February 15, 2013

William Morris and the politics of artistic production

In 1889, William Morris delivered a lecture titled "The Arts and Crafts of Today," which addressed the degraded state of labour and commerce in industrial England by working through the question of art's purpose in everyday life. Not simply an indictment of late Victorian society, Morris's lecture functions as a manifesto, justifying his radical position to an audience of artists while laying out the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement. Like the manifestos of later design movements, such as The Bauhaus, Morris's lecture assumes a close relationship between what he calls the "applied arts" and the complex form of society at large. For both movements, the design manifesto is a polemical call to all creative labourers to recognize their collective capacity to overturn and transform the status quo; it is an attempt to articulate an alternative vision of society in which art does not simply mask reality but actually improves it.

Modernist aesthetics can be seen as a direct engagement with the question of technology and its increasing dominance within industrial capitalism. In this way, the lineage of early twentieth century movements like The Bauhaus can be traced back to Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. If the design manifesto is itself the outgrowth of a modernist attitude toward art and life, it retains the same dialectical impulse that drove Morris to understand the applied arts as a sign of collective solidarity: it is at once critical of its immediate context and pragmatic about how to change it. As Morris's 1889 lecture demonstrates, the rise of the applied arts as a discipline directly follows from art's confrontation with capitalist modes of production and to social inequality.

In a landscape saturated with advertising and mass production, the applied arts provided Morris with tangible opportunities for intervention. His 1889 lecture recognizes this discipline as a site of labour that must be reconciled with degraded labour of the industrial factory. Art, according to Morris, has two related purposes. The first purpose has to do with use and consumption: art adds beauty to functional objects, it enables the enjoyment of everyday activities. Here, Morris suggests that in some forms of human labour (certain moments in agriculture, fishing, carpentry, etc.) beauty is already inherent in nature, or it would be if we recognized that this sort of work is necessary and dignified. Art's second purpose is to add pleasure to labour. Nature again figures into this definition because it models this relationship for us by making necessary activities like eating enjoyable.

For Morris, the vast separation between art and life was symptomatic of England's social and economic inequality. In his lecture, he points out that artists frequently fixate on a particular style or method and consequently lose sight of what that style might achieve. Such artwork finally expresses nothing more than the vanity of the artist: his self-satisfied ability to render a "clever" product, which simply mystifies and alienates his audience rather than working towards its edification. Within the conditions of capitalism, art cannot be commonly experienced: it becomes the lofty domain of aristocratic enjoyment; meanwhile, the factory work that sustains England's economy is stripped down to bare utility.

Removing art from utility does not make utility somehow more neutral; it rather works against the human spirit and against social progress. If we simply adhere to utility, suggests Morris, we have the choice between two dystopian futures. Either society will be organized in a way that allows for the exploitation of the many by the few (fascism), or, as a strict system of compulsory egalitarianism, not unlike the form of communism that would later envelop Eastern Europe. In either case everyday life is defined by the drudgery of work, which destroys creativity and instrumentalizes human energy.

In contrast, the true work of art for Morris must point to the unified bond of true society, where every individual endeavour is grounded, inspired, and made possible by collective interest. In this way, Morris's philosophy was grounded in the "constructivism" that would come to define the avant-garde in the early twentieth century: art is distinguished not by the finished product but by the social process that surrounds it and makes possible its creation (McGann 56). For Morris and, later, for The Bauhaus this impulse toward collective interest culminated in the work of architecture. In "The Bauhaus Manifesto" Walter Gropius suggests argues that arts and crafts must work together in unity in order to create complete objects, the most important of which is "the complete building." Like Gropius, Morris recognized architecture as a way to understand how art and life could influence one another. Even the fine arts, such as painting or sculpture, must be considered within the context of architecture and can aid in the construction of a unified space. The building, argues Morris, is "a unit of art": it is the pure expression of the lives of its builders and inhabitants. What bound these two groups together in previous societies was a common tradition. By Morris's time, that tradition had been superseded by the irrational demands of the market, all of which have led increased specialization and alienation for working classes. In this setup, ornamentation (what used to belong to the domain of art) is mass produced as an afterthought to utility, the ultimate purpose of which is to quicken commerce. The end of objects produced in this kind of context is profit, pure and simple. Beautiful work can therefore only be oppositional because it must, by definition, take into account the mutual conditions of production and consumption.

In his lecture Morris sees the buildings of industrial Britain standing in stark contrast to the cathedrals of the middle ages, not only because of their orientation towards commerce, but because such spaces reduce workers to blunt instruments. Because he is driven solely by commercial interest, Morris argues, the capitalist will either have machines do work of production or rely on "human machines": workers whose desire and creativity must be channeled into spare moments of leisure time. Under such conditions, the working classes are doomed to produce objects of mere utility. In other words, if ornamentation does make an appearance in factory products, it has no purpose beyond the self-interest of those who own the means of production.

