Socialist Design at the Fin de Siècle
Biology, Beauty, Utopia
Everything made by man’s hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or
ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant
with Nature, and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent: we, for our parts, are busy
or sluggish, eager or unhappy, and our eyes are apt to get dulled to this eventful-
ness of form in those things which we are always looking at.
—William Morris, “The Lesser Arts” (1877)
There is grandeur in [the fact that]… from so simple a beginning endless forms
most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
—Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)
Form is everything. It is the secret of life.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist” (1890)
The luxurious world of British aesthetes has often seemed a distant one to the fiery socialist art communities of the 1880s and 1890s. Aestheticism’s orientation around passive consumption would seem to offer a sharp contrast to the active productions of radical crafts-makers, who saw the decorative arts as political symbols of a more egalitarian society. The Arts and Crafts movement has traditionally been seen as a legacy of Ruskin’s social conscience, producing art objects in the name of progress for working people.1 Yet, as we have just seen, aestheticism’s political subtexts and public presence gave it a more active role than might be visible to our contemporary eyes. And in this chapter, I explore how certain late-Victorian writers espoused anti-realist visual styles in the name of progressive social change.2 Though many of these authors were also artists, their writings and theories align them with the tradition of art writing that this book has been outlining, prescribing didactic goals for the best consumption and judgment of art.
The rise of the aesthetic has typically been located in an avant-gardist formalism that avoids any legible political message. Here, though, I show how certain