Tumbling drunk into the fire

“Even such things as this,” he wrote of one quarrel, “the army setting off to conquer all the world turning back to burn Jack’s pigstye, and tumbling drunk into the fire—even this don’t shake me: means one must use the best one can get: but one thing I won’t do, wait for perfect means are made for very imperfect me to work with.”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.425

It took me about three weeks to finish Thompson’s book; I still haven’t read the afterword. It’s hard to figure out where to begin discussing it. The thing that has struck me the most is the change in my own attitude about the critiques of the arts and crafts movement (though arts and crafts moment is probably a better description). I used to think they were fairly accurate (thinking of David Pye, among others) but now I see that they pretty much stress John Ruskin as the sole font of theoretical groundings for the movement. Because of that, they miss a lot of development and fracture of Ruskin that is far more interesting. Perhaps the idea of a coherent theory of hand work is not as far fetched as it sometimes seems.

Morris wasn’t systematic in the slightest, nor was he (despite his laudatory essays on Ruskin)  simply a blind disciple at the feet of Ruskin. There is much in him to admire, and much more work to be done to develop his theories on work. Thompson has made a good beginning in this book, although it wasn’t his primary intention. His focus was on Morris as a socialist/communist. Understanding why and how he derailed his entire life in support of that cause is essential to making sense of his theories, however. His passion for the socialist “movement” was consumptive:

“You see, having joined a movement, I must do what I can while I last, that is a matter of duty . . . All this work I have pulled upon my own head, and though in detail much of it is repulsive to the last degree, I still hold that I did not do so without due consideration. Anyhow, it seems to me that I can be of use, therefore I am impelled to make myself useful. . .

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism; nay worse . . . is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it— on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now . . .” (424)

For 200 more pages, Thompson goes through the ins and outs of Morris’s relationship with the failed socialist league in the UK. This sort of reading usually just bores me to tears, but I fear I am indeed tumbling backward into the fire. It’s hard to understand theories of work without dealing with the axis of socialism/communism/anarchism, etc.. I’m pretty much of the “count me out” school when it comes to revolutions.

Nonetheless, dealing with this text has altered my perception of Morris as a florid manufacturer of chintzes and books that only rich people could afford. I didn’t like the hypocrisy of being a “man of the people” while making products that ordinary people could never afford (I have much the same problem with certain strains in modern woodworking, i.e. tool fetishists).   But clearly, Morris wasn’t this. He was aware of what he was doing, and what his place in it was. There is much, much more to say.

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Remember me as a Revolutionary Communist

small_selfportrait_sunX400It’s been hard to figure out how to write this, but I really feel like I need to write down exactly how I became more comfortable with studying political theories. I’ve avoided them my entire life, largely because I thought of myself as an “artist” and felt that these things were best kept separate. It isn’t that I didn’t understand the truism that “everything is political”, it’s just that it seemed like a sure way to avoid the really considering issues rather than confronting the state of the world.

Most political art, in my experience, is really boring. There are exceptions, to be sure, (Guernica comes to mind, and Ben Shahn) but mostly I was more comfortable just changing the subject when things went that way. Most political discussions, inevitably, lead to preaching to the converted.

A while ago, I was invited with my wife to a sort of “going away party” for an activist that was seriously ill: Leslie Feinberg. I don’t get out much, and I hadn’t met Leslie before. I wasn’t simply a “plus one” according to my wife, who had been working with Leslie and her partner for quite some time on a variety of projects—Leslie really wanted to meet me. Apparently, my wife has been known to talk about me a bit.

When we arrived at the gathering, everything was just, well, friendly. I could see the Leslie showing some pictures on a TV screen to someone, and I was immediately struck by the images. They were not the usual amateurish cliches you usually see— no weird filters, nothing that resembled advertising at all. The pictures were quite “real” for lack of a better word. They were all taken from a high perspective (an apartment balcony, turns out). They reminded me a lot of Andre Kertez’s photographs of Washington Square in the last years of his life; somewhat sentimental but not forced at all, natural and touching.

I watched for a while, and then went over and spoke to Leslie briefly; I talked about Kertez (one of my lifelong heroes) and decided that I really needed to send over a copy of one of my monographs for her to look at. Though Leslie was weak, she really seemed interested. She looked the book over when I sent it, and expressed thanks when she returned it, with the gift of one of the photos that I had admired so much.

