"The Beauty of Life" (1880)

  1. What is the occasion of Morris's address on "the beauty of life"? (delivered to the Birmingham Society of Arts) Can you tell from the essay what seem to have been the allegiances of his audience? Which aspects of his views might have been controversial, or even offended them? (view that present-day art was in a state of degradation!)
  2. What seems the essay's tone? Is the prose style consistent with its content? (emotional, heavily cadenced, both personal and universal, energizing)
  3. What does Morris believe is the danger that faces civilization? (291) Why is this an especially pressing danger in the late 19th century? (art in danger from industrialization, commercialism, social hierarchy; art has been reduced to machines)
  4. What metaphors does Morris use to rouse his listeners to action? How would you describe his style? (e. g., ear of corn, alien country, enlightenment of those sitting in darkness)
  5. What does Morris mean by "the beauty of life"? How is it related to "art" in the conventional high-cultural senses of the word?
  6. What kind of "art" does Morris want? Is his the usual definition of art? Are there any new features of his definition? (art necessary to life, all forms of art needed, not just high art)
  7. What does Morris think was preferable about the art of the past? (293, earlier, pre-industrial art was more robust, shared by all, art was romantic)
  8. What had been decadent about Renaissance art? (here follows Ruskin; so intricate that only the educated could appreciate it, dislikes Baroque art; dislikes eighteenth-century poetic diction)
  9. What tendencies of Victorian life and artistic hierarchy does he deplore? (293, 295, art inequality, deplores machine-made (iron) art)
  10. In what sectors of society does he believe a more natural art lingered until close to the present? (295, popular art, also praises art of the Pre-Raphaelites and Romantic poetry; this was an art based on nature and history, communal in forms and applications)
  11. For what does he pay tribute to John Ruskin's writings?
  12. Do Morris's views of the relation of past labor to that of the present resemble those of Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture and "The Stones of Venice"? What do we owe the future? (the preservation of buildings of the past, cmp. "The Lamp of Truth")
  13. Do his views on the history of art and literature seem biased in favor of certain forms of art, and if so, which kinds? (296, he admires medieval art, decorative arts)
  14. Do these views seem consistent with his occupation? (decorative artist in several media and proprietor of Morris and Co.)
  15. What have been some forms of progress in the past century? How does he characterize it on the whole? (century of Commerce; is speaking to Birminghamites, in a center of industry) Does he seem to rate its benefits  highly? What is wrong with the life of present-day laborers? (confined to slavish toil)
  16. What are Morris's beliefs about industrial waste and pollution? (298, 304, offended at destruction of countryside in "Black Country") Tearing down or gutting old buildings? (303) Trash? (305) Billboards and advertising? (305) Cutting down of old forest growth? (306) Would he have liked modern U. S. society?
  17. What advice does Morris give for the design and decoration of houses? (simplicity, solidity, have few objects but of good quality, "have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful")
  18. What does he mean by luxury, and why does he oppose it?
  19. What is meant by the "residuum," and why does its existence present a threat? Did other Victorian thinkers comment on this phenomenon? (Arnold, Carlyle, Marx)
  20. What does Morris mean by calling for a "Century of Education"? (299, an education for all, not confined to children but for all ages) What recent discussions of education may be in the back of his mind? (Education Acts of 1870 and 1880) Does he seem optimistic? Have his hopes been justified by events?
  21. Why isn't it sufficient to find art in museums?
  22. What are his views on the preservation of buildings? What was wrong with the "restoration" of the day? (buildings were permitted to decay so that they could then be rebuilt) What especially beautiful building does he fear is subject to alteration? (St. Mark's in Venice--in The Stones of Venice Ruskin had felt this was one of the central buildings of the world)
  23. What must we do to preserve nature? On what grounds does he praise Sir Titus Salt? (built model workers' village)
  24. What kind of life does he believe will help prepare us for a day in which everyone can live in beautiful surroundings? (307-308, for any to have art it must be shared by all, civilization must be for all, the acceptance of a "residuum" would preclude true art) Do his ideas have any relevance to present-day American life?
  25. What advantages does he ascribe to the artist or creative person? (will always find life interesting, will be self-directed rather than a plant beaten about by the winds)
  26. How does Morris end his essay? (310, all of his audience are responsible for preserving and furthering art) What does he call on his audience to do? (310, to further the democracy of art) What is distinctive about his claim that art must be a joy to the maker and the user?
  27. Why is it important to live and not die for a cause? Victorians were constantly enjoined to sacrifice their lives for their country--what is limited about this appeal? (one must live for something before one can die for it)
  28. Do you think this essay is effective as an example of social/political rhetoric, and if so, why?

