Witness a clear case of missing the forest for the trees. British art critic Jonathan Jones got so caught up in his anger over Brexit – the UK’s recent vote to leave the EU - that he failed to notice the big idea behind the work of English cartoonist William Hogarth, known for rendering satiric scenarios to expose the foibles of his generation. (More about Hogarth’s big idea in a moment).

With his eyes riveted on England’s economy, Jones devoted an entire column last week to how Hogarth’s cartoons predicted that England would “have taken leave of all economic rationale.” Jones wasn’t the least bit wrong saying that.


He just didn’t get past Hogarth’s sneer at the entire European continent with what he called a “cocksure nationalism.” Jones gave as example Hogarth’s “The Gate of Calais,” aptly describing “a plump, cassocked fat cat slavering over a huge slab of British beef, greasy as a butter mountain” while the rank and file got hungry.

Poking fun at politics and people

While politics and the European economy were certainly Hogarth’s subjects, they didn’t constitute his big idea.


Neither was his other satirical series “Marriage a la Mode,” which mocked matrimony of the leisure class in merry old England three centuries ago. In one parody called “Tete a Tete,” Hogarth pictured a doomed marriage - the husband played out from his excesses in brothels, the wife played out from excessive partying. A clock on the wall indicates that the couple’s exhaustion is occurring in the middle of the day, as if each had just gotten home from his and her night on the town.

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Trying to re-write art history

But neither of Hogarth’s spoofs, whether political or marital, filled out his big idea. He made clear what it was in writing found among his papers published after his death by John Ireland in a volume titled “Hogarth Illustrated.” The artist wrote that he didn’t want his burlesques to be thought of as burlesques, but rather as high art and appraised that way. His goal, he said, was to picture people in settings that both “entertain and improve the mind...and must therefore be ranked in the highest class.” To hear Hogarth tell it, comedy in art, as in literature, ought to be considered in the same way.

He even went so far as to say that his cartoons carry more conviction to the mind than found in a thousand books.

So what we have here is an artist who made pictorial send-ups about human conduct and expected the same courtesy that painters of resplendent pictures were paid. Given that such equivalency is heresy to the art-for-art’s-sake crowd, it’s no wonder that an art connoisseur like Jones missed Hogarth’s big idea - that art shouldn’t be about art.


It should be about ethics and morality.

As if anticipating push back from the cognoscenti, he suggested that those who disagree don’t know the great masters like Michelangelo whose works he couldn’t decide “were in the highest degree sublime or extremely ridiculous.”

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