There was just a vital energy surrounding Leslie, you just felt better about everything being around her. When she passed, I just felt like the world was a poorer place. Her last words, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist” have stuck in my head.

As I read more and more about William Morris, and have conversations with Leslie’s partner Minnie Bruce Pratt, the more I become interested in the politics behind radical movements. E.P. Thompson’s book, as a matter of fact, was specifically crafted to rescue Morris from the land of bourgeois tapestries and fine books and place him squarely in the center of radical politics.

The problem I’ve always had with politics also centers on a corollary to the truism that “everything is political.” The old saw that “groups are always formed to exclude people” has always seemed to be more significant to me. A perennial outsider and a white heterosexual in the land of gender activists, I fully expected to feel at least a little uncomfortable when visiting Leslie. I wasn’t in the slightest. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more welcome anywhere as I was that day at the “going away party.”

Minnie Bruce, when detailing the fascinating history of the movements that she was involved in over dinner a week or so ago, noted that there were always strong currents of isolationist thinking among the activists she was involved with. I never sensed any of that from Leslie; she was a radical bent on bringing people together, at least in my limited experience of her. The dissolution and fracture of social movements has become increasingly fascinating as I read about William Morris. The pattern seems to be quite familiar.

When Leslie chose to make the most important aspect of her life to be her revolutionary communism, it changed me. Suddenly, it felt more important to pay attention to politics and strive to understand the systems better. They wouldn’t have been my choice of parting words, but they were hers. What I remember about Leslie was her warmth, and sensitivity, and above all else her energy on her way out. The world got smaller when she passed.

 

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The Craftsman

The Craftsman

WITH the Initial number of “The Craftsman,” The United Crafts of Eastwood, N. Y., enter upon a  work for which they hope to gain the sympathy and the co-operation of a wide public. The new association Is a guild of cabinet makers, metal and leather workers, which has been recently formed for the production of household furnishings. The Guild has had but one parallel in modern times, and this is found in the firm organized in London, in 1860, by the great decorator and socialist, William Morris, together with his not less distinguished friends, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown, all of Pre-Raphaelite fame.

The United Crafts endeavor to promote and to extend the principles established by Morris, in both the artistic and the socialistic sense. In the interests of art, they seek to substitute the luxury of taste for the luxury of costliness; to teach that beauty does not imply elaboration or ornament; to employ only those forms and materials which make for simplicity, Individuality and dignity of effect.

In the interests of the workman, they accept without qualification the proposition formulated by the artist-socialist: “It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome, nor over-anxious.”

Foreword, The Craftsman, October 1901.

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Century of Commerce

Imperialism, Morris saw, was the inevitable and most vicious outcome of the “Century of Commerce”. He denounced it both in artistic and political terms. “While we are met here in Birmingham”, he said at the beginning of 1879.

“to further the spread of education in art, Englishmen in India are . . . actively destroying the very sources of that education—jewellery, metalwork, pottery, calico-printing, brocade weaving, carpet-making—all of the famous and historical arts of the great peninsula have been . . . thrust aside for the advantage of any paltry scrap of so-called commerce.”

At the end of January 1880, in a lecture which was probably designed for some working class Radical Club in connection with the election campaign, and which was devoted to combating “the tribe of Jingoes”, and the slogan, “Our country Right or Wrong” blazoned upon their banners, he declared:

“England’s place—what is England’s place? To carry civilization through the world? Yes, indeed, the world must be civilized and I doubt not that England will have a large share in bringing about that civilization.

“And yet, since I have heard of wine with no grape juice in it, and cotton-cloth that is mostly barytes, and silk that is two-thirds somach, and knives  whose edges break or turn up if you try to cut anything harder than butter with them, and many another triumph of Commerce in these days, I begin to doubt if civilization itself may not be sometimes so adulterated as scarcely to be worth the carrying—anyhow, it cannot be worth much, when it is necessary to kill a man in order to make him accept it . . .”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.260

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Respect and Tradition

Vivian Howard Watching an episode of A Chef’s Life this morning brought into focus a lot of the reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately. Tradition comes up in a variety of forms. It can be discussions of what have become traditional styles (e.g. Arts and Crafts, Shaker, etc.) or it can be the matter of traditional working methods. There’s a lot of talk in woodworking publications and sites lately about getting past some of these “traditions” and into other more rewarding modes or periods for discussion. That’s all well and good, but what does it really mean to work with/within a tradition?

