the goldsmith a cup for the carpenter on another, and there is sympathy in their work―that is, the carpenter makes for his goldsmith friend just such a chest as he himself would have if he needed a chest; the goldsmith's cup is exactly what he would make for himself if he needed one. Each is conscious during his work of making a thing to be used by a man of like needs to himself. I ask you to note these statements carefully, for I shall have to put a contrast to these conditions of work presently. Meantime observe that this question of ornamental or architectural art does not mean, as perhaps most people think it does, whether or not a certain amount of ornament or elegance shall be plastered on to a helpless, lifeless article of daily use―a house, a cup, a spoon, or what not. The chest and the cup, the house, or what not, may be as simple or as rude as you please, or as devoid of what is usually called ornament; but done in the spirit I have told you of, they will inevitably be works of art.[55]

            A genuine community has been engendered here through collectively coordinated art, through a creative praxis (or ideal labour) that converts the imagined communitarian spirit of the Kantian judgment of taste into a substantive reality. Morris’s vision of architecture conceives a model where users and consumers engaged in cooperative work are conscious of each other’s aesthetic sensibilities and material needs. For, “[i]n work so done there is and must be the interchange of interest in the occupations of life; the knowledge of human necessities and the consciousness of human good-will is a part of all such work, and the world is linked together by it.”[56]

            Embracing both the utility and beauty of the human habitat, architecture ensures that art is produced in function of society’s welfare, not as an expression of solipsistic desire or of wealth concentrated in the hands of an elite. Morrisian beauty, then, ensues from an ethical responsibility to the social and natural environment, and unlike the disinterestedness of Kant’s aesthetic judgment, its defining criteria are vitally dependent on shared pleasure guaranteed by the abolition of class distinctions, the promotion of leisure, the elimination of wasteful work, and ecological sensitivity to the earth. These grounds of validation are embedded in material and practical conditions that will secure the health of humans and non-humans alike. For art, as Morris argues, is to be construed in the widest sense, not as a specific artistic practice, but as a universal, life-enhancing praxis impinging on all facets of our external world.[57] 

            Lecturing in 1884 before the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, at a time when utilitarianism may well have derided the discussion of the aesthetic as frivolous beside the imperatives of industry, science, and technology, Morris’s advocacy of art at once serves to legitimize its discussion, to remove it from the cloisters of professional artists, and to democratize it. “We are all interested in it, whether we know it or not: because unless we have this peculiarly human pleasure of life we cannot be happy as men ...”[58] In 1884, as Morris enters most explicitly and directly into the political arena, his thoughts are no less preoccupied with aesthetics than with strategy, propaganda, and problems of social change.[59] For him, the categories of ornament, utility, and politics are intimately intertwined. In this period, he asks: “what are the relations of the Labour of man on the earth … what should be the relations of Art to Labour?”[60] It is this inquiry that distinguishes Morris from his German idealist counterpart. For while Kant’s aesthetic judgment and Morris’s concept of beauty both constitute in a larger sense the measure of a society’s fair and viable organization, Kant’s category, in spite of its universalist claims, remains but the appearance of collective well-being. Morris’s concept points to an all-encompassing commonweal where form (the representation of societal beauty) coincides with the actual essence of a truly integrated and ethically sound community. The utopian romance News from Nowhere exemplifies this integration fictively.

            Some internal tensions aside,[61] the social world of Nowhere is well-knit, both in substance and appearance. Descriptions of rural grace, fine architecture, and economic prosperity are not external accoutrements or romantic frills of Morris’s prose; they are indices of a smoothly run economy and of genial human relations. To the modern reader, this congruity between form and content may appear embarrassingly naive. Indeed, such a reader might be unable to conceive of a world in which human needs are universally met and in which cooperation is fundamental; he will likely spurn Morris’s egalitarian social order as fantastical and dismiss his proposed paradigm for a genuinely ‘participatory democracy’ as ‘utopian’.  But the credibility of Morris’s utopian romance pivots on an epistemological shift, on admitting the complete transformation of labour, from a category contingent on physical and moral degradation to one defined by pleasure and fulfillment. Once this is granted, the belief in Morris’s Nowherian commonweal can crystallize fully. Art and its associated aesthetic judgments can then become decidedly more than rhetorical blandishments, indeed, a true measure of social cohesion.


