The arts are under threat – William Morris should inspire us to defend them | Bob and Roberta Smith

The Victorian designer, writer and social activist would be horrified at the message we are giving our children: that artistic vision counts for nothing. For him art was as essential as our freedom

“Everybody ought to be taught to draw just as much as everybody ought to be taught to read and write,” said William Morris. Rather than his extensive musings on art and politics, Morris is perhaps better known for his wallpaper and fabric designs of the late Victorian period. A revival of his work in the early 1970s was greeted enthusiastically by my family. My mother made a new cover for our battered sofa from his Woodpecker fabric and my sisters wore smock-like dresses made from his textiles. Sat on the sofa, camouflaged in Morris patterns, they almost disappeared. The effect was heightened when my father wallpapered our living room in Peacock and Dragon. The crazy unremitting dynamism of his floral forest imagery gave me a headache.

This week the Frieze art fair opens in London. Had it been going in the 19th century, I suspect that William Morris would have been there showing his work but, like many contemporary artists, would be wondering if the fur coats and facelifts were really the most receptive audience for his art. Morris had reservations about the popularity of his designs. He regretted what he saw as his “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”. His adoption of Marxism later in life seems at odds with his entrepreneurial spirit.

A photograph of William Morris by Frederick Hollyer
William Morris. ‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’ Photograph: Frederick Hollyer

This autumn, if you visit the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London, you will find, alongside the permanent collection and its extraordinary exploration of Morris’s life and work, a film of me driving around Camberley in a camper van with a megaphone telling people to “be Bobtimistic” and “be inspired: vote Bob for more art in our schools”.

Art is Your Human Right: why can’t politics be more fun? documents my attempt earlier in the year to stand for parliament against Michael Gove in his constituency of Surrey Heath. The exhibition also features paintings, banners and sculptures from my four-year effort to tell the story of why politicians should take the arts more seriously.

William Morris stood on soap boxes, went on marches and wrote about the causes he believed in. He even tried to influence policy makers, lobbying a royal commission on technical education. If Morris was alive today I think he would be surprised by how wonderfully the arts and art education has developed, but he would also be dismayed that we are deliberately throwing away those advances by the removal of all political support for the arts. Five years of Gove telling the world the arts are not worth studying has meant that the tide has gone out for the arts and institutions have been left gasping for air.

It is easy for politicians to deliver warm words about the arts. If you are a fan of the creative industries argument, that the potential contribution to the economy is huge, then Morris can be your inspiration. But if, like me, you think that if you threaten the arts then you also threaten free speech and free expression, Morris too has something to say. Art around the world is under threat. Lock up the poet, bug the artist’s studio or blow up an ancient city and you say to humanity “you have no voice, you will have no legacy and your life means nothing”. Morris, in his book Hopes and Fears for Art, wrote: “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

artwork by Bob and Roberta Smith

In this country right now we are giving children the message that individual vision is worth nothing. The deeply depressing thing is that no politician, very few artists, and not even the head of Arts Council England seem to be prepared to stand up for the arts and say, as Morris said, art should be for all.

Most disappointingly, after the euphoric optimism of Jeremy Corbyn’s win and his apparent commitment to the arts, the Labour leader appointed Michael Dugher as the shadow culture minister. Last month Dugher delivered what must have been the shortest ever address to a Labour conference. William Morris would have been horrified by the banality of Dugher’s speech. A few predictable swipes at the Tories about the BBC, some jokes about the rugby which backfired, followed by a surprising agreement with the Tories that arts funding needs a populist London-bashing redistributive review. Has Dugher nothing to say about the closure of foundation courses or the dismantling of further education, adult education and education maintenance allowance? No words of support for the Arts Council as a national organisation or for free admission to our museums?

I invite Dugher, Ed Vaizey, Gove and Nicky Morgan to visit the William Morris Gallery this autumn to see why many of us still think, like Morris, that to defend the arts is to defend democracy. The arts are about our humanity and free expression is our human right.


Bob and Roberta Smith

The GuardianTramp

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