You’d be forgiven for thinking that the designs of William Morris – his trellises and willows and honeysuckles – are a little out-of-date and irrelevant. Popular designs like Strawberry Thief adorn cushions and mugs, but do they really fit the modern interior? Surprisingly, not only have these botanical themes made a massive comeback, but Morris himself has been enjoying a new wave of popularity – as an environmental prophet and anarchist.
Jeremy Deller’s installation at the Venice biennale depicts William Morris throwing a superyacht into the lagoon (Credit: Getty Images)
At the Venice Biennale in 2013, a mural portrayed him throwing Abramovich’s superyacht Luna into the lagoon – symbolising Morris’s outrage at capitalism. The artwork by Jeremy Deller, We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold, was interpreted as a critique not only of the yacht – which earlier had been docked so that it blocked the view of the lagoon – but also of the crass commercialisation of art.
In times of deep distress I’ve often found the brutal, unsparing candor of Friedrich Nietzsche a strange comfort. While wholly enamored of the aristocratic, Hellenistic past of literary invention, the often bilious German philosopher nonetheless had no illusions about the nature of power, which does as it will and is not held in check by what we take for common values.
The influence of his visual aesthetics came in part from Kubrick’s background as a photographer, and his collaborations with designers like Milena Canonero and Eliot Noyes to create the look of cinema classics like A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Once upon a time, questions about the use-value of art were the height of philistinism. “All art is quite useless,” wrote the aesthete Oscar Wilde, presaging the attitudes of modernists to come. Explaining this statement in a letter to a perplexed fan, Wilde opined that art “is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.” But if you ask Alain de Botton, founder of “cultural enterprise,” The School of Life, art—or literature specifically—does indeed have a practical purpose. Four to be precise.
“… when you are actually challenged to think of pre-Darwinian answers to the question ‘What is Man?’ ‘Is there a meaning to life?’ ‘What are we for?’, can you, as a matter of fact, think of any that are not now worthless except for their (considerable) historic interest? There is such a thing as being just plain wrong and that is what before 1859, all answers to those questions were.” (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 267)
Biocentrism is dead for the same reason geocentrism is dead for the same reason all of our prescientific theories regarding nature are dead: our traditional assumptions simply could not withstand scientific scrutiny. All things being equal, we have no reason to think our nature will conform to our prescientific assumptions any more than any other nature has historically. Humans are prone to draw erroneous conclusions in the absence of information. In many cases, we find our stories more convincing the less information we possess! . So it should come as no surprise that the sciences, which turn on the accumulation of information, would consistently overthrow traditional views. All things being equal, we should expect any scientific investigation of our nature will out and out contradict our traditional self-understanding.
Galileo and other troublemakers aside, science and religion didn’t have such a complete falling out until the 19th century. It was roughly 200 years ago when researchers started regularly digging up archaeological and paleontological evidence that dated the Earth far earlier than Genesis suggested, and then a man named Darwin was publishing some troubling suggestions on the evolution of life in his 1859 The Origin of Species. But that didn’t mean the sides of belief and reason completely split in two. There were those who tried for a middle ground.
One of the forgotten natural theology books to come out of this era was God in Nature and Revelation (1875) by Reverend J. M. Woodman, published in the United States by J.G. Hodge & Co. It proclaims itself a “teacher of natural, mental, and moral philosophy, of natural and revealed religion” on its title page, joined by an illustration of Jesus standing on the planet alongside encircled by man and beast alike. Throughout the text are links between the Bible and the scientific formation of the world, but questionable connections aside, the accompanying images are surprisingly intriguing. The world is shown as a repeating orb, changes in the rise and fall of the oceans and the sediments shaded in, all the while the sun never stops glaring down on the proceedings as a constant reminder of a holy influence. It’s the Victorian romanticizing of science and nature colliding with religion.