Morris and the Modernists

            From its materialist standpoint, Morris’s philosophy calls for an authentically democratic society. While not explicitly directed at the Enlightenment’s proclaimed ideals, his theory nonetheless indicts the failed promises of progressive liberalism where the idealist aesthetic of beauty is exploited as a key component of modernity’s ideological discourse.[62] It is the rhetorical and formalist nature of idealist beauty that Morris’s writings persistently challenge, if only by proxy. For while his critique is not levelled specifically at Kant’s aesthetic category, it targets all that can ensue from the ideological use of idealist aesthetics: e.g., society’s production of shoddy and sham goods, its rampant hypocrisy, and deceptive appearances. Thus Morris’s 1870s-80s lectures repudiate his country’s claims to ‘democracy’. For him, nineteenth-century England is a ‘plutocracy,’ a state of commercial war masquerading under elegant forms of gentlemanly English manners and refined art where judgements of (beautiful) taste serve the cause of political power.         

            By indicting the quintessential dualism of liberal democracy, Morris necessarily disturbs the ground of his fellow men and, for this, pays the price of exclusion. Though scarcely unique in his indictments, he stands apart (with the exception of Marx) from his contemporaries; their views chafe against the grain of their modern world, but never so deeply as to disrupt its underlying premises. Carlyle, Ruskin, Tennyson, George Eliot, Dickens are all social critics of their era, yet none can conceive a solution to England’s woes that entails the eclipse of class division. Even Ruskin, who bequeaths to Morris the building blocks for an altered concept of labour, remains trapped epistemologically, caught within the tensions of a conservative, theologically-inspired world-view. Morris’s mid-nineteenth-century contemporaries (mainstream novelists and poets such as Eliot, Dickens, Tennyson, inter alia) stand fettered to a belief that their nation’s redemption lies in restoring a quintessentially beautiful but strangled ideal of English goodness, glimpsed in romantic images of country grace and purity; these are suggestive of a shared structure of feeling, requiring no justification or rationalization, but instantly perceived as the emblem of English society at its most harmonious and just.[63] Like Kant’s category of beauty, when adopted as a rhetorical trope, this cherished ideal resists challenging modernity’s economic divisions.

            Beyond the pale, Morris’s difference has often been aligned with the innovations of the modernists who seek to underscore “rupture” and “the new” in contesting dominant Victorian culture. These late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century figures (e.g., Wilde, Pater, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Eliot, and Pound) variously question the viability of the Enlightenment project. They are modernity’s veritable critics.[64] Described as the representatives of “an aggregative self-reflection,”[65] they belong to a culture of self-consciousness and disillusionment[66] that excoriates the incursions of capitalist modernity: the extravagant human cost of industrial conquest, the market’s accruing philistinism and the spread of utilitarian values.

            The modernists’ defining signature is thus not the aesthetic of beauty, but various permutations of sublimity,[67] befitting their elitist exclusivity, and their often abstruse and esoteric artistic preoccupations. They refuse “coherent meaning and representation in the face of an unacceptable reality, [engaging] in a sometimes desperate declaration of ‘autonomy’”.[68] Yet, they represent a contradictory phenomenon that both contests the distinctive features of modernity and its noxious residues (e.g., rapacious industrialization, instrumental rationalization, expanding technology, and new phenomenologies of time, etc.), but also capitalizes on these energized forces.[69] Although commonly associated with a strenuous preservation of aesthetic autonomy and a fierce resistance to commodification, modernist art also encourages its own commodification, turning itself into “a commodity of a special sort, … temporarily exempted from the exigencies of immediate consumption prevalent within the larger cultural economy, and … integrated into a different economic circuit of patronage, collecting, speculation, and investment …”[70] Despite their exclusivism, modernists venture eagerly into the market (see Pound and Eliot) from which their formalist poetics seem to secure distance and detachment. Indeed, their achievements become parasitical, reaping material from mass culture for their own aesthetic ends and rendering their art conduits of commodity exchange.[71]