E.P. Thompson suggests that there were several varieties of medievalists at work in the Victorian era. Some were most interested in emulating the substance of gothic affectations, making objects/buildings that looked medieval on the surface while being totally unconcerned about how or why these objects existed. This is a shallow sort of fashion following; it exists in virtually every sort of endeavor you can name. Others, like Morris for example, were interested on the sociality of medieval workers: their methods of interacting with others inside or outside their trades, modes of exchange and manufacture, etc. more so than the actual products produced or exchanged.

It dawned on me this morning that the most obvious difference here is between respecting practice rather than product. This doesn’t mean that product doesn’t matter, far from it, but by achieving the ends desired by using similar or identical means we offer a greater degree of respect for those who produced the products that we admire or are influenced by.

The boredom I think that many (rightly) feel about styles that have become too commonplace (like Shaker or Arts and Crafts) results from too shallow of an exploration of the practices rather than products. I feel like I’ve hardly begun with both of these styles, mostly because it is so unclear just how they produce the mental effects they do. I feel a sense of peace and well-being when I’m at the Hancock Shaker Village that comes from proximity to not simply artifacts or things (I suspect much of what’s there are copies) but from a constellation of material evidence for a way of life that has long passed.

Which brings me back to A Chef’s Life.  I had never thought of meals as having a “theme” (beyond an ingredient or a regional cuisine) until I watched the pair of episodes in the second season where she cooks a luncheon to celebrate the women that matter most to her. Yes, it’s about regional North Carolina foods, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about respecting her mother, and grandmother by trying to reproduce not simply their flavors but their methods of making the foods she loves. The heartbreak, when she had to resort to restaurant methods for producing one of the dishes instead of the way her mother had always done it, is palpable. She was so afraid that it just wouldn’t be the same, and reading that if if it failed it wouldn’t have been the first time she failed.

But more than that, it was the moment that she revealed how hard it was to watch people reject the “Tom Thumb” dish meant to pay homage to her grandmother, by witnessing it travel half eaten or not sampled to the garbage can after the luncheon showed just how personal and heart rending the experience of sharing a tradition with people not ready to appreciate it can be.  It’s not so much about rejecting a product that doesn’t fit contemporary tastes as much as rejecting a culture that she labored mightily to share. It was a really moving moment for me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all day.

It’s easy to think we can improve upon the past, especially when it comes to improved technologies and materials. But to deny the simplicity and effectiveness of traditional practices disrespects those who came before us. Why are we so sure that our way will be better than the traditional methods? The ultimate respect we can pay to those who came before is often to simply reproduce not only their products,  but their methods— to do otherwise implies that we are somehow are better or smarter than they were. It’s easier for me to see that as disrespect now.

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Ornamental Wares

The sense of beauty and power of expressing it, under the present circumstances, is one of the rarest of gifts, so that the ordinary public have to put up with such pretence to beauty as the so-called ornamental class of wares can furnish to them. Therefore, while the rich man, by spending much money, can gather about him a certain amount of beauty, and while the man of moderate means may be able to attain the same end by taking an infinitude of trouble, the working man, who has no time to take trouble and no money to enable him to dispense with it, must put up with the lack of beauty altogether. Here, then, is a strange thing, that whereas in the pre-commercial ages we had beauty without paying for it, it has now become an article of the market, and, like most other market articles, is so shamefully adulterated that we can scarcely buy it even for our money.

I know that to many people this will seem a small matter, because only those (and how few they are!) who can make their surroundings decent can understand the full horror, the dullness and poverty of life which it involves. For my part, having regard to the general happiness of the race, I say without shrinking that the bloodiest of violent revolutions would be a light price to pay for the righting of this wrong.

