The joy in creation - William Morris’ socialist ideal of art

Term Paper, 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. How the socialist ideal of art evolved
2.1. Morris’ definition of art
2.2. Art in the 19th century

3. The society in the future – a socialist ideal of art

4. Realisation of the socialist ideal and limits

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

William Morris was a poet, a political activist, a designer and a craftsman of the 19th century. As a part of the Arts and Crafts Movement, he is mainly known today for the last two categories due to his major influence on various artists. He was so successful “in at least thirteen fields of decorative art: stained glass, ceramics, painted or stencilled decoration, embroidery, wallpapers, chintzes, printed fabrics, woven materials, tapestries, carpets, illuminated manuscripts, typography and book design”[1], that it is still possible to buy his designs today. But what is even more impressive than all his achievements in these various categories of decorative art was his ability to bring political thinking and art together.

Living between 1834 and 1896[2], Morris was born in England during the Industrial Revolution – a time of technological and social change. Due to improvements in manufacturing, agriculture and technology, new social classes arose and England became “the most advanced of the capitalist countries”[3]. There were massive differences between the classes, reaching from extreme poverty to utmost wealth. The appalling working and living conditions of most people were in sharp contrast to “the pleasure he [Morris] derived from his own labours”[4]. Well aware of the misery of his time and inspired by John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and the writings of Karl Marx, Morris created his own idea of a society “in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master's man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition”[5]. Not only wanted Morris the end of class division; he saw art in a new position as well.

In the following, Morris’ notion of art in connection with his political thinking shall be outlined. It will be analysed how he imagined art to be in the future. It is only possible to explain his socialist ideal of art in contrast to the contemporary role of art in society. Therefore, a description of the circumstances in Morris’ time will follow his definition of art. His own work as an artist will be assessed roughly in terms of his socialist ideal. In line with this, the limits of his work caused by the social circumstances at his time will be mentioned.

2. How the socialist ideal of art evolved

To understand why Morris conceived art as a “token of [...] freedom and happiness”[6], it is necessary to examine what he subsumed under art. Secondly, it is essential to look at the position of art in a capitalistic system because the circumstances at Morris’ time influenced his thinking and his endeavour as an artist. Morris expressed his theories concerning the relation between art and society in numerous lectures, articles, poems, short stories and novels from which they have to be reconstructed.

2.1. Morris’ definition of art

William Morris defined art in a very broad sense. He excluded music and literature from his definition of art for reasons of convenience[7]. Apart from that, everything man-made was considered a “possible vehicle of art”[8] by him. Also, he differentiated between pieces that are art and such that are destructive to art. For something to be regarded as art, it was highly important to Morris that this piece of handwork was produced with pleasure and would “tell the tale of its making and the tale of its use”[9].

Therefore, the most important point about Morris’ concept of art was that art is the “the expression of man’s pleasure in labour”[10]. Morris in his thinking was influenced by John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. Ruskin initially criticised art, especially in form of architecture, at the time of the Industrial Revolution. He argued that man “have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure”.[11] Furthermore, he criticised that workers were not able to think and express their own ideas creatively anymore. Instead, they were degraded from “operative into a machine”[12]. Morris himself called the chapter The Nature of Gothic “one of the most important things written by the author”[13] and noted that it would be considered “one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century”[14]. Morris based his whole theory of an efficient socialist society on mankind having pleasure in work.

Both, Ruskin and Morris, looked back at the Middle Ages because they were of the opinion that during that time real art was produced. Back then, even though people “had no political rights, and were exploited by their masters”[15], labour was no burden but pleasure as mankind was able to produce something beautiful and worked in nature at the same time. Compared to the work in factories, medieval craftsmen were much freer in their work:

Our forefathers of the Middle Ages worked shorter hours [...] and had more holidays. They worked deliberately and thoughtfully as all artists do; they worked in their own homes [...]; the unspoiled country came up to their very doors [...] their work depended on their own skill of hand and invention, and never failed to show signs of that in its beauty and fitness.[16]

It is also important to know that Morris often summarised the visual and the decorative arts under the term architecture.[17] He found it quite hard to draw a distinction between “the great art of Architecture [...] and those lesser so-called Decorative Arts”[18] because it was “only in latter times, and under the most intricate conditions of life, that they have fallen apart from one another”[19]. In addition, Morris disliked the differentiation between a professional artist and a craftsman. Again, he recalls medieval times:

[...] and in those days all handicraftsmen were artists, as we should call them. But the thought of man became more intricate, more difficult to express; art grew a heavier thing to deal with, and its labour was more divided among great men, lesser men, and little men; till that art [...] became to some men so serious a labour.[20]

