Kelmscott colophon

William Morris was a pattern designer, printer, calligrapher and weaver in the late 1800s who believed that

the nature of a society’s applied arts and architecture was a litmus text for its moral health and wellbeing. Poor design and gratuitous decoration were the natural results of a workforce divorced from creative decision-making within the process of fabrication.

(Allison, Brian (2005) ‘Dreamer of Dreams, Born Out of My Time’ in Kelmscott: A Medieval Adventure in the Age of the Machine, Baillieu Library Exhibition, Curated by Brian Allison and Astrid Krautschneider, 7 June-29 July, 2005)

Morris is famous for his approach to the creation of art and the products of his creations. Although he has created many crafts, his Kelmscott Press is perhaps his greatest achievement. All of the apsects of his philosophy and practice were manifest in its production and output. I am very fortunate to be at the university, University of Melbourne, which holds 51 of the 53 bound titles by Kelmscott Press between 1891 and 1989. The Baillieu Library is currently exhibiting 52 fo the 53 titles, thanks to a loan from the State Library of Victoria. I attended the exhibition and have since delved further into the history of the Press and William Morris. I’ll discuss Morris and the products of the press over 2 posts, the first on Morris’ attitude to art and art-making.

First of all, it should be noted that Morris had a wide scope for what falls under the category of ‘art’:

let us consider what the real state of art is. And first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of the externals of our life. For I must ask you to believe that every one of the things that goes to make up the surroundings among which we live must be either beautiful or ugly, either elevating or degrading to us, either a torment and burden to the maker of it to make, or a pleasure and a solace to him.
(Morris, Art Under Plutocracy)

I must state that I subscribe entirely to this wide net. In the age of pervasive advertising and franchises it would be irresponsible to exclude what is deemed non-fiction, non-narrative, non-literary from analysis. But, how does Morris delineate between art types then? Morris claimed there were 2 types of art: Intellectual and Decorative. The first, Intellectual Art, ‘addresses itself wholly to our mental needs; the things made by it serve no other purpose but to feed the mind, and, as far as material needs go, might be done without altogether’. The second, Decorative Art, though it may appeal to the mind, it is always part of things ‘which are intended primarily for the service of the body’. Morris extrapolates, stating that periods of history have seen the a poverty of the former. The healthiest of times were those in which the two types of Art were tightly connected. So, regardless of ‘high’ or ‘low’ status. The highest intellectual art, Morris continues, ‘was meant to please the eye, as the phrase goes, as well as to excite the emotions and train the intellect. It appealed to all men, and to all the faculties of a man’. Conversely, ‘the humblest of the ornamental art shared in the meaning and emotion of the intellectual; one melted into the other by scarce perceptible gradations’.

I parallel Morris’ delineation to the contemporary types of emotion that can be triggered by film as put forward by Ed Tan: ‘Artefact-based emotion’ and ‘Fiction-based emotion’. The former, ‘A-based emotion’, describes devices such as framing, camera motion, staging and acting as triggering emotions such as enjoyment, admiration and wonder. Wonder at special-effects would fit in this category. The later then, ‘F-based emotion’, are emotions stimulated by elements fo the fictional world. (Tan, E.S.-H. (1995) ‘Film-induced Affect as a Witness Emotion’ in Poetics, Vol. 23, 1-2, pp:7-32) The best films, as with the best books, or any form of art, are those (arguably) that have a ‘healthy’ presence of both elements (ie: emotions triggered by the Intellectual/Fiction and Decorative/Artefact aspects).

For Morris, when the two types of Art combined (Intellectual and Decorative), it was the result of an artist who was still a workman and a workman who is an artist. Morris’ view could be considered in the development of contemporary texts on procedural literacy. Every person who builds something — from the factory floor to picture frame to interactive drama — must be an artist and workman. The GxTA crew encourage new media artists to be procedurally literate (a conscious development of skills), but what about the unintended skills one develops? As a new media researcher I am continually asked to work on any project that involves computers. I am not a trained IT person, but I spend alot of my time trouble-shooting for fellow academics, training them and user-testing systems. Although not the experience for all new media artists (I presume), this unintended exposure to a wide range of computer hardware and software can only extend the workman skills of a new media artist. [I’m trying to feel good about all the running around!]

Juxtaposing computers and workmanship with the printing press, where does procedural literacy end? Morris worked with the ink, the paper, the fonts, the layout, the woodcuts, the vellum covers, the binding, the designs, the content, but he did not (as far as I know) create a printing press or tinker extensively with it. Does working with code equate to working with ink and paper? Does the actual computer then, equate to the printing press? If procedural literacy and artistic workmanship extend to the paper and ink/software then am I wasting my time with all these other programs? Or am I doing the equivalent of experimenting with different inks and papers? I think the later is the case. So, when one calls for procedural literacy, it can refer to care taken with the programs used to bring the content to life; but also laterally, to all programs, to influence the utilisation and development of the ‘creation program’.

Morris once asked a rhetorical question: what did he consider to be the most important production of art? He answered immediately, “a beautiful house”, but then continued, “…if I were further asked to name the production next in importance, and the thing next to be longer for, I should answer, a beautiful book”. (MacCarthy, Fiona (1994) William Morris, London: Faber and Faber, p: 591) The next post on this topic will explore just how Morris designed and made THE “beautiful book”.

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