For this is not a matter of accident, but springs from the form which the slavery of the many has taken in our days. It is but one of the consequences of wage-slavery. Until that wage-slavery was completed and crowned by the revolution of the great machine industries, there was some attractiveness in the work of the artisan. There is now none, or next to none and the reason why the ornamental wares above-mentioned are so adulterated is because the very ornament itself is but a part of the machine labour, made to sell and not for use whether it be done by human machines or non-human ones.

William Morris, “Unattractive Labour,” Commonweal, Vol I, No. 4, May 1885, pp. 37 (Supplement)

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Tradition

bard

But, in the 1870s, Morris was coming to regard his writing as (in the words of Henry James), a sub-trade—a form of pleasurable recreation and relaxation from other work—rather than his central place of encounter with his age. He was coming to adopt an attitude towards his writing (drawn in part from his own version of Ruskin’s doctrine of pleasurable labour) which was incompatible with the fullest concentration of his intellectual and moral energies.

“I did manage to screw out my tales of verses, to the tune of some 250 I think”, he wrote to his wife in 1876 while working on Sigurd the Volsung. “That talk of inspiration is sheer nonsense”, he is quoted as saying in later years. “I may tell you that flat. There is no such thing: it is a mere matter of craftsmanship.” And again: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry he had better shut up; he’ll never do any good at all.”

Morris adopted this attitude partly in antagonism to the excessive airs of the romantically “inspired” and in part he was influenced by his earlier picture of the folk-poet, the scald, the bard who in earlier societies  could entertain the company in the hall or around the fire almost impromptu with an epic tale. But these poets, with every incident, every image and turn of phrase, every description of hero or heroine, were drawing on collected traditions of past singers, were evoking memories, associations and accepted judgements of a people.

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011), p.188-9

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Kathy

KathyWhen I was reading Bellamy’s description of the “Invalid Corps” last week I immediately thought of my cousin Kathy. She passed away just a few years ago, after living a long and happy, though some might say “non-productive” life. Most people who knew her wouldn’t think that. It always seemed to me, for the entire time I knew her, that Kathy’s job was mostly being happy. Though she had a few spells, most of the time she was a joy to be around. Always smiling, always happy to see you, and always wanting to share things even when you weren’t sure why she was sharing them.

grace kathy billI remember when I first visited Kathy as a teenager, at Grace and Bills house in Heavener, Oklahoma. She was immediately taken by me and always smiled and blushed when I was around. She was just a few years younger than me, and quite proud of her collection of Prince Albert cans, given to her by Bill. Bill was a piece of work. He kept a still up in the hills, and a “pouting house” in the back that he could go to when he and Grace got into spats. Grace and Kathy were inseparable; though Kathy wasn’t her biological daughter, she took her in as an infant and as Grace got older and had to go into a rest home, Kathy went along.

After Grace died, my Mom and Dad visited her every week and took her out to eat either pizza or Kentucky Fried Chicken. My mother told me that they had tried to enroll Kathy into a program to “work” in the 70s, and Grace had to fight to get her back out of it. Grace was on welfare her whole life, and the social services people were just sure that Kathy should be “trainable” to do something commercial. Grace disagreed, because the separation involved with hauling Kathy off to the program just made her miserable. Above all else, we all wanted to keep Kathy as happy as she kept us.

I remember when my dad died I tried to take Mom and Kathy out whenever I could; it always made everyone (including me) happy. My mom would try to make sure that she kept Kathy’s stuffed animals rotated around so that they wouldn’t get too worn out. She had hundreds of them; too many to keep in her room at the home. Everyone who knew her loved to get her new ones, and she couldn’t bear to part with any of the old ones.

It didn’t surprise me that Kathy passed away within a few years of my mother’s passing, but I feel most of the time that as long as someone remembers, all these people are still alive.

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Romantic to Revolutionary

Romantic to RevolutionaryI’m around a hundred pages in on E.P. Thompson’s massive study of William Morris, and so far I’m really impressed.

It cites his letters and minor publications profusely, and though it’s obvious that it has the major goal of establishing Morris as an important communist/socialist, so far it’s hitting right at the heart of what I’m looking for in Morris.

