art in the factory: morris & warhol

Oxford has a small museum for modern art, the Modern Art Oxford (MAO), which features a nice program for a city of Oxford’s size, profiting from the proximity to London and the university and its people. Still, the current exhibition Love is Enough on William Morris and Andy Warhol seems to be an unlikely success: First, the connection between the 19th century arts and craft master Morris and the 20th century pop art celebrity Warhol is at least not obvious; and second, as Morris and Warhol are big names, one cannot expect major works in an exhibit of a small museum like this. All the more surprising, the curation of Jeremy Deller is beautifully positing a very convincing and insightful argument.


Only a few steps into the gallery and to my astonishment, I found myself rather quickly searching for a clear-cut difference between Morris and Warhol which is not trivially implied by their different living times: Both artists wanted to reach the masses, beautifying the common life, both collaborated extensively, assembling large teams around them, both became entrepreneurial to manufacture pieces of art, both established their names as brands, both were obsessed with myths from their early childhood onwards (Morris with medieval legends and Warhol with Hollywood’s celebrity culture), both were religious (adolescent Morris wanted to become a priest and Warhol went to church daily), both worked with repetition and printing while remaining open to any medium accessible to them, and both have shaped the image of their nations, Warhol in amplifying and iconifying US consumerism, and Morris in changing the face of the English homes forever.

The reliance on myth might be the most central connection between Morris and Warhol, since myths arise from the people as timeless stories on a society’s scared core. Thus, myths combine the banality of common sense with the exclusivity of a sanctum — and the longing for a commonly available exclusivity, as experienced in their childhood myths, should haunt both men throughout their life and work. This preoccupation with myth is demonstrated in exhibit’s main gallery with two opposing tapestries: On the one side is a meticulously crafted tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones, John Henry Dearle, and William Morris showing a scene from the quest for the Holy Grail, The Attainment, while the side presents Warhol’s Marilyn tapestry which shows Marilyn Monroe’s face printed on wool.

The exhibit also portrays Morris and Warhol as politically interested with a more (Morris) or less (Warhol) forceful left-ish stance. While socialist activism is a major chapter in Morris’ life, Warhol’s position was much more ambiguous. However, some pieces of Warhol, such as the shown Electric Chair, allow at least a critical reading, although Warhol mostly denied any political meaning. Additionally quoted material is also documenting some reservations on Warhol’s side on consumerism and capitalism. For example, “whenever people and civilizations get degenerate and materialistic, they always point at their outward beauty and riches”, has been said not by Morris but by Warhol. Or, as another example for a striking similarity: “I think it is desirable that the artist and what is technically known as the designer should practically be one.” That has been stated by Morris while it could have been Warhol’s credo. And a third quote I noted at the exhibit: “I don’t think art should be for a select view, I think it should be for the mass of people.” This is Warhol again.

The arising picture shows Morris and Warhol as artists who wanted to beautify our daily lives, crossing therefore the boundaries between art and design to establish a large-scale production of art. With such goals, both became transitory figures: While Morris mediated between Victorian historism and the arising modernism as a leading figure of the art and craft movement with close ties to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Warhol facilitated the change from modernism to postmodernism as celebrated pop artist.


As transitory figures, Morris (1834-96) worked towards the rise of a modernism which was later mocked by Warhol’s (1928-87) postmodern irony. This difference bears a number of consequences: Morris as modernist was pursuing an utopian, socialist vision where everybody is doing worthwhile work and finds self-expression in artistic creation. Thus, Morris wanted to re-establish craftsmanship, fighting against a division of labor that would alienate workers from their own work. Morris envisioned common people to live in beautiful dwellings with enough time to create art, hoping for a world that would allow to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” In contrast, Warhol presented himself as an anti-ideological artist who wanted to show the beauty of the ordinary. Also, instead of drawing his motives from the mystical past, Warhol looked for current motives in mass-produced goods and fame, stating for example, that “once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again.” Warhol was ready to embrace industrial fabrication, since to him the idea in gestures was much more important than the craft in execution. Gestures and strategies of pastiche are referential whereas Morris seeks an immanent creation: Morris wants us to be able to create our own art while Warhol wants us to see the art and beauty in all things ordinary. So asked what Pop Art is about, Warhol replied once that “it’s liking things.” Still related to romanticism, Morris conversely referred to the own creation and purifying power of creative work. Rooted in these attitudes, we find Morris scrutinizing every detail of his wallpapers and prints, saying “the true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life”, while Warhol was happy to accept the accidental in his work.

More than that, to Warhol, beauty was independent of virtues or vices, saying not only — as quoted in the exhibit — “whenever people and civilizations get degenerate and materialistic, they always point at their outward beauty and riches” — but also continuing: “and [they] say that if what they were doing was bad, they wouldn’t be doing so well, being so rich and beautiful. People in the Bible did that when they worshiped the Golden Calf, for example, and then the Greeks when they worshiped the human body. But beauty and riches couldn’t have anything to do with how good you are, because think of all the beauties who get cancer. And a lot of murderers are good-looking, so that settles it.” Morris would have agreed that beauty is independent of richness — at least he would have aspired a world where this is the case — but I do not believe that Morris saw outward beauty independently of inner quality, as he said: “Beauty is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life.”

Looking at the respective background of Morris and Warhol, it is interesting to note that Morris wanted to elevate the common person to his standard of living: He was born into a wealthy family and enjoyed a comfortable life style devoted to art. It hurt Morris that he had to produce for a wealthy few, saying “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” Above all, Morris wanted everybody to have a fair living based on worthy work, since “nothing should be made by man’s labor which is not worth making, or which must be made by labor degrading to the workers.” On the other hand, Warhol came from a working-class family and was ambitiously climbing up the ladder. In his art, Warhol showed that mass media had a leveling effect on the cultural conditions of the rich and poor, as he once stated: “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” To Warhol, the individual was dissolving in the age of mass production, saying that “everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody.” In the exhibit, these differences might be best embodied in the comparison of Warhol’s mass printed magazine Interview and some books published by Morris’ Kelmscott Press, such as the Kelmscott Chaucer, which is among the most elaborate (and to Morris’ dismay: exclusive) books ever printed.

Both, Morris and Warhol, might have dreamed of reestablishing in day-to-day life the common sacrality of myths, but while Morris set out to overcome and purify the profane, Warhol sought his destiny in uncovering the piety amidst profanity. And this insight is made palpable in this exhibit.

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