“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” – William Morris
When I grow up I’d like to be a polymath. I rediscovered this word at the William Morris Anarchy and Beauty exhibition because Morris, apparently, was one. Apparently he was also an “artist-craftsman, designer, poet, and visionary thinker and one of the most influential figures of his time”. And there was me thinking he just designed pretty wallpaper.
Fair enough, there was wallpaper on display, whose pattern, according to the exhibition’s curator, showed “Morris’ extraordinary talent for taking the obvious and making it memorable”. A beautiful aspiration in itself and yet, she continued, “arguably wallpaper was Morris’ most democratic art”.
As mocked as I’ll be for saying this, it’s words and concepts like that which make my heart sing, and this exhibition was full of them. Driven by a belief in the power of beauty to transcend barriers of class, wealth and culture and to transform people’s lives, Morris aspired to a world where art was made by the people and for the people. Pursuing beauty as a basic human right, he championed a revolutionary socialism and expounded visions of new societal structures. Bring it on.
And he wasn’t the only one. It turns out that lots of the great reformers at the time – like Octavia Hill with her commitment to housing and environmental reform and to green spaces for all in the face of Victorian urbanisation, or Emmeline Pankhurst and her tireless campaigning for women’s suffrage – were well-read artistic types, many emerging from families of painters and poets. I loved these unexpected links between creativity, imagination and social action.
Although, come to think of it, I wonder why it was unexpected. Because surely at the heart of both the artist and the social reformer lies an imagination which sees how things could be different.
The exhibition showed how this imagination underpinned all that Morris did as he challenged soulless repetitive mechanical processes of 19th century, sought an end to the distinction between work and leisure, pursued joy in beauty, disrupted political structures, became involved in traditionally female spheres of domestic decoration and garden design, and got stuck into women’s education and suffrage movements. The exhibition charted Morris’ influence on the later creation of garden cities and suburbs; utopian efforts to create self-sufficient pastoral communities and to reconcile the urban and the rural. These ‘socially egalitarian’ housing developments considered the links between aesthetics and moral standards, endeavoured to allow space for “the things that really mattered – the life of the mind and human creativity”, and aspired to generating human flourishing through simple living.
All this talk of beauty, social reform, simplicity and egalitarianism was something that I connected with deeply, yet in that place of resonance I felt unsettled.
For all the exhibition’s talk of egalitarianism, I was struck by the inaccessibility of so much of it. Polymath wasn’t the only word I had to look up to understand the curator’s labels and, after all, I’d paid £12 to be there. But beyond the exhibition’s potentially prohibitive cost and signage, my disquiet arose from the privileged life it charted. I mean, it’s lovely that Morris could hang out with Burne-Jones, Rossetti and the rest of the pre-Raphaelite posse to decorate his large purpose-built house as a campaign against “debased artistic standards of mid Victorian age” and, in doing so, experience “camaraderie and joyfulness in labour”. And it’s great that he could then go on to set up “a decorating company to challenge ugly and pretentious design at the heart of the commercial market place”. But this is hardly something that everyone could afford to do. As ‘democratic’ as his beautiful wallpaper was, you still needed to own walls to paste it on.
And nothing seemed to have substantively changed by 1951, when Morris’ idea of ‘art for the people’ apparently served as a key inspiration for the Festival of Britain, a “regenerative project of the post-war Labour government” which celebrated community and expanded Morris’ view of artists and designers as a humanising force. Sure enough, it inspired young designers to bring great design within reach of everyone, but the designers who were showcased were hardly producing items that everyone could afford.
It all begged the question of whether or not art and design really is a democratizing force because, in this exhibition at least, it still seemed somewhat inaccessible to all but a few. But my unsettledness ran deeper than questions of whether or not everyone could afford a nice piece of designer furniture for their living room.
What the exhibition highlighted for me was the role of the cultural elite in societal reform and the fact that the majority of these champions for social change, pushing for communal parks, affordable housing, women’s education and suffrage etc, were people of significant means, learning and influence. I don’t want to knock their achievements because, after all, none of us choose where we are born, but it raised some questions. Was it only those with the time, space and freedom that comes from wealth, education and property ownership who had the luxury of pursing alternative social structures? Was it only those with inherited safety nets who could afford to go out on a limb to change the world, confident that financial and social capital would cushion their fall?
And has anything changed today? Just consider the latest incarnations of Morris’ aspirations for a changed world and the identity of those at the forefront of pursuing the parochial in an age of increased mobility and globalisation. Consider the estate agents’ creation of ‘villages’ to dupe the house-buying middle classes into thinking they’re investing in a local and quasi-rural idyll. Consider the terribly nice supper clubs popping up across London and all those initiatives to foster a sharing economy, largely patronised by those who could afford to buy their own stuff anyway.
I felt unsettled because I’m a part of the society I critique. I’ll happily put on a nice dress and go to the exclusive launch of a human rights photography exhibition to nibble on canapés in front of vast photos of landmine-induced carnage. I’ll sign up to a Craftivism event to find deep joy in making something pretty in protest at the status quo. I regularly sip my flat white while blogging about the injustice of the world before popping my MacBook Air into the nice little Hipster Haberdasher case I got from Etsy. That’s me.
Me with my Oxbridge education. Me with my mixed-class background where my working and middle class genes vie with each other for supremacy. Me with my struggles about what it means to be content in this socio-economically diverse context. Me who won’t say no to a glass of champagne, who happily floated down the Dordogne in a rubber ring one sunny September afternoon while staying in chateau with friends, who spends money on art classes. Me whose heart nevertheless breaks daily at the state of the world.
Does who I am and what I have invalidate my desire to reimagine alternative realities? Is it ok to speak out for those who find themselves destitute even if I have never known destitution myself? To walk alongside those who have been displaced while living in the borough I was born in? Or it just my way of atoning for the injustice of the world’s distribution of resources and addressing some kind of guilt about being born where and when I was?
I suppose we could knock ourselves and others, but it seems a bit unfair to let certain people’s privilege undermine or belittle the societal changes they brought about. Surely it’s always to be celebrated when people choose to relinquish what they have for the sake of others or pursue the common good at personal cost?
The tensions remain, but I’ll hold on to some of those things that Morris pursued, albeit with my own take on them. I’ll hold on to the idea that everything is beautiful in its time even in the face of unfathomable eternity, and to those aspirations towards equality, simplicity, joy and contentment for all. I’ll hold onto the belief in glimpses of heaven on earth, not through the dogged creation of utopias which invariably fail but through a faith-lived pursuit of an alternative reality, instigated but not yet completed, and pursued through a greater freedom than that which comes from inherited financial and social capital.
After the craziness of the elections, I’m determined that this will infuse the world with something hopeful and transformative. Inshallah.