This division was “one of the sources of his ever-welling indignation against industrial capitalism”.[21]

2.2. Art in the 19th century

At the “end of the Middle Ages, Europe [had] gained freedom of thought, increase of knowledge [...]; comparative political freedom [...], and other gains that go with these things”[22]. In terms of art, things had not progressed at all – quite the contrary. According to Morris, the price paid for the afore-mentioned gains was far too high, because they cost pleasure in daily work and therefore meant a loss of art for the greater part of the society. Only rich people were still able to afford pieces of art, produced by a handful of artists who, despite the circumstances of the time, were inspired enough to produce real art. The majority of the society had no share in art:

Therefore, while the rich man, by spending much money, can gather about him a certain amount of beauty, and while the man of moderate means may be able to attain the same end by taking an infinitude of trouble, the working man, who has no time to take trouble and no money to enable him to dispense with it, must put up with the lack of beauty altogether.[23]

Bearing in mind that art was only possible as a “spontaneous birth”[24] out of pleasure in labour, it was consequently dying in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution brought a system of exploitation with bad working conditions for the majority of people. In order to enjoy work, Morris named hope as an important factor. For him, it was necessary that a worker had “the hope of rest”[25], “the hope of pleasure in the work itself”[26] and “the hope of product”[27] for not seeing work as a burden.

When having a closer look at the conditions of his time, Morris ascertained that none of his requirements for the development of art were met. Firstly, there was no hope of rest for the workers in the factories. Defining rest as more leisure time than actually needed for workers to just recover from their exhausting labour[28], Morris saw no hope of rest for the toilers in the factories: Working hours were far too long and the working environments were far from the beautiful surroundings of the Middle Ages. Additionally, workmen did not have pleasant homes but were “forced by the commercial system to live, even at the best, in places so squalid and hideous that no one could live in them and keep his sanity without losing all sense of beauty and enjoyment of life”[29].


[1] Clive Wilmer. “Introduction.” William Morris. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books, 2004. ix.

[2] Wilmer ix-xi.

[3] Wilmer xviii.

[4] Wilmer xiv.

[5] William Morris. “How I Became a Socialist.” Marxists Internet Archive. n.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2012. <>. n.pag.

[6] William Morris. “Art and Socialism.” Marxists Internet Archive. n.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2012. <>. n.pag.

[7] Music and literature are not a form of art that is visual but a matter of taste and are therefore excluded from a general definition of art in Morris’ article “The Socialist Ideal: Art” but are generally seen by Morris as portions of art. For further detail see: William Morris. “The Socialist Ideal: Art .” Marxists Internet Archive. n.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2012. <>.

[8] Morris, “The Socialist Ideal: Art” n.pag.

[9] Morris, “The Socialist Ideal: Art” n.pag.

[10] William Morris. “Preface to The Nature of Gothic. A chapter from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.” William Morris. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books, 2004. 367.

[11] John Ruskin. “The Nature of Gothic.” John Ruskin. Selected Writings. Ed. Dinah Birch. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 42.

[12] Ruskin 42.

[13] Morris, “Preface to The Nature of Gothic” 367.

[14] Morris, “Preface to The Nature of Gothic” 367.

[15] William Morris. “Signs of Change.” Marxists Internet Archive. n.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2012. <>. n.pag.

[16] William Morris. “Unattractive Labour.” Marxists Internet Archive. n.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2012. <>. n.pag.

[17] Edward Palmer Thompson. "Necessity and desire."William Morris. Romantic to Revolutionary. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1988. 641

[18] William Morris. “The Lesser Arts.” William Morris. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books, 2004. 233.

[19] Morris, “The Lesser Arts” 233.

[20] Morris, “The Lesser Arts” 238.

[21] Thompson 642.

[22] Morris, “Art and Socialism” n.pag.

[23] Morris, “Unattractive Labour” n.pag.

[24] Thompson 658.

[25] William Morris. “Useful Work versus Useless Toil.” William Morris. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books, 2004. 288.

[26] Morris, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” 288.

[27] Morris, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” 288.

[28] Morris, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” 288.

[29] William Morris. “The Worker’s Share of Art.” Marxists Internet Archive. n.p., n.d. Web. 15 Sep. 2012. <>. n.pag.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The joy in creation - William Morris’ socialist ideal of art
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Seminar: Pre-Raphaelite Sensualities
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Morris, William Morris, art, joy, creation, socialist, socialist ideal, Ruskin, commerce, Kunst
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B.A. Susann Dannhauer (Author), 2012, The joy in creation - William Morris’ socialist ideal of art, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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