Where other social critics of Victorian England, such as John Ruskin or Thomas Carlyle, valourized work as an inherently ennobling activity and risked having their arguments used to justify the further exploitation of the working classes, Morris was convinced that simple labour reform would not solve the problems of capitalism (Breton 43). Commerce, according to Morris, can only encourage exploitation and treat beauty as a superfluous ornament. When those engaged in the applied arts take seriously their conditions of production, they cannot but be aligned with rebellion. For Morris the free labours of applied artists are therefore the concrete appearance of utopian possibility; they carve out a space of critique and a space of hope. Such work, in other words, reminds us of what the industrial age has forgotten: that labour can be pleasurable, that social equality is attainable, and that both possibilities depend on one another.

Works Cited

Breton, Rob. "WorkPerfect: William Morris and the Gospel of Work." Utopian Studies 13.1 (2002): 43-56.

Gropius, Walter. "The Bauhaus Manifesto." Maria Buszek, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.

McGann, Jerome. "'A Thing to Mind': The Materialist Aesthetic of William Morris." Huntington Library Quarterly 55.1 (Winter, 1992): 55-74.

Morris, William. "The Arts and Crafts of Today." Marxists Internet Archive, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.

February 14, 2013

Among the greatest love songs...

...there's this gem by The Replacements:

...and this ballad by Bonnie "Prince" Billy:

...and this dreamy number by Beach House:

...and how could I forget Chad VanGaalen, who has at least half a dozen beauties per album:

February 6, 2013

An obligatory review of My Bloody Valentine's mbv

If you've paid any attention to the music press over the last four days, you've likely come across the name of one of the most mythologized and celebrated bands of the 90s. After nearly 22 years My Bloody Valentine have finally released their ridiculously anticipated follow-up to 1991's Loveless. Especially since the rise of taste-making sites like Pitchfork (who ranked Loveless as the second best album of the 90s, after OK Computer), MBV's sophomore release has become something of an institution. Listening to someone talk about the first time they heard Loveless inevitably brings up all kinds of nostalgic platitudes; it's basically the musical equivalent of your 11-year-old self's first wet-dream and, for a lot of us, it's an event that's fondly remembered.

By the time I first encountered My Bloody Valentine I'd already developed a boyish love for the liquid swell of guitar effects that I'd come to associate with bands like the Smashing Pumpkins. I later realized this sound was the hallmark of a loosely defined genre called "shoegaze." It made all kinds of sense. I suddenly understood what was so great about Siamese Dream: it successfully ripped off the sound--the perfect blending of androgynous vocals and textured guitar layers--that Kevin Shields had perfected two years earlier. The Smashing Pumpkins used Loveless's sonic innovations for different ends, but Billy Corgan did, after all, seek out Alan Moulder (who had engineered Loveless) to mix the Siamese Dream. At the time, anything connected to that album was pretty revelatory for me and MBV was no exception. Even the record store clerk who helped me find the CD was excited for me: "I'll help you, but only because you're buying Loveless, the best album ever made." Loveless's aesthetic was more significant for my own taste than I could have known. And as a cultural document, it served as a key to understanding what I loved best about music of the early 90s.

20 years later and My Bloody Valentine's new release, mbv, is pretty damn good too. It's the unmistakable work of an incredibly influential band, picking up more or less where their 1991 record left off. Upon first listen, it seemed more song-driven than I was expecting, but as several reviews have pointed out, the nine track album presents its songs in three groups of three. The first triad is composed of songs that extend the grainy guitar swirls of Loveless. mbv's ethereal opener, "She Found Now" unfolds like a sequel to Loveless's "Sometimes," while "Only Tomorrow" follows the same shrill guitar hook into oblivion, nicely leading into lumbering chord progressions of "Who Sees You." The next triad is made up of songs that feature vocals by Belinda Butcher. "New You" is the surprising highlight of this middle block in part because it's the closest mbv gets to conventional song structure: it's instantly catchy and melodic, almost danceable. But, as always, the point isn't to craft a good pop song; it's to push frequencies to their limits.

In the end, it's not the song, but the sound that counts. And that's clearly what's going on in the final set of tracks, which become progressively more disorienting and difficult to digest. "In Another Way" features another gorgeous set of vocals from Butcher but is noticeably more noise-heavy; "Nothing Is" fulfills its nihilistic title as it wordlessly rolls over thudding guitars and an intense, pummelling drum line; and, although Shields returns to vocal duties on "Wonder 2," the album's closing track is the closest MBV have come to sounding like a helicopter base. As it ends, you can almost see them flying out of range and out of view.

There's something both satisfying and confounding about mbv. Perhaps it's because so many of us have stubbornly held onto Loveless's aura that the new album comes across sounding like a timeless artifact: evidence that My Bloody Valentine haven't changed, that the freshest sounds from 20 years ago can still be recovered and reconstituted. But as a friend of mine pointed out, My Bloody Valentine don't freeze time, they distort it beyond recognition. Rather than some recovered aura, it's Kevin Sheilds' ability to play with time and sound that draws the connecting line between Isn't Anything, Loveless, and mbv. Most fans talk about listening to MBV as though its a religious experience, a kind of escape from lived reality. By contrast, I think MBV have managed to produce the opposite: mbv isn't the sound of transcendent departure--it's the sound of immanent arrival.