Though I could not go to Venice this year — where NAVSA/BAVS 2013 is about to begin — Venice, it seems, came to me, by way of Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Last Saturday’s edition featured on the cover of its arts section an image taken from the “buzz” piece at the 2013 Venice Biennale, Jeremy Deller’s “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold.”

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Image courtesy of British Council. Jeremy Deller’s British Council commission is at La Biennale di Venezia until 24th November and will tour national UK venues in 2014. http://www.britishcouncil.org/visualarts.

“Hey,” I said to my partner before reading the piece, “that looks like William Morris throwing that yacht!” I’m both proud and ashamed of my nerdiness in this regard.

The mural does indeed depict William Morris rising kraken-like from the Ventian lagoon to scupper a mega-yacht belonging to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Since its founding in 1895, the Biennale has always attracted a small flotilla of the world’s luxe yachts, but this particular yacht caused a stir last time around. Partly because of its size, and partly because of its owner’s notoriety, the Luna met with popular revulsion when it arrived in 2011. Venice’s mayor even kicked around the idea of establishing an “oligarch’s tax” to militate against such luxurious gate-crashers in the future.

The controversy inspired Deller’s mural. In an interview with Tim Adams, Deller explained his thinking:

“Morris came to Venice, and loved aspects of it, and he was apparently a great chucker around of things. I had the sense this yacht and its connection to the art world was the kind of thing that would have pissed him off. So I kind of summoned him up.”

For a Victorianist interested in fin de siècle socialism, this is a fantastic summoning, rescuing Morris and his aesthetic from the chains of their domestification within the heritage industry. As capitialism endures another of its crisis moments, it’s consoling to be reminded of the genuinely revolutionary capacity of art. Deller’s installation has broadly been read along these lines. BBC News’ Arts Editor Will Gompertz hails it as the triumph of “outsider art” and The Independent ran an editorial calling it “profoundly anti-establishment” verging on the “unpatriotic.”

Deller himself, in an interview with Charlotte Higgins, offers some nuance, calling it “wistfully agressive.” It’s that wistfulness, I think, that requires further scrutiny.

To begin, the Morris mural is gripping, but only part of “We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold.” The mural is flanked in the British pavilion by Deller’s reproduction of Morris’ woodblock prints and the Russian share certificates and promissory notes issued during the “loans-for-shares” scheme of 1995-96 during which the public assets of the Soviet state were sold to a handful of politically-connected businessmen for a fraction of their value.

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Image courtesy of British Council.

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Image courtesy of British Council.

Deller’s double juxtaposition of, on the one wall, the English socialist dreamer with the Russian oligarch in the giant mural and, on the other wall, the finely printed artwork and  financial notes is deliberately crude. The technical and thematic bluntness are meant to startle, and demand to be read allegorically. The installation’s title obviously evokes Aesop’s myth of Midas, but the precise phrasing directs us to Morris’s 1891 essay “The Socialist Ideal: Art.”

In that essay, Morris reiterates the argument made throughout his socialist propaganda of the late 1880s and early 1890s, that socialism is not merely an economic project but rather an “all-embracing theory of life.” Insofar as it has “an ethic and a religion of its own, so it also has an aesthetic.” To theorize that aesthetic, Morris himself ventures into juxtaposition, contrasting the viewpoints of the Commercialist and the Socialist.

The Commercialist is one who commodifies all things. He “divides manufactured articles into those which are prepensely works of art, and are offered for sale in the market as such, and those which have no pretence and could have no pretence to artistic qualities.” In this worldview, the thing called “art” has no intrinsic but only a market worth. And, given the hegemony of commercialism, Morris states “It will scarcely be denied, I suppose, that at present art is only enjoyed, or indeed thought of, by comparatively a few persons, broadly speaking, by the rich and the parasites that minister to them directly.”

It’s hard to reconcile the author who penned this critique of elite art with the hero rising from the deep to save the Venice Biennale. It’s worth asking, from whom is this festival–the world’s premier contemporary art exhibition, and a major benefit to the Venetian economy–being saved anyway? Deller is too clever not to appreciate the irony of his own position, someone who by virtue of accepting the commission to design the British Pavilion in the 2013 Venice Biennale is potentially implicated as the “parasite” ministering to the rich.

In this, the idea of Roman Abramovitch is as much in operation as the idea of William Morris. We misread Deller’s piece, I think, if we simply turn our noses up at the gauche tastes (the yacht has TWO helipads!) of an arriviste plunderer of the common-wealth. Instead, Deller’s image provides a way to ask serious questions about the Biennale itself. Look carefully at the mural again and observe where that yacht is being aimed.

“The Commercialist,” Morris wrote in that same essay, “sees that in the great mass of civilized human labour there is no pretence to art, and thinks that this is natural, inevitable, and on the whole desirable. The Socialist, on the contrary, sees in this obvious lack of art a disease peculiar to modern civilization and hurtful to humanity; and furthermore believes it to be a disease which can be remedied.”

What’s interesting to me, thinking about Deller’s installation, is the effect upon viewers of the idea of William Morris being re-deployed to save art in the 21st century. In an interview with Charlotte Higgins, Deller offers his own reading of Morris: “He was an extraordinary person: his politics, his writings, the way he humanised the industrial revolution, his interest in beauty. He was a true artist, with incredibly strong beliefs: artists wouldn’t get involved like that today.”

Indeed. Here is that wistfulness. Artists today, Deller claims, don’t “get involved like that.” Instead, his installation suggests that they begin always and already implicated. For an artist in this position, unable to escape his interpellation, or to participate in genuinely revolutionary activity, the best you can do is draw a picture of a neo-Victorian Socialist Artist Giant hurling the world’s iconic Mega-Yacht into the lagoon and smashing the institution of elite art. Not totally satisfying methinks. Is this the way to remedy the disease of what Morris called the obvious lack of art in everyday life?

Thoughts? Victorianists in Venice — have you been to see this yet? What are the people in the room saying?

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4 thoughts on ““We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold”

  1. Thanks for this Eddy! I didn’t know about it at all. I especially appreciate the context in showing what was on the other wall and how it appeared on the wall generally, since that’s often what’s missing when you don’t get to see something in person. And, alas, I have no plans to be in Venice soon.

  2. Just chiming in to say thanks for this post, Eddy, drawing our attention to and contextualizing this wonderful mural.

    And thanks too for adding “oligarch” to our tag cloud.

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