Canceling Hogarth

William Hogarth, the 18th-Century British painter and printmaker, was a critic of the milieu in which he lived. In particular, his paintings and etchings satirized the privileged classes of his time. So you might expect him to be popular with contemporary liberals.

But only if you didn’t understand contemporary liberals. Hogarth is now being canceled:

[A] new exhibition at Tate Britain has suggested that [Hogarth’s] pictures are no laughing matter, because their subjects are drunk on the spoils of slavery.

The exhibition, Hogarth and Europe, also highlights the “sexual violence, antisemitism and racism” in the artist’s work.

The exhibit has been in the works for a while. It didn’t start out that way:

The curators began preliminary planning for the show a decade ago but said it had changed shape due to Black Lives Matter, Brexit and the movement to decolonise art history.

So the museum is bringing a narrow 2021 perspective to the works of an artist who lived more than 250 years ago–although, that said, it is hard to understand what Brexit has to do with it. Maybe that isn’t surprising; but still, what is the indictment? It seems absurdly thin:

One of Hogarth’s most popular early works, A Midnight Modern Conversation, features a dozen men in various states of inebriation thanks to generous helpings of punch.

“While the picture is superficially moralising, we are clearly meant to find the men’s woozy misbehaviour funny.

“However, we might also consider that the punch they drink and the tobacco they smoke are material links to a wider world of commerce, exploitation and slavery,” reads a label alongside the image at Tate Britain.

The accompanying catalogue notes that the image may be “queasily celebrating such manly misdemeanours – what we might today called ‘laddishness’.”

This is profoundly stupid. Here is the picture; Hogarth obviously didn’t intend to make the drinkers look good, as in many images he created of debauchery of various kinds:

Note the silliness of the curators’ pointing out that “the punch they drink and the tobacco they smoke are material links to a wider world of commerce, exploitation and slavery.” So what? Obviously, tobacco was native to the Americas. And the punch perhaps contains rum. But these “material links” are wholly insignificant. And note that the curators apparently are as hostile to “commerce” as to “slavery.”

From here, it doesn’t get any better. Leftists critique the furniture on which Hogarth sat:

Meanwhile, a self-portrait in which Hogarth is seated on a wooden chair should be viewed in a new light, according to one of the exhibition’s contributors.

Sonia Barrett, a visual artist and sculptor who uses 18th century furniture in her work, wrote a commentary to accompany the picture.

“The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?” said Barrett.

This is unbearably stupid. The wood was shipped over the Atlantic, as were slaves? So what? Assuming this leftist can reliably discern the species of wood from which the chair is made, which I doubt.

And finally, what seems to be the chief indictment of Hogarth:

While Hogarth’s work often expressed a critical view of 18th century society, the curators said, “they also reveal the entrenchment of racist, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes”.

The exhibition draws attention to The Discovery, an “explicitly racist” print that Hogarth produced for the private amusement of his friends. It depicts a semi-naked black prostitute surrounded by four white men.

This is the print in question. It depicts, as stated, a semi-naked black prostitute with four white men:

As with many Hogarth prints, the point evidently is to skewer the loose morals among the privileged of Hogarth’s time. A modern Hogarth might similarly satirize Ted Kennedy, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Clinton, and so on. But again: how is this image “explicitly racist”?

I thought the curators might refer to the print’s inscription: “Qui Color albus erat, nunc est contrarius albo.” That turns out to be a line from Ovid, which translates as “he, who was once snow white, was now white’s opposite.” I suppose that could refer to the prostitute–she once was without sin, but is no longer–but, knowing Hogarth’s preoccupations, it seems at least equally likely that he referred to the prostitute’s four customers. Be that as it may, how is the print “explicitly racist”? It is not, except in the fevered imaginations of today’s uneducated woke leftists.

The bottom line is that the “woke” of 2021 will seek to cancel all those, through history, who were not as ill-informed and ill-educated as themselves. Sadly, that includes just about everyone.

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