Sunday, 13 May 2012

Utility in News from Nowhere

A great achievement of News from Nowhere is the way it reconfigures work as freedom. It is the utility of Morris’s Romantic vision that is new; for the earlier Romantics (Blake, perhaps, excepted) utilty and its cognates were dirty words. In a 2008 London Review of Books essay on Terry Eagleton thumbnails Romanticism like this: 'For the Romantics both God and art belonged to that rare category of objects which existed entirely for their own sake, free of the vulgar taint of utility. The third member of this category was the human being. In their freedom, independence and glorious pointlessness, works of art were images of men and women—or at least of what they could become under transformed political conditions. In this sense art was a politics all of its own, pointing to a future society in which human beings would be treated as ends in themselves. It was a foretaste of utopia in its very uselessness.' [LRB, 24.1.08, p.14]. When Eagletson says 'images of men and women—or at least of what they could become under transformed political conditions' he means 'images of aristocrats', for even by the early 20th century the overwhelming majority of portraits were of well-to-do people. I remain personally unpersuaded by the notion that the point of Revolution is to make us all into Montagues of Beaulieu. My point is that Eagleton gets utility entirely the wrong way around: because utility is a uniquely human concept we can truly say that nothing exists for reasons of utility except humans. The cholera bacterium has no utility, and cares not; but that I can be of use is the proudest boast I can make as a person. And this is something Morris understands absolutely.

The way ‘work’ is parsed in the novel through art and architecture gives it a unique, almost revelatory force. We all know, of course, that in the world most work is not arty. Morris knew that too; that’s not his point. Rather he seeks, in this book and elsewhere, to re-define art in such as way as to encompass a whole range of human experiences not usually brought under the umbrella of that definition. His essay ‘How I Became A Socialist’ (published in the left-wing journal Justice, in 1894) explains his ideological journey. He was provoked by the manifest injustices and inequalities of Victorian society, ‘the wrongs of society as it now is and the oppression of poor people’ and convinced that change needed to be more than piecemeal and ameliorative—that it needed to be radical and systematic if it was to do any true good. But he also confesses, tellingly, that finally getting round to reading Marx caused him ‘agonies of confusion of the brain’ (he ‘enjoyed’ Marx’s historical analysis, he claims, but could not get his head around its ‘pure economics’). And, summing up his political allegiance, he picks out history on the one hand and art on the other as his personal prime movers:
To sum up, then, the study of history and the love and practice of art forced me into a hatred of civilisation which, if things were to stop as they are, would turn history into inconsequence nonsense and make art a collection of the curiosities of the past which would have no serious relation to the life of the present. .... It must be remembered that civilization has reduced the workman to such a skinny and pitiful existence that he scarcely knows how to frame any desire for any life much better than that which he now endures perforce. It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him. [Morris, ‘How I Became a Socialist’]
Art is to be deployed to save Art; history is to be redeemed from inconsequence and nonsensical by making it consequential and sensible. Art, for Morris, is always the context of lived experience: the houses in which we live, the landscapes through which we move, as well as the books we read and the statues that fill our public galleries. History, in fact, is the same thing; which is to say, implicit in all that Morris writes is what we might call an anti-Annales mode of History: the belief that history is not a neutral succession of events, but is rather a story that can be more or less beautifully realised—that History is the lived experience of Art, and that it should be judged not so much according to statistical, or economic, or even socio-political criteria, but according to aesthetic ones, judged as to whether it is more or less beautiful.

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