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William Morris: Art and Labour

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Artisan producer of objects of furniture, poet, novelist, affiliated to the pre-Raphaelite artistic brotherhood, utopian and prophetic socialist. Very rarely in the work of an engagé scholar of the end of the 19th century, the juxtapositions and contradictions of the twentieth century workers movement are found, lucidly highlighted and refuted: the failure of the model of authoritarian socialism, the social democratic acquiescence towards the rigidity of roles desired by the bourgeois power.

Moreover, Morris developed themes that posterity did not even dare to face, no doubt for fear of appearing naive, naive, poorly aligned: the desire to create a world where work is joy and artistic creation, the nonchalant criticism of the overwhelming power of science and technology, the revaluation of the natural environment, the other great victim, along with man, of capitalist degradation and exploitation. One of his great admirers, Oscar Wilde, recounted a confidence given him by Morris himself: ‘I tried to make each of my workers an artist, and when I say an artist I mean a man.

Born in a wealthy environment, Morris found in the university town of Oxford the ideal place to let himself be fascinated by a myriad of different cultural and artistic interests, and perhaps for this reason he did not complete any regular course of studies. In addition to the Christian socialism of Charles Kingsley, then temporarily abandoned in favor of liberal bourgeois radicalism, we find the decisive influence of John Ruskin, who instills his love for architecture.

In Labor useful and useless effort Morris shows that he wants to clear the table from a whole series of commonplaces concerning work, before proceeding in the direction of theorising a new conception on the subject. It’s wrong, says Morris, to say enthusiastically that every job is a blessing in itself. To congratulate the lucky worker for his work is convenient especially to those who live behind others. Not all the population, in fact, is dedicated to work activities, on the contrary there are enormous differences in this regard.

There are the rich, the aristocrats. Then there is the upper bourgeoisie, the class that Marx defined as ‘owner of the means of production’, which is engaged in a frenzied and fierce competition, at home and abroad, for the accumulation of wealth, with the the only purpose of being able to abstract themselves from work, and thus become unproductive, as the aristocrats have been for centuries.

After the mass of the employees and the soldiers, here are the manual workers, obliged, and this becomes the focal point of Morris’s reasoning, to produce ‘luxurious and extravagant items whose demand is linked to the existence of rich and unproductive classes, objects that those who lead a dignified and uncorrupted life would not even dream of wanting.

Morris therefore maintains that the taste of his time for the objects of everyday life – furniture, curtains – appears twisted, poisoned by the nefarious mechanisms of economic exploitation of man by man. This adulteration of taste spreads throughout every part of society, since the poor produce for personal use the artifacts that are ridiculous imitations of the luxury of the rich. This deformity in the way of conceiving and, consequently, looking at the things produced comes from the disharmonic structuring of the social body: an idle class of unproductive which is maintained by a large number of slaves.

What characteristics should, instead, possess the work to give hope to man, instead of causing him pain and suffering? It should guarantee him the hope of rest: no matter how pleasant it may be, it still entails a certain animal suffering in putting his energies into motion. Rest should be long enough, longer than necessary for the recovery of strength, and should be free of worries and anxieties.

Then there is the hope of the pleasure of work itself: this revolutionary concept at the highest level; Morris states resolutely that the man who really works uses the energies of the mind and the mind as well as those of the body: ‘memory and imagination help him in his work. Not only his thoughts, but also the thoughts of men of the past ages guide his hands, he creates as part of the human race ‘.

The dimension of creativity is assessed as a fundamental component in giving body and meaning to the act of labor: to give vent to one’s creative abilities, therefore, can give that pleasure which will be a daily satisfaction, a daily reward, in socialist society. In a society of this kind, there will no longer be the phenomenon of waste, from Morris certainly detested: the production of sordid substitutes for the poor people who can not afford good quality goods and the production of objects.

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