Reading Notes: William Morris’s “Lesser Arts” and the DIY Movement

November 24, 2009 at 4:17 am (Uncategorized) (, , )

I had to help my daughter with her math homework this weekend. Her teacher had given the class a project: given a (virtual) budget of $1,000, they were to (virtually) redesign their bedrooms.  As I struggled to recall how to calculate how many rolls of paper my daughter would have to purchase, she, with the intrepid pioneering spirit of a child raised in an information age, searched wallpaper patterns online.  She initially selected a burgundy Waverly Silk, but had to give it up since, at $212 per roll, it would have consumed her entire budget.

Having William Morris on the mind, I started thinking about the contradiction that Clive Wilmer noted in his Introduction to News from Nowhere when he wrote, “[I]n modern competitive society, hand-made goods are inevitably more expensive than those made by machine.  They are therefore available only to the rich and privileged, so the worker remains deprived” (xxii).  But as a small business owner myself, one who supplements her meager grad school stipend by making jewelry and rosaries, I wonder if Wilmer is not moving too quickly over part of Morris’s equation.  While it’s true that only the well-off could (and can) afford a roll of Morris’s “Pink and Rose” at $211 per roll (“Historic”), Morris is arguing for a reintegration of art and decoration not only in cathedrals but also in kitchens.  The craftsperson who produces the handmade object is not in all cases deprived of it.  In his originary medieval artisan-Eden, the distinctions between “high art” and “mere craft” did not exist.  And since they have separated, they are “unhelped by each other” and the “great arts” have lost “their dignity of popular arts, and become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men” (“Lesser” 234).  This is, for Morris, an unnatural and nearly unholy split. While, as Wilmer acknowledges, Morris was aware that some of his crafts were beyond the means of the working class, he longed for the return of a “culture in which arts and crafts, art and work, were one” (xxv). And even while his book-making produced expensive editions that the working class could not afford, Morris, “rather than compromise with commercial publishing, . . . preferred to show the world a possible alternative” (Wilmer xxii).  After Morris’s exposure to Marx, argues Irwin, his medievalism changes: “The medieval world is no longer a refuge from the present; it helps him, rather, to understand the present and construct, in imagination, an alternative future” (xxvii).  What might such an alternative future in the world of arts and crafts look like?

It might look a bit like Etsy.com, a website begun in 2005 as a marketplace for makers of handcrafted items, objects, and art.  At Etsy, you can get a hand-knit wool sweater or the latest, avant-garde painting for your living room, direct from the artist, who pays Etsy a modest listing fee of twenty cents per item.  You can also get magnets and belts made of bottle caps and soda cans.  On one level, it may seem silly to associate a site that sells refrigerator magnets made out of old beer and soda-bottle caps with the sort of craftsmanship that Morris valorizes in his “The Lesser Arts,” in which he describes art as a nearly holy calling, in Irwin’s terms a “crusade and holy warfare against the age” (xii). But Morris despises the distinction between high and low that has increasingly crept into Western culture since (he claims) the Industrial Revolution.  Even painted bottle-cap magnets, if they give pleasure to the person who uses them to hold coupons, and pleasure to the person who crafts them, are perhaps fulfilling the “great office of decoration” (“Lesser” 235), without which “rest would be vacant” and “our labour mere endurance” (235).

And at least some of the participants and observers in this crafty resurgence see sites like Etsy as revolutionary.  Paul Atkinson, in his introduction to a special issue of The Journal of Design History, finds in the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement a democratic principle with lasting social and class effects: “DIY acts as the antithesis of the prescribed design of the mass marketplace—a democratizing agency allowing people . . . to react against the principles and edicts of design connoisseurship” (Atkinson 1).  DIY has “acted as a leveller of class, overcoming the social stigma of manual labor out of sheer necessity, and permitting the working classes to engage in leisure activities from which they were previously excluded” (Atkinson 1), such as hot tub and personal watercraft ownership (Atkinson passim).  And crafting allows the less-than-rich to enjoy finer decorative arts, as well.  I, for one, certainly have access to much nicer hand-crafted jewelry than I would have had I not learned the craft of jewelry-making.

