Jonathan Jones “William Morris: a Victorian socialist dreaming of a life in symmetry” http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2016/mar/24/william-morris-google-doodle-socialist
William Morris was a Marxist with a very spiritual passion for beauty – a paradoxical visionary who saw no contradiction between socialism and soft furnishings. Today’s Google doodle goes to the heart of his genius because it captures his joy in repetition, his love of the middle ages and his dream of a culture at one with nature.
To mark the date of Morris’s birth (24 March 1834) the search engine has emblazoned itself with a variety of his symmetrical designs that herald the word Google, written in a version of the medievalist fonts he designed for his Kelmscott Press*2 .
Morris was driven by the two abiding rages of his life, against the ugliness and injustice of capitalist society. Capitalism is the word he used, as opposed to “industrial society” or “the modern world”, after he read and embraced the writings of Karl Marx and became a Marxist in the 1880s. Much earlier though, what turned him into a rebel against Victorian Britain was the sheer ugliness and tackiness of the middle class luxuries that filled the Great Exhibition in 1851.
He showed that mass production – of a kind – can be beautiful. His patterns for carpets and wall hangings are medievalist yet modern: even abstract. From looking at Islamic as well as western sources he saw the beauty of repetition, symmetry and simplification. The beauty of a William Morris pattern, that the Google doodle captures very well, lies in its combination of simplicity and richness.
Morris ran his workshops as a craft society where the worker, he hoped, was truly fulfilled. This kind of medievalist utopia owes less to Marx than it does to his other intellectual mentor, the Victorian art critic John Ruskin*3 . For Ruskin too, industrial society was evil and the middle ages offered a better model of social solidarity and happiness in work. Ruskin was a compassionate Tory who got his students at Oxford – including the young Oscar Wilde – to built a road so they could learn the dignity of manual labour. Morris took Ruskin’s belief that art and architecture are moral acts and made it socialist.
It is fascinating that Google has created its Morris doodle at the same time that it is leading the world in artificial intelligence*4 . How is AI going to change the world of work? Will human work as we know it vanish – and if so, what will people do? A utopian answer might be that all work becomes an art, and human potential is directed to the creation of beauty and happiness instead of mere things.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. In fact I am just describing the vision of William Morris. Happy birthday to the man who brought us News from Nowhere.
*3:See David Barnes “John Ruskin can help us rail against the dehumanising power of capitalism” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/nov/06/john-ruskin-dehumanising-power-capitalism
*4:See Jason Millar “The momentous advance in artificial intelligence demands a new set of ethics” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/13/artificial-intelligence-robots-ethics-human-control