            A familiar pattern reappears: where the Kantian judgement of beauty is presented as disinterested, but lends itself to instrumental political rhetoric, so the modernist work of art assumes an apparent autonomy―an aura of non-commerciality—while entering into the thick of the cash nexus.  Adopting a peripheral posture, key modernists (e.g., Joyce, Eliot, and Pound) produce art seemingly removed from market dealings, yet the emergence of their cultural products constitutes an entrepreneurial project, in itself implicated in the profit-driven motives of capitalist publishing. Morris’s Kelmscott Press, by contrast, launches “the limited edition,” and resists the standard production of texts. His press runs are small, aimed at guaranteeing quality control in typographical design and fairness in relations of production. Through his Kelmscott enterprise, Morris lives out his model of work, exemplifying the freedom and fulfillment of the artist/labourer. Admittedly, his “typographical adventure”[72] is subjected to significant business costs and to an emerging speculative market beyond his control. But while pricey, his undertaking is driven neither by interest in, nor by a tendency towards, accumulation.[73] Rather, in the production of carefully wrought books, he builds a symbolic microcosm of the ‘good life,’ the kind narrated in News from Nowhere, and made sensuously palpable in the textured pages of his ornamented books. Stylized with elaborate frames and fonts, the Kelmscott texts centre the reader in a meditative, medievalist space akin to the hush of a Gothic cathedral;[74] in this they also impose new visual cues that alter conventional reading practices and readjust the scale of reading time to match a tranquil niche, resistant to the dizzying pace of modern existence.[75] Morris’s Kelmscott work extricates the ‘alienated’ reader from a purely private, consuming role, and urges him to witness the material gestation of the book, the imprints of passion in creative authorship. Such delight in artistic labour (see the meticulous care invested in each design) is not merely a joy for the maker, but is intended equally for the viewer; it constitutes a shared wealth where reader and author achieve a mutual sympathy, experiencing mirroring (‘speculative’) pleasures inspired by the decorated page—the symbolic setting of wholesome nature, burgeoning with tendrils and ‘green’ prosperity, as it were.[76] The Kelmscott book incarnates a materialist aesthetic of beauty, a form of redeemed labourdrudgery transfigured into art by fellowship and salutary life.

            This innovative philosophy of art (albeit derived from Ruskin’s Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice) is a unique vision, not readily envisaged by Morris’s contemporaries and followers; his view that labour should be universally gratifying presupposes the destruction of the private property of the means of production and, in this, interrogates a now settled political consensus that deems class divisions inexorable. Morris’s radicalism also discloses the deceptively emancipatory character of modernist innovation which assumes a defiant artistic autonomy, but reinforces the principles and cleavages of a market society (i.e., art versus labour, high art versus craft, and ‘cerebral’ art versus alienated work) through an isolationist, yet self-privileging aesthetic of difference. Seeking to supersede these divisions, Morris construes the de-centering of art as a symptom of society’s malaise. Under optimum conditions, art is to be universally shared; it is to stand at the heart of a balanced economy based on cooperation rather than competition.

            Philosophically radical as much as they are politically revolutionary, these ideas (even when enveloped in literary form) are not easily assimilable by the market or by the academe; indeed, they risk being shelved. Peter Faulkner notes how Morris’s poetic reputation declined seriously in the early twentieth century due to a literary prescription announced by modernists (e.g., T.S. Eliot, Yeats, and F.R. Leavis) that poetry “should be intelligent and demanding rather than a form of relaxation or escape…” [77] In 1921, Eliot concluded that

Morris was the victim of an etiolated poetic tradition, which made its central effort ‘to construct a dream world’ … Dr. Leavis made a similar point in his influential plea for modernism, New Bearings in English Poetry in 1932: … ‘Who for instance, would guess from his poetry that William Morris was one of the most versatile, energetic and original men of his time, a force that impinged decisively in the world of practice? He reserved poetry for his day-dreams.’”[78]

