William Morris, Andy Warhol and the Understanding of Class

An exhibition at Modern Art Oxford Gallery shows the work of William Morris and Andy Warhol until March 8th. The exhibition looks at the similarities between the two artists and differences are clearly discernible too. Both artists were prolific in their output, used various media and techniques and sought to popularise art – their own and in general. They both drew on images common to their times, either in the tales of King Arthur or the much photographed actors, entertainers and politicians of the mid 20th century. In the work of both there is repetition, Morris in his wallpaper designs and Warhol in multiple images of Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy or even of Mao Tsetung.

We have on the one hand the developer of Pop Art and accumulator of ephemera, on the other the proponent of the Arts and Craft Movement and designer of useful, beautiful things. Both had long and varied careers, collaborating with other artists and setting up businesses to produce their work on a near industrial scale; for Warhol in New York at The Factory and for Morris at the workshops of the Firm and Morris & Co.

The differences arise from the differing social, economic and political circumstances of the day more than from the technologies they used. Mid 19th century Britain was still the workshop of the world with all its contingent poverty and environmental degradation. Morris was founder of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877). In the 1880s capitalism’s crises propelled Morris into accepting and advocating socialism. He emphasized the importance of the productive process and said that those who work should benefit from their own labour and engage in meaningful useful work rather than be involved in useless toil.

In the USA of the 1950s and 60s, there was unemployment, poverty, discrimination and war; even so the ideas of the American Dream and that the Consumer is King were pushed in the media. Philosophers attempted to deny or trivialise the reality of the world. Sometimes Warhol made political comments in his art, for example ‘American Race Riot’ (1964) and ‘Map of Eastern USSR Missile Bases’ (1985 – 6). However this hedonistic party-goer took the position of a bystander who seemed more comfortable exposing and extolling celebrity.

Morris, although a well to do businessman, became committed to socialism after reading works of Karl Marx. He became an active member of the Social Democratic Federation and later the Socialist League, writing many political works and speaking clearly of problems that workers faced at the end of the 19th century and still face us in Britain today.

For the writings of William Morris https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/index.htm

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