William Morris, Print Culture, and the Politics of Aestheticism
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William Morris, Print Culture, and the Politics of Aestheticism

When we consider late-Victorian literature through the lens of the Aesthetic Movement, what do we do with William Morris? Is he the nostalgic neo-medievalist, the “idle singer of an empty day,” or is he the socialist artist par excellence who, after his 1883 adoption of socialism, forged what Caroline Arscott has called “the first English-language attempt to produce a Marxist theory of art”?1 We can appeal to chronology to answer this question: the early Morris was a Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthete, whose work deeply influenced Oscar Wilde’s articulation of “The House Beautiful” and “The Decorative Arts” on his lecture tour of America, while the later Morris was a radical who spent the last thirteen years of his life formulating a new kind of political aesthetic. But such a distinction ignores the continuities between his early and late career and fails to address the underlying question of whether Aestheticism and revolutionary socialism are indeed oppositional. If Aestheticism is defined conventionally by its insistence on the autonomy of art and the isolation of individual consciousness—“each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of the world,” as Walter Pater put it—and, consequently, by inwardness, reflexivity, and detachment from socio-political reality, was Morris its adversary or unwitting proponent?2 Was he a socialist trapped in the Aesthetic age, or an Aesthete mired down in socialist propaganda?

A theory of Morris’s place within Aestheticism, and, more broadly, of the place of the political within Aestheticism, can be derived by considering Morris’s response to fin de siècle print culture and his two major experiments in socialist print: the Commonweal newspaper and the Kelmscott Press. These two print [End Page 477] projects formally mirror the genres of Aestheticism and utopianism in their conception of the text’s relation to political reality. Using Fredric Jameson’s recent work on the politics of Utopia, I want to suggest that Morris’s print ventures, the Commonweal and Kelmscott, construct themselves in relation to mainstream print in the same way that Utopia constructs itself in relation to present-day reality, and that both of these relationships echo Aesthetic theories of art and realism. Recognizing these parallels reframes the debate over Aestheticism’s politics—and over Morris’s politics—more properly as a debate over evolutionary versus revolutionary socialism, over reformist versus revolutionary approaches to political change, and over progressive versus dialectical theories of history. Positioning Morris and Aestheticism within the fin de siècle political moment, a moment riven by these very debates, allows us to identify the operative conceptions of the political and the aesthetic that they share, and the utopian and revolutionary features of Aesthetic form.

Morris, Print, and Utopia

Morris’s print ventures in the 1880s and 1890s investigate the nature of print’s politics, expose and critique the political effects of mass print culture, and assert the possibility of a break from the foreseeable future of politics and print. They are situated at the intersection of idealist, Marxist, Aesthetic, and modernist discourses; conceptualized in these terms, contradictory elements of these projects mirror the variegated aesthetic landscape of the fin de siècle, a milieu newly complicated by critics such as Ann Ardis, who argues that the “competition among emergent aesthetic and political traditions in turn-of-the-century Britain,” “the quarreling as well as the voracious borrowing of ideas,” requires “a much more detailed and nuanced topographical mapping of the period.”3 In a piece that exemplifies Ardis’s vision, Toril Moi has recently excavated the aesthetic category of “idealism”—“the belief that the task of art . . . is to uplift us, to point the way to the Ideal”—and argues that its lingering resonance in the late-nineteenth century has been suppressed by modernist suspicion of idealist art.4 Her recovery of idealism as a significant aesthetic and political discourse in this era bears strongly on studies of Morris, whose work exhibits features of both an older idealist tradition and an emerging modernist one, as well as on studies of Aestheticism, a movement that opposed the idealist conflation of beauty and...