I’m really looking for his attitudes toward craft and labor. Though I’m really not that interested in politics, I am interested in the things that constrain our lives. Morris was too, as indicated by this excerpt from one of Morris’s letters (1883):

 “In spite of all the success I have had I have not failed to be conscious that the art I have been helping to produce would fall with the death of a few of us who really care about it, that a reform in art which is founded on individualism must perish with the individuals who have set it going. Both my historical studies and my practical conflict with the philistinism of modern society have forced on me the conviction that art cannot have real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering.” (98)

Thompson observes that what drove Morris into his political views was actually the success, not the failure, of his commercial ventures. It’s easy to look at a rich man like Morris, making niche products for rich people, as someone detached from social problems. His fortune came from coal mining, initially. Something that Thompson spends much time establishing the background for, as well as his escapist tendencies. But when it comes to craft, Morris seems grounded and well informed. It isn’t clear if this bit comes from the same letter (I need to locate the volume of letters to check) but I appears as if it is:

“It would be well if all of us were good handcraftsman in some kind, and the dishonour of labor done away with altogether . . In each several profession, no master should be too proud to do its hardest work.” (99)

There will be a lot more to say about this tome, at 800+ pages it’s going to take a while to sort through.

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Looking Backward

Looking BackwardFinished Looking Backward as the year ended. It has a fun romantic twist ending, but for the most part, it’s one of those books that has me slapping my head at how much I disagree with its sentiments.

An upper class man is mesmerized (hypnotized) in order to get some sleep in 1887, because he is upset that the labor unrest will force him to cancel his wedding. He wakes up in the year 2000.

All strife is gone. The trusts have all been absorbed into one massive trust, which becomes the government.

All citizens are conscripted into the “great industrial army” and must work from the age of 21 until 45; then they are free to do what they want. The gross domestic product is divided up equally among all citizens, regardless of whether they are currently working or not. No more money, perfect equality, no social problems. People who refuse to work are imprisoned and fed bread and water till they agree to go along; this is not considered to be a problem. Housework and cooking have been done away with, though he never really explains how! Everyone is happy as an industrial soldier.

“Know, O child of another race and yet the same that the labor we have to render as our part in securing for the nation the means of a comfortable physical existence is by no means regarded as the most important, the most interesting, or the most dignified employment of our powers. We look upon it as a necessary duty to be discharged before we can fully devote ourselves to the higher exercise of our faculties, the intellectual and spiritual enjoyments and pursuits which alone mean life. Everything possible is indeed done by the just distribution of burdens, and by all manner of special attractions and incentives to relieve our labor of the irksomeness, and, except in a comparative sense, is not usually irksome, and is often inspiring. But it is not our labor, but the higher and larger activities which the performance of our task will leave us free to enter upon, that are considered the main business of of existence.

“Of course not all, nor the majority, have those scientific, artistic, literary, or scholarly interests which make leisure the one thing valuable to their possessors. Many look upon the last half of life chiefly as a period for enjoyment of other sorts; for travel, for social relaxation in the company of their lifetime friends; a time for the cultivation of all maner of personal idiosyncrasies and special tastes, and the unperturbed appreciation of the good things of the world which they have helped create.

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888) Penguin ed. 1986 p. 148-9

Morris disliked the book because it was an exposition about “state communism”; Bellamy calls it “nationalism”. I dislike it primarily because of his idea that things like cooking, cleaning and such are dismissed as being pretty much meaningless, and no thought whatsoever is given to the idea that work might be fun and an essential part of life.  The Nearings really got that part right, I think. Bread labor (as they called it) was part of the core of what it means to be alive. We have to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Why shouldn’t that be as rewarding as other more “valuable” pursuits? It seems as if Bellamy has anticipated the mystification of these things which we currently accept as “normal.”

To be fair, Bellamy anticipates things like credit cards (as a payment system instead of money), and places music as a central part of day to day life. It seems that each house as a device on the wall where you can turn screws and fill the house with music, chosen from a variety of programs performed live. No need to go the the concert hall, it is brought to you. He also anticipates radio preachers, because on Sunday you can tune into the services.

There were Bellamy societies  that sought to make this utopia real at the turn of the twentieth century. There are fascinating predictions the book, if you can get past its embrace of National Socialism. Many of Bellamy’s contemporaries didn’t see any problems with that; time has given most of us a different perception.

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