William Morris, Art and Labor Part 2


One does not often associate labor and art if one is not an artist. The general public does not characterize art as labor at all, that somehow painting or sculpture does not entail a lot of physical exertion as well as moral and intellectual energies. Art is just a pleasure in its creation, which in fact it is, but not in the same way we enjoy a holiday at the beach. Art is deeply tied to labor, but not a labor without the personal investment of the artist, creator.

The artist’s labor is how all labor should be. One is directed from within, combining memory, intuition, reverie, rational thought, skill and craftsmanship to an  activity that is physical and results in a “new” material manifestation, a thing newly and uniquely  created. This deeply personal involvement in the work that expresses the artists’ personal transformation as well as that of the community as a whole is the nature of what labor is and how it should be. In many ways we are so detached from our daily labor. When one “retires” or moves on there is always someone to fill that spot. That spot is not unique and personal to the individual. If it was, that person could not , in a real sense, be replaced. The work would always be uniquely his, just the way we associate the work of an individual artist. There will always be Rembrandt or Rodin, the individuals.

In chapter 7 of Signs of Change by William Morris, Morris reflects on the aims of art and how labor is the key to understanding why we create at all. Morris reflects on the nature of man. He describes man as having two dominating moods, the mood of energy and the mood of idleness, “… these two moods are now one, now the other, always crying out in me to be satisfied. When the mood of energy is upon me, I must be doing something, or I become mopish and unhappy; when the mood of idleness is upon me, I find it hard indeed if I cannot rest and let my mind wander over various pictures, pleasant or terrible, which my own experience or my communing with the thoughts of other men, dead or alive, have fashioned in it.” ( Signs of Change,p.117-118)

Morris ties these moods to affects. When man is in the mood of energy, he expresses hope and when he is in the mood of idleness, he taps into memory, full of emotions. (118) Hope speaks of the future and memory speaks of the past. They may be memories of a past event or situation or a memory may be of a more universal note say of a feeling experienced in childhood. But both kinds of memory express a past.

So what occupies the present? I would say, the “living” man himself holding those two things, hope and memory, in balance within his own psyche. He has the ability to reach in both directions creating a dynamic present. In this dynamic present, man’s imagination has the fluid quality necessary to flow between these poles and bring both the past and the present into a confluence. This confluence unites man to the world where he is in dialogue with those interior inspirations that are seeking material form. The imagination holds all these things in play, creating an experience of heightened awareness and wholeness. This is the creativeness inherent in the artist but it is something that all people are capable of and unconsciously desire because they know it is their right too. Morris believes it is the reason that man has always “… cherished and practiced art.” (119)

The philosopher, Gaston Bachelard speaks of a similar connection. Bachelard believed that idleness united with memory through reverie taps into a reservoir of images freeing these images and allowing them to become conscious and alive.  These images provide through their “raw-ness” the source of energy that engages the psyche of the artist and compels him to creative activity. Therefore idleness begets energy and exhausted energy begets idleness both acting in a dynamic interplay that allows for the image to finally be manifested in the world. These images also tend to take on universal themes. They are not “ideas” but intuitive insights. It is why many poets or artists seem to speak on similar themes. All cultures have produced art. It was and is an inherent product of a “living” man as D.H. Lawrence expressed (the man who is one with the world in a dynamic relationship).

For the artist, there is real, sensuous pleasure in the very activity of creation. This moment of energy, working the materials into an image, is filled with hope and joy. The more freedom the artist has to express his personal individuality as well as come to terms with his inner compulsion to produce a certain image, the more the pleasure is increased. The artist is deeply invested in the outcome because it springs from his desire for growth and engagement. His work as well as his rest becomes “fruitful” (125).