The authors of these judgements of taste (who would eventually become canonical) were clearly powerful fashioners of culture, preemptorily dismissing Morris’s poetry and dream-visions as facile escapism. In this they overlooked the political intricacy and transformative energy of his oneiric literature.[79] Implicitly they construed Morrisian dream-worlds as spaces for idle musing and mental wanderings, rather than the repositories of a bold political imaginary. Conflating Morris’s ‘beautiful’ poetics with the faded beauty of an “etiolated” tradition, they wrenched his writing out of its political fabric, assuming that lyrical beauty could not also be astute and intellectually robust, only charming and naive. As such, their contempt for literary forms seemingly bereft of sophistication dissociates itself from the Kantian beautiful, a category contingent on its transparency and universal accessibility (and inaccurately associated with Morris.) If modernist art was to be “intelligent” and “demanding,” it would have to acquire a sublime distinction and become conceptually daunting, indeed, graspable only by the initiated.

            Although preoccupied with beauty, and widely enjoyed for his comic wit, Morris’s modernist admirer Oscar Wilde shares in this sublimity, so typical of twentieth-century modernism. Fiercely paradoxical and intellectually disarming, his literary aesthetic, while viscerally accessible, defies conventional reasoning. In that sublimity resides his individualist pursuit of liberty. For Wilde is Kantian in his theoretical disposition; he discerns a yawning gulf between nature and mind. Indeed, in that philosophical spirit, he eschews Morris’s political objective to unite beauty and labour; instead he reproduces the rift between art and the empirical world, adulating an artistic singularity suited to modernity’s divisions between elites and masses.[80]

            If Morris fervently seeks to dispel the antinomies that such aesthetic individualism favours, he is no less preoccupied with the idea of autonomy; yet his reading is of a Hegelian kind, prescribing an inter-subjective, ethically engaged, and dialogical freedom where individuals cooperate with their fellowmen, recognise the necessities of history and nature, and through a magnanimous vision, enhance their own liberty and selfhood. Such autonomy depends on reconciling the limits of matter with the freedom of agency by reshaping the rigorous task of human existence (labour) into a model of artistic endeavour.[81] Pitted against modernity’s typically dualist epistemology, Morris’s dialectical views, to many, remain confounding—likely eclipsed before they are grasped. His art and philosophy are swiftly construed as innocently beautiful. But in the interlaced tendrils and delicately veined foliage of his wallpaper designs―graphic equivalents of his literary tapestries—the signs of a sophisticated and precocious thinker are obvious. As E.P. Thompson noted, “[w]e may see in William Morris, not a late Victorian, nor even a ‘contemporary,’ but a new kind of sensibility,”[82] often deceptively simple and baffling in its novelty. A close reading of Morris’s literary and philosophical oeuvre suggests that we have not caught up with himwe have yet to look and think again.

[1] I draw this concept from Fredric Jameson to refer to a catalyst that serves a final purpose but is then eclipsed as a dispensable mediation. See Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory:Essays 1971-1986. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, 157-64

[2] Mark Swenarton. Artisans and Architects. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1989, 92.

[3] Morris was particularly influenced by Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (notably the chapter, “The Nature of Gothic”) and Modern Painters.

[4] Volume XXII of Morris’s collected works contains the lectures in Hopes and Fears for Art and fifteen other lectures delivered between 1881 and 1894 under the heading of Lectures on Art and Industry. See May Morris, ed. The Collected Works of William Morris, Vol. XXII. New York: Russell and Russell, 1966. Volume XXIII of Morris’s collected works contains lectures delivered between 1885 and 1894, grouped in two sections: Signs of Change and Lectures on Socialism. See May Morris, ed. The Collected Works of William Morris, Vol. XXIII. New York: Russell and Russell, 1966.

[5] See “Art: A Serious Thing,” delivered on December 12, 1882 before the Leek School of Art. In Eugene D. Lemire, The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969, 39.

[6] By “lesser art,” Morris is referring to the decorative arts which had been degraded into mechanical and trivial artistic practice. In their former incarnation, the lesser arts constituted a vital and popular art, distinct from their modern status. See “The Lesser Arts” in May Morris, op. cit., Vol. XXII, 3-4.