"The Lesser Arts” (1878)

What is Morris’s tone in addressing his audience?

What are the “lesser arts”? Why have they been relegated to an inferior status, and what effect has this had on the creation of art? On society as a whole?

Where should we look for “art”? According to Morris, how can one judge whether something is beautiful or ugly? (Is this easy to determine?)

What would be the effect of an absence of pleasure in making and using decorative art? What change in “the curse of labor” would follow from freeing people to create art? 

Who have built the great monuments of history?

What changes in the nature of art have been brought about by the modern division of labor?

What will be the consequence of the death of some of the arts? If art should leave the world for a time, what would happen?

What does he call on his audience to do at present? What should be their attitude toward the land they inhabit?

What is the best method of education for a decorative artist? Why would this have needed emphasis at the time?

According to Morris, what is the relationship between a society’s art and its economic structure?

What change does he think is needed in the making of goods? Who is responsible for the making of inferior products, and what should be the remedy? What should be the foundation of a new taste, devoid of the craving for show and luxury?

What are some hypocrisies behind the respect for “fine art” at the expense of concern for other forms of beauty? What has happened to the landscape, air and water?

What are the consequences of the claim that “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few”? What ideals does he offer at the essay’s conclusion?

What forces may suggest that some of his ideals are possible? Would other nineteenth-century thinkers have agreed with him?

To what extent might Engels and Marx have agreed with these views? How are their approaches different from that of Morris?

“Art Under Plutocracy” (1883)

What are some differences of emphasis between this and the preceding essay?

To what audience is Morris speaking, and why does he find this topic especially urgent?

What does Morris believe is the danger that faces civilization? Why is this an especially pressing danger in the late 19th century? Would Marx have agreed?

What arguments does Morris use to rouse his listeners to action? How would you describe his style?

What does Morris mean by "art"? How does this broadened definition alter the scope of his concerns?

What does he criticize in the notion that those who fail economically are responsible for their plight?

What does Morris think was preferable about the art of the past? What tendencies of Victorian life and artistic/social hierarchy does he deplore?

According to Morris, what has been the result of the introduction of machine-driven manufacture? What should have been its effect?

What conditions of life for workers does Morris especially deplore?

Why does Morris associate “competitive commerce” with anarchy and war? What does he see as the workers’ sole alternative?

What should be our motive in desiring change?

How does Morris end his essay? What does he call on his audience to do? What will bring about the union of “a hundred million, and peace upon the earth”?

Do you think this essay is effective as an example of social/political rhetoric, and if so, why?

Morris and Marx were acquaintances and aware of each other’s ideas (Marx 1818-83; Morris 1834-96). What are some similarities in their approach to issues of social organization? Some differences? Do all of these share a belief in internationalism?

Questions for Walter Pater, The Renaissance

What does Pater mean by "the Renaissance"? (316) What may have been untraditional about this definition--chronologically and ideologically? What would the author of "The Nature of Gothic" have felt about this conception of Renaissance?
In the "Conclusion," what does Pater believe are chief features of modern philosophy, science, and life? Are these happy changes? Which of the authors we have read, if any, might have agreed with him?
What does Pater believe should be the goal of life? (319) What are some of the better ways of fulfilling these goals? (320)
How would you characterize Pater's style? In what ways does it resemble poetry?
Pater suppressed the "Conclusion" to his Renaissance under a barrage of criticism. Why do you think this work might have been so controversial in its day?
Pater was also attacked--and later admired--as the father of impressionist and homoerotic criticism. Can you see evidence in these excerpts for these responses?

For a full set of questions, chapter by chapter, see Pater, The Renaissance.