This project comes in the wake of the successful ‘Arts and Crafts International’ exhibition assembled by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2005-06, but it most fully emerges from the attempts in my doctoral thesis to think aesthetically about theology. Such theorising was crucial to a materialistic re-imagining of theology, but in such abstraction I homed in on the aesthetic self-reflexivity of theology more than on its inherent creativity. My aim now is to explore an aesthetic theology that not only extends theology (confessional or otherwise) beyond itself, but also informs the extension of aesthetics beyond its traditional limits.
I will argue that in the artisan of the Arts and Crafts movement of 1875-1920 we find the aesthetic subject at its most dangerous, but also at its most vital. As envisioned by John Ruskin and embodied by William Morris, the artisan’s attention is set beyond the productivity of her work; set beyond, that is, the work’s objectivity as a work (a chair, a rug, etc.). The artisan’s attention, rather, is on the ‘poietic’ value of her craftwork, whereby the very activity of her craftsmanship involves her in the opening of the world to something truly new. Craftsmanship, in short, is attuned to the creation of something whose value is precisely and fully the act of its creation, and not its productive capacity for exchange, consumption, or use. As such, the craftsman’s attention is directed toward the fashioning of a radically new existence, one incommensurate with the present order of reality and its existent horizon of expectations. For Ruskin and Morris, life is only possible when its labour participates in the infinite act of crafting finite creations. In this conception of craftsmanship I locate a concrete enactment of non-confessional, materialistic theology.
I will identify craftsmanship as a ‘theological poetics of resistance’ by analysing the materialistic theological subtext behind three interrelated aspects of the works of Ruskin and Morris. Firstly, their post-Romantic aesthetic appeals to nature, wherein they demonstrate their ecological understanding of nature as fundamentally creative. Indeed, for each nature is the source from which creative activity emerges, with which it participates, and into which it flows. Secondly, their ambivalent appeal to architecture and living space. For Ruskin and Morris, the strangulation of human creativity was most immediately evident in its popular architecture, for what a culture builds for itself and calls its own most clearly symbolises its perspective of nature, its place in nature, and its imaginative capacity to participate with nature. For both, only the architectural ethos of the craftsman, in all its potential imprecision, achieves this most fully. And thirdly, their critiques of the mercantilist logic of the division of labour, where mass production inevitably lead only to mass consumption and a politically-imposed impasse to imagination and life. Here, I contend, the first two aspects coalesce, and their materialistic theological subtext becomes finally indistinguishable from a political theology with clear contemporary relevance.
The proposed publishing output from the research includes at least two journal articles and a monograph at the end of the third year. One article will be on the respective theological dispositions of John Ruskin and A. W. Pugin, and will be directed toward articulating the crucial difference between Pugin’s ‘theological aesthetics’ at the service of confessional or orthodox theology, and Ruskin’s ambivalently materialistic, non-confessional rendition of ‘aesthetic theology’. My hope is to send this first to the journal Literature and Theology or Modern Theology. The second journal article will invoke William Morris in reasserting the importance of aesthetics and imagination for political theology, engaging the negative, orthodox linkage of aesthetics and ideology. An appropriate journal for a work such as this would be Political Theology, Angelaki, or Contemporary Aesthetics.
I am also interested in hosting and participating in an interdisciplinary conference on Contemporary Political Aesthetics.
Year One: I will research the appropriate works of John Ruskin, especially Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, Unto This Last Day, and all other relevant collections of letters, essays and lectures. For field research, I hope also to participate in (or simply observe) the practice of traditional arts and crafts in Scotland. While doing this, I will familiarize myself further with the history and evolution of the Arts and Crafts movement, especially in Britain.
Year Two: I will research the appropriate works of William Morris, especially the 24-volume Collected Works of William Morris. However, as I am most interested in Morris’s embodiment of craftsmanship ideals, my primary focus will be on his actual designs and design-process (and to some extent his later prose), and how they reflect his and Ruskin’s critical disposition. Also during this time I will begin a reassessment of the theological models that inform, though not define, the aesthetic/materialistic theology in view here: such as, Paul Tillich’s theology of culture, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s notion of ‘theological aesthetics’ in his Herrlichkeit, and contemporary developments in process theology (e.g., Catherine Keller’s ‘theology of becoming’).
Year Three: I will research the political implications of craftsmanship as a ‘theological poetics of resistance’. Here, I will engage modern theologies of resistance—e.g., the radical Christian pacifism of John Howard Yoder, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s liberation theology, and Richard Rubenstein’s post-Holocaust Jewish theology—as well as the political resistance of indigenous peoples like the Basques and Maya, noting similarities and dissimilarities with my understanding and presentation of craftsmanship.