[7] The very eclipsing of William Morris from the canonical anthologies on aesthetics such as the Oxford Handbook on Aesthetics and Terry Eagleton’s  Ideology of the Aesthetic confirms my point that Morris’s art has been relegated to the practice of, and preoccupation with, the “decorative” arts, deemed lesser since they are construed in function of their demeaned contemporary status. See endnote 6. On this gap in scholarship, see also Jeffrey Petts’s efforts to reaffirm the value of Morris’s writings on art, indeed, to marshall the importance of Morris’s “development of a theory of art and of aesthetic education” in “Good Work and Aesthetic Education: William Morris, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Beyond.” Journal of Aesthetic Education. Vol. 42, no.1 (Spring 2008): 31, 43.

[8] William Morris. “The Revival of Handicraft.” May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXIII, 341.

[9] These were his two preferred tools of expression. See Norman Kelvin, “Patterns in Time: the Decorative and the Narrative in the Work of William Morris.” Nineteenth-Century Lives. Essays Presented to Jerome Hamilton Buckley. Eds. Laurence S. Lockridge, John Maynard, and Donald D. Stone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 140.

[10] Petts also sees an underlying coherence in Morris’s lectures on art. That they were delivered as rhetorical addresses to a vast array of audiences (from civic leaders to students of art), and not specifically to philosophers, does not compromise the unity and consistency of Morris’s philosophical thought. See Petts, op. cit., 31.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Several of his lectures are written in a simple style to suit the calibre of his audiences; but there are other writings where the diction becomes more sophisticated. (See “How We Live and How We Might Live” and “Whigs, Democrats and Socialists.”)

[13] “I say as far as possible: for as all roads lead to Rome, so the life, habits, and aspirations of all groups and classes of the community are founded on the economical conditions under which the mass of the people live, and it is impossible to exclude socio-political questions from the consideration of aesthetics.” William Morris. “The Revival of Handicraft” (1888) in May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXIII, 332.

[14] Terry Eagleton. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

[15] I draw this formulation from Lukács’s The Ontology of Social Being to underscore the ontological nature of Morris’s concept of aesthetics in which art as a form of labour is construed as a basic category of human existence. See Georg Lukács, The Ontology of  Social Being, Labour. London: Merlin Press, 1978.

[16] The following remarks are not uncommon: “Morris’ approach to aesthetics was unique amongst communists. Despite the centrality of art to his concerns, he did not have a fully worked-out theory of aesthetics. His approach was instinctual, intuitive. It would not be easy to extrapolate from his writings a whole theory of art, and such an attempt might be ill-advised.” See David Gorman, “Art, Work and Communism: The Vision of William Morris.” New Interventions Vol.10, no.2, 2000. www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/pages/Newint/Morris.html.

[17] I am grateful for Jeffrey Petts’s and Paul Guyer’s first explorations of this virgin ground. See Jeffrey Petts, op. cit.; see also, Paul Guyer, “History of Modern Aesthetics.” The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Ed. Jerrold Levinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 38.

[18] For a study of the reception of Morris’s poetry and the “ridicule which was frequently heaped” on his poetic style, see Karl Litzenberg, “William Morris and the Reviews. A Study in the Fame of the Poet.” The Review of English Studies, Vol. 12, no. 48 (Oct., 1936): 413-428. For other critical reviews, see also, among others, Peter Faulkner ed., William Morris. The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1973, 182-188.    

[19] Stephen Arata. “On Not Paying Attention.” Victorian Studies, Winter 2004, 203.

[20] See Maurice Hewlitt’s review of News from Nowhere in the National Review, August 1891, xvii, 818-27 in Faulkner, op. cit., 343-353.

[21] See Jeffrey Skoblow, Paradise Dislocated. Morris, Politics, Art. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia Press, 1993, xiv. See also Litzenberg, op. cit., 413-414.

