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)


William Morris, Art and Labor


William Morris, the influential nineteenth century British designer, artist, writer, craftsman and political activist, generated ideas in regard to the connection between labor and the production of art. I recently read Morris’ book on socialism, Signs of Change. Morris looked on socialism in an entirely different way than what is regarded as state socialism, which he found flawed. Morris’ socialism really sprung from his inherent belief that if man had his basic needs satisfied and did not depend on his labor going to sheer sustenance, that every individual would find a certain labor that they loved and enjoyed doing for its own sake.

This love of a certain labor, whether it be physical like farming, construction etc. or whether it be of a more mental type say research, science , mathematics etc., would come naturally. And over time this particular craft or mental activity would reach a point where it would become less “labor” and more art. That man would inherently wish to do his best and the craft would take on a certain refinement because the laborer would truly enjoy his activity and would spend the necessary time to produce something beautiful and admirable. Doesn’t one find that if one is working on a project and one is not hampered by money or time, that one wishes to do it well. When we renovate our homes, aren’t we pleased when something comes out right and is beautiful to look at, something that will enhance our experience of family life?

Morris feels that this internal sense of well-being that we get from such activity is an inherent characteristic of all men and women. Man feels whole and united to the world around him and life becomes more of a pleasure. One is able to balance labor and rest when he is in such a state. From rest, one generates ideas, becomes inspired and willingly experiments with intuitive insights. Dreams and unconscious material is allowed to have its moment and interplay with one’s art because now one has time and real freedom to be engaged as one ought to be.


One may say that this is sheer Utopia and I would have to agree. But Morris is not deceived either. His book, News from Nowhere is a vision of this idea and in this text, Morris refers to his beliefs as utopian. But, he also states that one must have hope and a vision in order for change, any kind of change, though it be imperfect, to take place. He really writes it because he knows there is so much potential that is lost in man, that is thwarted by poverty, oppressive labor practices and sheer lack of an alternative approach to labor and art for that matter. Would not art be more profound and meaningful if there was no economic value or market for it that in many ways dictates what one will create? If all art was generated out of love, would not this have a direct benefit on society as a whole? Could we not see ourselves for who we truly are?  This self expression could have a transformative effect because we could willingly look in the mirror and see the state of ourselves and the world. Why not? Yes, why not try something like this.

“Come! We ought to join the others before they come here looking at for us. And let me tell you, my friend, that I can see you are too apt to fall into mere dreamy musing: no doubt because you are not yet used to our life of repose amidst energy: of work which is pleasure and pleasure which is work” (The character Ellen in News from Nowhere, William Morris)

I feel most artists long for such a utopia, for a real unity between the creative life and the community at large. Robert Henri expresses the same feeling as Morris,

“Art appears in many forms. To some degree every human being is an artist, depending on the quality of his growth. Art need not be intended. It comes inevitably as the tree from the root, the branch from the trunk, the blossom from the twig. None of these forget the present in looking backward or forward. They are occupied wholly with the fulfillment of their own existence. The branch does not boast of the relation it bears to its great ancestor the trunk, and does not claim attention to itself for this honor, nor does it call attention to the magnificent red apple it’s about to bear. Because it is engaged in the full play of its own existence, because it is full in its own growth, its fruit is inevitable.” (Robert Henri, Art Spirit,p.68)