Liverpool Tate’s ‘Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, 1789-2013’ announces itself as ‘an exhibition to be used’, so one can either accept its own juxtapositions of radical art from different cultures and periods or – better – try out a few additional montages of one’s own. Thus, though they are in different rooms, I wanted to hold in a single mental image Walter Crane’s spectacular banner for the Workers Union, Holloway branch (1898), with its proletarians from different continents dancing merrily round a globe, and the banner of the International Union of Sex Workers from a century later (1998). Heaven knows what Crane would have made of the latter, but if there is a common factor here, it might be the lavish use of curvilinear organic forms in contrast to, say, the dynamic geometric abstractions of El Lissitsky’s Soviet ‘New Man’.
I then found myself playing a similar mental game with the Morris items gathered here. For one can juxtapose books as well as banners, contrasting the gorgeous Kelmscott Press News from Nowhere on display with Tim Rollins’s 'Amerika – for Karl' (1989), where disadvantaged South Bronx schoolchildren have produced eerie, Salvador Dali-like doodlings all over the pages of Kafka’s novel Amerika. Or you could play off against each other, as images of community, a sober photograph of the Hammersmith Socialist Society from 1893 with a romanticised folk-art painting of ‘The Production Brigade’s Reading Room’ (1975) from the Chinese Cultural revolution. Other paintings in this group introduce the motif of the abundance of nature – great swarms of fish and ducks – which is also there in the Morris Rose and Thistle fabric displayed here, but isn’t much in evidence elsewhere.
The Morris corner of this very rich exhibition (which includes wonderful things like Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive and witty Situationist détournements which I don’t have space to notice here) sits next to the Office of Useful Art, one of whose formative principles is: ‘Re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation’; and that – for both Morris and for us today – is the right note on which to end this post.