[22] I am referring here, in part, to the opposition between abstraction and sensation that was one of the most pivotal elements of late nineteenth-century modernist thought. As Sanford Schwartz points out, the opposition between abstraction and experience did not emerge suddenly at the turn of the century; its origins lie in the cultural revolution that occurred a century earlier. Bergson, James, Bradley, and Nietzsche are heavily indebted to their nineteenth-century forebears, and their innovations are scarcely comprehensible without the groundwork laid by Kant and Hegel …” See Sanford Schwartz, The Matrix of Modernism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985, 7.

[23] See Rachel Terri Teukolsky, “The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and the Prose of Modern Aesthetics.” Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, 2004, 215-216.

[24] My analysis coincides with notions articulated in Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic, and derives from my early discussion of aesthetics in Reclaiming William Morris, Sublimity and the Rhetoric of Dissent, Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996; but my intervention here engages with Morris’s theory of aesthetics, and fills a gap which Terry Eagleton admits was evident in his own work. See Eagleton, op. cit., 11.     

[25] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement. New York: Hafner Press, 1951, 45.

[26] Kant. Op.cit., 56.

[27] Here I am not implying that the judgement of beauty involves no mental activity. The judgement entails both the mental efforts of the judge and that of his audience. But the nature of the judgement is such that it is imputed to everyone, and can thus elicit immediate agreement from all; the rhetorical process (and here I emphasize that aesthetic judgements are not just evaluative statements but structures of political persuasion) is virtually tautological and, as a result, simplifies the persuasive endeavour by foreclosing controversy and dissent. Admittedly, the judge who declares an object to be beautiful utters his claims with the energy and confidence that are required to assert  the universal validity of such a judgement. Conversely, recipients of this assertion are expected to agree with it, and implicitly to suppress any difference of opinion. In this sense, the judgement of beauty is not about mere enjoyment or passivity, but about the immediacy of satisfaction and agreement achieved by all parties. For, where protracted (i.e., laborious) persuasion and controversy are averted, the idea of the beautiful is communicated swiftly, smoothly, and universally. 

[28] Kant. Op.cit., 52.

[29] It deploys two formal structures of universality: “cognition in general” (Kant. Op. cit., 52) and a “subjective universality” (Kant. Op. cit., 46; 49).

[30]  Kant. Op. cit., 47; 50-51.

[31] An equality of tastes may be read in Kant as the liberation of the individual subject from the fetters of encrusted aesthetic values and antiquated norms; but it may also be viewed as the tyranny of sameness where all bourgeois subjects are compelled to admire beauty in a uniform way.

[32] Eagleton. Op. cit., 93.

[33] Strenuous mental labour is dispensable when a perceived object is instantly and pleasingly registered by the cognitive faculties; persuasive labour is renounced when the judgement is asserted as universally valid.

[34] Eagleton. Op. cit., 97.

[35] Eagleton. Op. cit., 76.

[36] Fredric Jameson. The Political Unconscious. London: Methuen, 1981, 79.

[37] Eagleton. Op. cit., 32.

[38] Weinroth. Op. cit., 50-83.

[39] William Morris. “Art, Wealth, and Riches.” May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXIII, 153.

[40] William Morris. “Art Under Plutocracy.” May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXIII, 186-87.

[41] See Karl Marx, Capital,  Vol. 1. Chapter 6. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1954, 172. Here Marx shows the decidedly asymmetrical relations underpinning the market’s conditions of seeming equality and freedom.

[42] William Morris. “Art Under Plutocracy” (1883). May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXIII, 173.

[43] William Morris. “Art, Wealth, and Riches” (1883). May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXIII, 152.

[44] William Morris. “Art and Its Producers” (1888). May Morris. Op. cit., Vol.  XXII, 353.

[45] William Morris. “The Lesser Arts of Life” (1882). May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXII, 235-6.

[46] On the question of play in Morris’s concept of labour as art, see Ray Watkinson. “The Obstinate Refusers: Work in News From Nowhere.” William Morris & News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time. Eds. Stephen Coleman and Paddy O’Sullivan. Bideford, Devon: Green Books, 1990, 91-106.

[47] See Laura Donaldson, “Boffin in Paradise, or the Artistry of Reversal in News from Nowhere.” Socialism and the Literary Artistry of William Morris. Eds. Florence S. Boos and Carole G. Silver. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1990, 30.

