William Morris: Art, Socialism, and Utopia
“Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things,” William Morris wrote, “the leading passion of my life has been, and is, a hatred of modern civilization.” For Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, designer, poet, and socialist whose writings and work helped establish the Arts and Crafts movement, each passion fed the other. Morris was a dedicated environmentalist, feminist, and anti-imperialist, active in the Socialist League and a defender of the Paris Commune. Yet, motivating Morris’ seemingly “modern” political beliefs, as well as inspiring the gorgeous tapestries and wallpapers that continue to influence contemporary design, was a self-confessed “repulsion to the triumph of civilization,” which was in turn rooted in a sentimental medievalism. How can we understand the intersection of Morris’ political, social, and artistic values and beliefs? What kind of socialism, and what kind of art, arises from a rejection of industrial civilization?
In this course, we will explore the art and political writing and fiction of William Morris, as well as the writings of his contemporaries, and grapple with the very same questions that propelled Morris’ art and thought (and the Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements more broadly). What is the good life? Can luxury be decoupled from consumption? What might our relationships to work, nature, and each other look like under radically different social conditions? Is the pursuit of beauty a reason for revolution? We’ll explore the nature of Morris’s aestheticized medievalism—driven by a revulsion for “this shoddy age” where “shoddy is king”—and consider its importance and limits as a basis for both a mode of art and an anti-capitalist politics. Can revolution look backward? What is the relation between aesthetics and politics, between beauty and production? Readings will be drawn from works by Morris, John Ruskin, Karl Marx, E.P. Thompson, David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, Rosalind Williams, and Arindam Dutta, among others.
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
June 08 — June 29, 2021