Friday, July 11, 2008

William Blake

The first reaction of artists to industrialism was horror. All that rhetoric that we've heard for 2 decades now about "partnerships" between business and the arts would be incomprehensible to these first generations of artists in the industrial age. They would point out that it is the task of art to expand meaning. Commerce, they would argue, reduces all meaning to exchange value.
Artists were horrified (and secretly thrilled) at the spectacle of great ironworks and ceramics kilns going full tilt around the clock, spewing fire, cinders, and sparks into the night sky, and darkening the daytime. They were appalled and astounded at the huge social dislocations bought by industry as cities mushroomed into huge dark smoke-filled warrens packed with miserable people. These are Blake's "dark satanic mills."
Blake is the father of all the quixotic protests against the world created by industrialism down to the present day. He is the patriarch of the utopian anarchists. He made himself, his poetry, and his art into a passionate rebuke to the constraints, degradations, and exploitations of the modern world.
Blake was born into poverty, and lived in poverty all his life. He spent most of his adult life under police surveillance. He remained an ardent supporter of the French Revolution long after others like Thomas Paine abandoned it after the execution of King Louis XVI; and after the poet Wordsworth went the way of so many English radicals, ending his life as a loyal son of the Establishment and the Established Church.
Blake hated the Establishment Anglican Christianity of his day. He saw it as complicit in the predatory corrupt society created by early industrial capitalism. His own theology and philosophy is a hopelessly tangled muddle of various forms of radical antinomian Christianity and ancient gnosticism (the old gnostic figure of the Evil Creator plays a large role in Blake's mythology in the figure he called Urizen). It is Blake who protests most passionately against the creation of the Establishment Christ of the emerging state churches. He rails against the bad faith legalism of what he sees as a new Moloch. Against that image of an enslaving and devouring church, he places the image of Christ as a liberator. These lines from his poem The Everlasting Gospel still have a power to startle:

If Moral Virtue was Christianity,
Christ’s Pretensions were all Vanity,
And Cai’phas & Pilate Men
Praise Worthy, & the Lion’s Den
And not the Sheepfold, Allegories
Of God & Heaven & their Glories.
The Moral Christian is the Cause
of the Unbeliever & his Laws.
The Roman Virtues, Warlike Fame,
Take Jesus’ & Jehovah’s Name;
For what is Antichrist but those
Who against Sinners Heaven close
With Iron bars, in Virtuous State,
And Rhadamanthus at the Gate?

He also hated the dominant Enlightenment rationalism of the day. He blamed Newton and the Philosophes (unfairly perhaps) for creating this new monstrous world red in tooth and claw, whose reasons, measures, and calculations concealed a cold aggression. Blake the passionate anti-rationalist and anti-legalist would not be bothered by our bewilderment at all his internal contradictions. The radically antinomian Blake made some of his finest works of art illustrating the poetry of such polar opposites to himself as Dante and Milton.

William Blake meant a lot to me in younger days, coming of age in 1960s and 70s Texas, a place dominated by a punitive Calvinism that pervaded the culture. Almost all the proposed solutions to social ills at that time were punitive in one form or another. Billionaire "bidness men" regularly proclaimed their great fortunes to be signs of God's favor and rewards for their hard work and righteous living; and no one seemed to note any irony at all in these statements. I always said that my home town of Dallas was the city where the money changers were welcomed back into the Temple and made its high priests.
Blake suggested to me, as he did to generations of budding artists, a path to take of inspired opposition and protest. Blake was the first artist to rely completely and exclusively on his own imagination in defiance of social and cultural conventions of his day or any day. Blake did much to inspire and shape the Romantic movement. For the first time in history, people chose to become artists (as opposed to being assigned by parents who would apprentice children off to a master at a very early age, as in all craft training). Artists now saw their work as a vocation even more than a craft or a profession. This idea was around since the Renaissance, but was largely exceptional. With the Romantic movement and a big influx of the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie into the profession, this idea of the artist as inspired and called to a vocation became the norm.
That certainly was -- and is still -- how I see my role as an artist. I have Blake to thank for that.

1 comment:

it's margaret said...

If I were to worship an artist as a god, it would be Blake.

He was so opposed to the revolution in industry, that he did not want any of his books to be mass-produced, but had printed and illustrated each one... something like that.

He also made up his own mythology, which he then illustrated.

I love his picture of Lucifer...In a similar vein as the one you have shown.... and the one of lucifer as the one who marks off and measures the world....