Arts & Crafts and Socialism

What does Arts & Crafts have to do with Socialism? Well, we’re not talking kid stuff here, we’re talking a period of art and architecture, and yes, crafts, that blossomed first in England in the mid-1850s and then spread to Europe and America. I myself didn’t think there was a connection between the Arts & Crafts style and vernacular and Socialism, nor did I go explore the subject, but, it was dumped into my lap. I had taken a book out of the library by Steven Adams called “The Arts and Crafts Movement.” Frankly, in a shallow ‘I want to be left alone with art’ moment I liked the cover, so, in the library I flipped through the pages and saw pictures. Cool, I took it out, figuring I’d have some nice pictures of arts and crafts to look at. What a fine thing.

Comes to be quite a different book. Right at the first page of text, page 9 in the book, is this: “Fredrich Engels disassociated himself from the religious faith of the Shakers but admired the near-socialist conditions under which their work was produced and sold.” So, Karl Marx’s partner looked to a religious community – a cult even – for the wonders of the working man. No doubt he was a bit put off with all the God-talk and the lack of nooky.

From the same page: “It was the desire to improve both aesthetic standards and working conditions that generated a further article of faith shared by many active within the Arts and Crafts Movement: the believe that the material and moral fabric of society had been infinitely better some time in the past, be it in the England of the Middle Ages …” and I think, things were worse in the Middle Ages, far worse, than they were in the 1850s. The material well being at that time was subsistence, and cruel lords of the manor and vast discrepancies between the few wealthy and the mass of poor folks. By the Victorian era in which this movement was begun your average English person was living longer and better, safer and healthier – was it paradise? Absolutely not! Was it superduper by modern standards? Certainly no. Were slate roofs and enclosed fireplaces and chimneys for heat in brick houses with stoves for cooking better than the Middle Ages open fire in the middle of a thatched roof mud and waddle hut? Without a doubt. So much for materials.

Speaking of materials, and since many in the Arts and Crafts were designing fabrics, clothes and wallpaper in this newly discovered Middle Ages betterness, the reality is that long ago the law decreed what sort of clothes you could and could not wear. Certain colors, say, purple, were off limits to most people. Red was reserved, black too. And silks and wools and cottons all were assigned to the right and rigid class structure. The Shakers were sort of regimented clothes wise too. Still, stripes were out as Evil! And dots were fools, and checkerboards for the knaves – oh, it was all very color and fabric coordinated in the Middle Ages – and this is what the gaudy artists of this new movement wanted to return to? If they had, Henry II would have taken them out and hung.

“The Ethos of industrial capitalism demanded production for profit rather than need …” well, well, throughout all time production was for profit. Indeed, need and profit are entwined in quite the incestuous relationship, though cousins I guess. No one can profit from something people don’t need. No one does anything without profit in mind. Even making yourself a broom from a stick and thrushes still means that you profited from the labor – and raw materials made into something useful – and value imparted to the formerly worthless objects. But to think that no one produced anything for profit in times past, prior to the industrial capitalism is absurd.

There are Sumerian clay tablets in Cuneiform which attest to profit making. There are ship loads of Greek Amphora at the bottom of Egyptian harbors attesting to profit. There are the Journals of Marco Polo along the well traveled Silk Road to attest to profit. The markets of the Middle Ages were filled with silks, and stones, and medicines, and herbs, and cloth, and bangles, and gold, and spices, pepper, cinnamon and clove, as well as swords and time keepers, and spoons and pots and all manner of made items for sale for profit. The idea that profit came along with industrialization is poppycock. The idea that we don’t make things we need today is absurd too. Things are needed, profits are made – – and no profit is made on things not needed. But this is not a new thing – and there was no time in the past without it to return to – especially not the Middle Ages.

On page 10 of this great book – oh, I recommend it, I do – is this:

“Pre-industrial society, then, was understood to retain precisely that element of humanity that industrial capitalism lacked. Men and women were not bound by the relationship of ‘master’ and ‘wage-slave,’ based on alienating and mechanized factory labour, but lived as a human community centered upon the workshop, where they were employed on useful and creatives tasks. The admiration for some romanticized, pre-industrial Utopia was endemic among 19th Century critics of industrialization – so endemic, in fact, that an echo of the sentiment even permeates the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of Karl Mark. Not generally known for his romanticism, Marx found and admired in the working conditions of medieval society – ‘an intimate and human side’ that was resolutely absent in the factory sweatshops of the industrialized 19th century.”

 And that sums it up – Marx simply had a weird vision of Medieval life as being wonderbah, and so wanted to return to it. Sweep away the capitalism – a word he invented to identify anything bad in society – and we’d return to well, serfdom I guess. Lord of the manner and sieges where this warlord, aka, Duke of Somewhere, decided to slaughter all the peasants of the Duke of Overthere. The idea that there was bliss in the past is ludicrous. People were more than tied to the land, to their jobs, and not for wages either. They couldn’t quit. They couldn’t leave the property. They had no rights, no information, and what Marx avoids are the tax revolts.

 For the Middle Ages are filled with Tax Revolts. There is not a book I ever read on the subject – and I’m wide read on the Middle Ages – that did not mention tax revolts – but, there are no books on the tax revolts of the Middle Ages. Now there’s a project, eh? 

Still, Karl Marx admired a time which didn’t exist, and in fact, was far more repressive and dreary and superstitious and filled with religion even – and that’s what he sought to model his ideas on. Weirdly, Das Kapital, or “Capitalism,” where Marx explains his concepts, doesn’t explain any free markets or free trade – it explains landed aristocracy which owned everything in Victorian England – exactly as landed aristocracy owned everything in Medieval England. To be against the one while clamoring for the other seems to just want the same thing with new names. Even more strangely, what he called for, or, “Socialism” – which he never defined more than “not capitalism” is now seen to be based on well, Medieval “capitalism means all that’s bad in society.” Well, if what Marx described as “capitalism” is landed aristocracy – then I’m against capitalism.

 But I’m sure not for going back to the Middle Ages when you were born in your job and that was that – this romantic visions which fill the rest of the book are amazing, from page 11: “Morris had stumbled on a paradox that affected all evangelistic craftsmen and women active with the movement in Europe and the United states: Objects made by hand are far more expensive than those made by machine and necessarily exclude the disadvantaged masses for whom they were intended.”

 Indeed, the supposed not for profit, but for need, and fine craftsman in heartfelt guild with nature of the Middle Ages recognized precisely that hand made good were too expensive and only for the super rich – that’s why they invented machines. Not a process known to man has not seen someone try to make a machine to make it better. Hell, there’s even sex machines for heaven’s sake. And it is precisely because the realists, aka, the peasants, saw that there was no way out of poverty and worse-than wage slavery with the Medieval way of hand making everything that they invented machines and factories.

 And now, artists and Marx were conspiring to return to the days of misery and poverty – and – after they recognized it wouldn’t work and was not rational – they continued! And so, Marx’s utopia lives on today, shaking the world still, with the dream of returning to some innocent and peaceful days of halcyon lore that never existed but the fetid imaginations of people smelling too much wood glue.

 The book is a charm, I recommend it. The pictures are wonderful, the arts and crafts are sublime. The artists should have kept to art. And, in fact, when I think about it, too back Marx didn’t go to the wood bench to work instead of writing his bitter screed against rationality.  


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