William Morris – The Lesser Arts (1877, 1882)

Originally a lecture with the title “The Decorative Arts,” given to the Trades Guild of Learning in London, 1877.

Opens with a sentiment consonant with News from Nowhere: neither laments the past, nor despises the present, nor despairs the future…but believes that all the current activity is merely life itself moving toward the betterment of mankind. The lecture explains why the decorative arts are integral to this historical process. In short, they “beautify the familiar matters of everyday life” (234). Morris draws no distinction between the forms of art and the forms of any human product: all must be either beautiful or ugly. Referencing Ruskin’s “Nature of the Gothic,” Morris claims that we should reject the “curse  of labor” thesis, and rather say that labor has become a curse only because of the artificial separation between art and work, which has degraded “the lesser arts” to mere mechanism and “the greater arts” to mere frivolous non-utility.

Morris is not calling for a return to a childish past, in which beautiful things were unconsciously made. Though history itself can be read in these quotidian forms, he does not call for a negative “unconscious intelligence” but rather a “new art of conscious intelligence” (241). Nature and History should be the teachers. Indeed, in 2102, Morris believes that the concept of nature will disappear all together, no longer able to be defined in contrast to a human that somehow would use it for ends exterior to it. History needs to be conceived from the dialectically mediated present. The restoration movement gets this wrong: they hypostasize a romanticized past and seek to patch over the real history that the centuries of “repairs” bear in themselves. [Curious dialogue could be conceived between Morris, Victor Hugo, Jude Fawley, and Jacob Flanders.]

Of course, this means that art loses its status as “useless” or “purposeless”: Morris writes, “nothing can be a work of art which is not useful.” His qualification isn’t enough to make this statement any less strange: “that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under the command of the mind, ot which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate in a healthy state” (251). Simply put, the agreeable, the beautiful and the sublime are all lumped together, as is the mind and the body, work and rest, etc… Sympathetic to all this, but Morris needs to engage the history of aesthetics a bit more, perhaps. He also reverses the relation between taste and life. In Kant, the faculty of taste precedes the feeling life. In Morris, “Simplicity of life, begetting simplicity of taste…is of all matters most necessary for the birth of the new and better art we crave for; simplicity everywhere, in the palace as well as in the cottage” (251). One wonders whether the palace reference is a nod to Kant….

 

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