When art was by and for the people

Modern art has clearly gone badly wrong. But how did it take socialism with it?

Consider this passage from William Morris. “I do not believe in the possibility of keeping art vigorously alive by the action, however energetic, of a few groups of specially gifted men and their small circle of admirers amidst a general public incapable of understanding and enjoying their work. I hold firmly to the opinion that all worthy schools of art must be in the future, as they have been in the past, the outcome of the aspirations of the people towards the beauty and true pleasure of life.”

A horribly reactionary sentiment, you may say. Or splendidly so. But Morris was not just a famous craftsman, designer and leading light in the Arts and Crafts Movement who tried to bring back quality, taste and genuine human fulfilment in a world of mass-produced cheap junk, offering sandalwood, ivory and topaz to a world of pig iron and cheap tin trays. He was also a passionate and famous socialist.

In this he deserves our sympathetic attention. I say so first because his stuff really was nice. Consider the famous Red House designed for him in Bexhill in 1859, a hobbit house if ever I saw one. It’s exactly the sort of thing real people including real workers would want to live in, entirely unlike the ghastly buildings and hideous sculpture, paintings and music foisted upon us by the Bauhaus and neotranspostmodern art.

Second, Morris may have been a socialist but he was no modernist. In his first public lecture he insisted that “there is only one best way of teaching drawing, and that is teaching the scholar to draw the human figure: both because the lines of a man’s body are much more subtle than anything else, and because you can more surely be found out and set right if you go wrong.” His socialism, like his art, was a reaction against modernity not an endorsement of it. He thought capitalism had made life ugly and wanted socialism to make it beautiful again; his inspiration was backward not forward.

In this he was not as unusual as he might seem today. In 1960 in The Unfinished Revolution Harvard scholar Adam Ulam tried to explain why revolutionary Marxist-style socialism appealed not to advanced industrial societies but to those just entering the most wrenching phase of modernization. The key, he said, was its promise somehow to leap over the socially disruptive part and get back to the organic and harmonious condition of pre-industrial society (real or imagined; my point here is the attractiveness of the vision rather than its practicality) while obtaining the wealth and geopolitical power only capitalism brings.

Morris’s novel News From Nowhere, however insipid and naive, presents precisely such a vision, the Middle Ages without the dirt or violence. As socialists will, he badly underestimates the complexities of actually creating wealth. But this persistent wish that we could all get along better and live more fulfilling lives in nicer surroundings should be condemned for impracticality, not ugliness.

This impulse is conspicuously absent from modern art, which has clearly become totally disconnected from the real life of the people. Nothing that wins the Turner Prize, or any kind of public acclaim from the smart set, would be allowed into a normal person’s living room even to be consumed in the fireplace.

Obviously popular taste has its drawbacks as well. Any snob worth his finishing salt can mock the decor of a suburban rec room, or the paintings of Elvis, ships or flowers on real velvet that too often adorn the upstairs spaces. But at least they try to be nice. Morris thought socialist art should too.

So what went wrong with socialism? Just as modern artists are overwhelmingly leftist, modern socialists are overwhelmingly modernist. Flaps over offensive art, especially if state funded, invariably pit conservative philistines against the political left as well as the literati. But socialism was meant to bring art back to the people, not expel them. Socialist realism, now apparently extinct except on the walls of Harvey’s restaurants, may have been awkward and ugly but at least it tried to celebrate and appeal to ordinary people.

No such claim could be made, even drunk, about Jackson Pollock. And while Le Corbusier famously called a house a “machine for living”, he lived in a garret and ate in bistros that would have appealed to William Morris far more than the junk the trendy “Corbu” and his ilk foisted on the gullible rich and the very poor. Aside from public housing, corporate high-rises and a few modern houses from the 1960s, with flat roofs, round windows, crumbling disconsolately in upscale neighbourhoods like abandoned sets for Peter Sellers’ The Party, there has been a total divorce between high-tone architecture and the “vernacular” style of houses people actually want to live in.

Modern art neither teaches morality nor aspires to. Its shocking of the bourgeoisie has become stale and lucrative and its message of futility is futile. No one is listening. And anyway, William Morris-style socialist art was meant restore meaning and beauty to people’s lives, not pound them relentlessly with the hideous futility of human existence.

Somewhere along the way, socialists seem to have become disgusted with the vulgarity of common people in whose name they still claim to speak. In 1905 Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle dramatized the misery of working-class immigrants with a horrific scene of dirty, dangerous work in a meat-packing plant, and prompted an immediate, irresistible public demand not for socialism but for better regulation of the food industry. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair later said, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Later socialists seem to have developed an ill-concealed desire to hit it there on purpose which modern artists all too obviously share.

In a much-mangled line from Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut said an abstract painter “with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid.” Why would socialists want to join in? But try to imagine Jack Layton, Ted Kennedy or your favourite local socialist suggesting that the state only subsidize art regular working stiffs understand, or talking like William Morris above.

Despite their supposed opposition to “elitism” it’s impossible, isn’t it? However did socialism get so ugly it could be a piece of modern art?




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