Morris adds that the real aim of art is to “live” fully, “For my part I believe, that if we try to realize the aims of art without much troubling ourselves what the aspect of the art itself shall be, we shall find we shall have what we want at last: whether it is to be called art or not, it will at least be life; and, after all, that is what we want. It may lead us into new splendors and beauties of visible art.” (133)

This active” living” entails an attentiveness to oneself and the world around you. This heightened awareness to all things, when taken seriously has its own great pleasure. The details add to the quality of my existence. They are the cream, the richness, that makes all things delicious. Morris expresses, ” (Man) will discover, or rediscover rather, that the true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life, in elevating them by art instead of…ignoring them… (137) If nothing else comes of it, it will at least bring us courage and hope; that is eager life while we live, which is above all things the Aim of Art.” (140)


Blake, Neo-Platonism and the Material Imagination

Early on, as a high school student, I became interested in Neo-Platonism. It seemed to connect many of the intuitive thoughts that I was having and give them form and relationship. Later in college, I formally studied Neo-Platonism as a philosophy major and I still felt it touched on many of my intuitive ideas. I recently read a book on William Blake and his relationship to Neo-Platonism titled, Blake and Antiquity by Kathleen Raine (part of the Bollingen Series, 1962). This might in fact be the very reason I am so attracted to the evocative drawings and dream like images of Blake.

Raine begins her essay,

“Neo-Platonism may be compared to an underground river that flows through European history, sending up, from time to time, springs and fountains; and wherever its fertalizing stream emerges, there imaginative thought revives, and we have a period of great art and poetry.” (Raine,p.4)

The English Platonist, Thomas Taylor had a powerful influence on Blake who, simultaneously, was reading the works of Swedenborg. Taylor called upon the,

“Young men of the new age…to enlist under the banner of Plotinus, confident that…the weapons of truth, in the hands of vigorous union, descend with irresistible force, and are fatal wherever they fall.” (Raine,p.5)

Blake begins his own personal journey discovering his Platonic leanings in the work entitled, Cave of the Nymphs. The symbolism that he longed for, that was both old and new, became evident in Neo-Platonism. It encapsulated his love of the ancients and brought them into the modern age through a symbolism that transcended time. Raine states, “… the language may at times be forgotten, yet we cannot call it dead; for the visions it describes are, as Blake says, ‘Permanent in The Imagination’; the beauty and the meaning of such symbols is unaging.” (Ibid.,p.8)

One of the Platonic ideas that Blake spent much time meditating on is the idea that souls descend into generation. Heraclitus states,”…birth into the cave is a death from eternity, the sleep of forgetfulness that overcomes those who, as in Plato’s parable, drink the waters of Lethe and are born on earth.” This concept is evident in Blake’s painting, The Sea of Time and Space (1821). In this painting, there are figures with looms and shuttles, weaving the garments, the body, that the figures will wear when they enter life. In this painting,souls take on the materiality of existence and are born into the world.

But one thing I sense in Blake is that he does not just stop at identifying with Platonic ideas. He goes one step further. He identifies, as the artist, with this material embodiment. What is the artist, but one who takes an imaginative leap by carrying his idea from thought and manifesting it into a material form. Artistic creation is the very act of materializing a thought, feeling or intuitive insight, into a vessel that reveals those thoughts and feelings. The artist needs matter to create. The artist, not only transform matter, but also invests his own soul into that creation.This, too, is a materialization of a spiritual movement that takes place within the artist. Any artistic undertaking is a conjunction between thoughts, soul and matter.

Related but conversely stated, Gaston Bachelard believed that,” We need to first imagine something before we can discover it.” Matter must first be imagined before the senses can percieve it. Matter only takes on ‘life and existence’ after the entrance of the imagination. Blake elaborates in The Songs of Innocence, that it is the imagination, not the senses, that are able,

“To see a world in a Grain of Sand

And Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.” (Ibid.,p. 88)

Blake writes, “Every Natural Effect has a Spiritual Cause.” Blake believes in the artists’ ability to be a catylst of movement between the spiritual realm(imagination) and the world of matter. The artist acts as a medium between worlds. “When man lives imaginatively, his world is determined by quality” and unity. The artist is a projection of the oneness that is possible in living the creative life. Blake states,

“Heaven above, heaven beneath,

Stars above, stars beneath,

All that is above is beneath.

Understand this and be happy.” (Ibid.,p.79)

Material imagination, the imaginative quality of soul, of ‘vision’ as Blake puts it,”… regenerates and resurrects Nature… and Paradise is regained.” (Ibid.,p.100) Blake continues this thought which reaches it’s apex, “I see Every thing I paint in This World…to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees.” (Ibid.,p.100)