Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Is Mr. Hogarth out of Job?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Is Mr. Hogarth out of Job?

Article excerpt

Hogarth belonged to that generation of artists who had no first name. He was just Hogarth. One day, when you are in the bath, try this little test. Say to yourself: "What was Hogarth's first name?" If you are a clever type, you will say William. If you are not a clever type, but easily shamed, you will get out of the bath and leave a trail of water all the way to the biographical dictionaries, where you will discover that he was called William, and then you will go back to the bath and recline smugly until you realise that you don't know the first name of most people like Gainsborough, Reynolds, Delacroix and Ingres. They are all one-name merchants, as painters were in those days.

These days, painters have two names: Georges Braque, Claude Monet, Beryl Cook, Paul Klee. But a book on Hogarth is never called "William Hogarth". It is always called "Hogarth".

The interesting thing about this is that the only artists who go around with one name in the 20th century are not painters but cartoonists (Trog, Ionicus, Giles, Steinberg, Sempe, and so on), implying a kind of friendly familiarity which painters no longer tend to have, but which Hogarth did have in the 18th century. His Rake's Progress and Marriage a la Mode made him a household name, and his name turned into an adjective: Hogarthian. His series of satirical engravings, flaying the wrongdoings and selfishness of upper class and lower class alike, have become part of art history. Therefore he is a very great man and we are right to give him a tercentenary, are we not?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

If the aim of satire were to give you a place in art history, that would be fine and dandy. That, however, is not what satire is meant to do. Satire is meant to change society. Satire is meant to make people realise the error of their ways, and stop being rakes, or drunks, or harlots, or tyrants. Satire is meant to cure ills. Unfortunately there is not a single case on record of satire ever having achieved this.

There is no recorded instance of (William) Hogarth ever having saved a marriage or stopped a young man going astray through his drawing. The only thing that Hogarth has done, in our life-time, is to give his name to a roundabout.

As a satirist (William) Hogarth was a complete failure, and his only consolation would be that all satirists are complete failures. However wildly Steadman and Scarfe thrash around, however mad-eyed Lenny Brace or Bill Hicks became, however surgically P J O'Rourke or Auberon Waugh wield their right-facing satirical pens, they don't make converts of anyone who isn't a convert already. Spitting Image may have lambasted Fergie and the Tories, but Spitting Image has gone and Fergie and the Tories are still around. Satire, nuls points.

I can remember sitting in an editorial meeting at Punch in the late 1960s and hearing William Davis, the then editor, say: "What have we said about the Vietnam war this week? People will want to know what we think about Vietnam!"

And I can remember with a shock of revelation thinking to myself: "He's wrong. People don't give a shit what we think about Vietnam."

I'm sorry to say this, but people didn't give a shit what Hogarth thought about marriage, or drinking, or the Beggar's Opera or anything.

What they liked was the sheer observation of everyday life, and the street scenery and the people and the pretence and the reality, which made them laugh. They liked the energy, and the way his scenes teemed with life, just as 18th-century life teemed and smelt and made a noise; and they liked the way people were drunk in the street and seduced each other. …

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