Some argue that the DIY movement has the potential to revolutionize human relationships as well as class categories and the idea of manual labor. Small artisan communities, whether in the parking lot of a downtown bank on Saturdays only or online 24/7 at a site like Etsy, work “in a manner that the founders position as a throwback to the way consumption ought to be,” according to some craftspeople: “individuals buying from other individuals” (Walker).  Etsy founder Robert Kalin claims that the site is “the opposite of what Wal-Mart is right now: just this massively impersonal experience” (Walker).  “When you get an item from Etsy,” he says, “there’s this whole history behind it.  There’s a person behind it” (Walker).  Etsy buyers and sellers seem to have found a place where, for anthropologists like Marcel Mauss (passim), a living spirit still inheres in an object as it is circulated among individuals and communities, symbolizing and forging relationships rather than simply being passed around based solely on its purchasing power or use value.  Such a spirit means that subject and object are not utterly divorced from one another in a purely disinterested market economy – one which, for Morris, was deadly not only to the arts but also to the human spirit.  While the handmade object in the DIY aesthetic/ethic, like grandma’s heirloom comforter, “made with love” and imbued with meaning, does not herald a return to a “pure” gift economy, it is certainly distinct from the capitalist machinations which Marx bemoaned, which “[resolve] personal worth into exchange value” (“Manifesto”).  And spaces like Etsy, which foster the DIY aesthetic/ethic, are not just online business phenomena, but are also part of a “work movement” (Walker).  Some artisans have used Etsy as a springboard towards self-employment, as a means away from what they saw as “dull work and its wearing slavery” in a corporate environment (“Lesser” 235).

It remains to be seen whether the DIY movement in the decorative arts will have the lasting effects some of its participants hope for, if the political and social changes will come along with the artistic ones.  But in DIY’s emphasis on learning new hand-work skills and in preserving endangered ones, some movement towards what looks like a pre-industrial artisan past seems alive and kicking.  A creator like Morris “need[ed] to go back in order to go forward” (Wilmer xxviii), and while Etsy hasn’t changed the way masses of Americans work and shop, it has changed the working lives of some craftspeople for the better. At the end of the day, I cannot afford wallpaper at $200 a roll.  But I know how to do Bargello tapestry work, a 17th century Florentine decorative art which I had to teach myself.  While I can’t make Waverly silk, I can still produce fine, handcrafted decorative items which I, far from rich and privileged, get to enjoy.  And because of sites like Etsy, my ability to create something handmade and show it to the web-connected world may improve my material circumstances as well.  I think William Morris would approve.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Paul.  “Do It Yourself: Democracy and Design.”  The Journal of Design History 19 (2006): 1-10.  Print.

Buchan, Mark. “Marx’s Aesthetics: Between Gift and Commodity Exchange.” Helios 26.2 (1999): 129.  Literature Resource Center.  Web.

Historic Style Online Catalogue.  Web. <http://historicstyle.com/williammorris/wallpapers/acanthusscroll.html&gt;.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels.  “Manifesto of the Communist Party.”  School of Social Sciences.  The Australian National University.  Web.  <http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/classics/manifesto.html&gt;.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.

Morris, William.  “The Lesser Arts.” News from Nowhere and Other Writings.  London: Penguin Books, 1998.  231-254.  Print.

Walker, Rob.  “Handmade 2.0.”  The New York Times 16 Dec. 2007.  The New York Times. Web.  <http://www.nytimes.com&gt;.

Wilmer, Clive, ed.  “Introduction.”  News from Nowhere and Other Writings.  London: Penguin Books, 1998.  ix-xli.  Print.

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1 Comment

  1. Mari said,

    Love this blog post!

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