[48] William Morris. “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” (1884). May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXIII, 112-116.

[49] Kant. Op. cit., 150-151.

[50] According to Kant, “art … differs from handicraft; the first is called ‘free,’ the other may be called ‘mercenary.’ We regard the first as if it could only prove purposive as play, i.e., as occupation that is pleasant in itself. But the second is regarded as if it could only be compulsorily imposed upon one as work, i.e., as occupation which is unpleasant (a trouble) in itself and which is only attractive on account of its effect (e.g., the wage).” See Kant, op. cit., 146.

[51] William Morris. “The Lesser Arts of Life” (1882). May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXII, 236.

[52] Lukács. Op.cit., 1-46.

[53] Quoted in David Craig. John Ruskin and the Ethics of Consumption. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006, 37.

[54] Ibid., 47.

[55]  William Morris. “Art and its Producers.” May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXII, 344.

[56]  Ibid.

[57] “I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art to take only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of all the externals of our life …” William Morris. “Art Under Plutocracy.” May Morris. Op. cit., Vol. XXIII, 164-165.

[58] William Morris. “Art and Labour.” Lemire. Op. cit., 95.

[59] As Morris entered the Social Democratic Federation in 1884 and embarked on six years of proselytizing to the masses for the cause of socialism, he was simultaneously lecturing on art to various art schools, institutes and learned societies (e.g., The Fabian Society,  The Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society), as well as to branches of the SDF. For a detailed list of Morris’s lectures on art and the audiences before whom his views were delivered, see Lemire, op. cit., 234-290.

[60] William Morris. “Art and Labour.” Lemire. Op. cit., 95.

[61] For a discussion of these tensions, see Tony Pinkney’s “News from Nowhere, Modernism, Postmodernismin this issue.

[62] For a discussion of the ideological character of the Kantian beautiful, see Weinroth, op. cit., 24-83.

[63] See Michelle Weinroth, “Engendering Consent. the Voice of Persuasion in Felix Holt, the Radical.” VIJ, Vol. 33, 2005, 7-44.

[64] Robert Pippin. Modernism as a Philosophical Problem. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991, 32.

[65] Art Berman. Preface to Modernism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994, 25.

[66] Pippin. Op. cit., 32.

[67] For a discussion of the sublime, see Eagleton, op. cit.; Weinroth, op. cit.

[68] Tim Armstrong. Modernism. Cambridge: Polity, 2005, 4-5.

[69] See Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism, Literary Elites and Public Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998; Armstrong, op. cit.; Berman, op. cit.

[70] Rainey. Op. cit., 3; Rainey illustrates this in detail in his chapter, “the Price of Modernism: Publishing the Waste Land.” Op. cit., 77-106.

[71] Armstrong. Op. cit., 47-63.

[72] “Typographical adventure” is the expression Morris used in correspondence when he described his Kelmscott Press enterprise.

[73] Kenneth Clay Smith Jr. “The Book as Material Instrument. London Literary Publishing, 1885-1900.” Ph.D. thesis. Indiana University, December 2006, 120; 140.

[74] Note that the Kelmscott Chaucer was conceived and regarded by Edward Burne-Jones as a virtual “pocket cathedral.” 

[75] See Jeffrey Skoblow, “Beyond Reading, Kelmscott and the Modern.” The Victorian Illustrated Book. Ed. Richard Maxwell. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press; Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[76] For a discussion of Morris’s ideas about art, labour and nature, see Nicholas Frankel, “The Ecology of Decoration: Design and Environment in the Writings of William Morris.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, New Series 12: Fall 2003, 58-85.

[77] Faulkner. Op. cit., 22.

[78] Ibid., 23.

[79] The idea that Morris’s early and late romances were merely escapist has been vigorously refuted. See, in particular, Carole Silver, The Romance of William Morris. Athens: Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1982.

[80] For a useful discussion of Wilde’s Kantian concept of autonomy, see Teukolsky, op. cit., 244-249.

[81] For a discussion of Hegel’s concept of autonomy, see Robert R. Williams, Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2000.

[82] E.P. Thompson. William Morris. Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976, 809.

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