- The Dumb Show: Image and Society in the Works of William Hogarth
For reasons both historiographic and aesthetic, William Hogarth’s art seems to be a particularly apt candidate for poststructuralist interpretation. Hogarth’s skillful weaving of words and images and his busy surfaces, packed with signs, entice interpreters with their possibilities for new theoretical approaches. Likewise, the marginal place of Hogarth in the grand narratives of art history—and yet his importance to that history nonetheless—calls out for a new appraisal of Hogarth’s contribution which articulates, rather than explains away, his eccentricity. Frédéric Ogée’s recent volume of twelve essays is organized around precisely these goals.
The significant contribution of this volume is to demonstrate the folly of squeezing Hogarth’s square pegs into the round holes of traditional artistic identity, stylistic categories, and standards of evaluation. And yet, while much is gained by an increased attention to [End Page 141] particularity, “polycentrism” (26), and even “Hogarth’s essential ‘eccentricity’” (4), something is also lost: conclusiveness, argument, and even some scholarly rigor. There is a fetishization of ambiguity that afflicts parts of this volume, characteristic of postmodern, deconstructionist analyses that were typical a decade or so ago. (Indeed, these essays originated in a 1992 conference, and in this respect they show their age.) They share a belief that ambiguity exists everywhere, that signs can mean their opposite simply through the suggestion of their interpreters, and that ambiguity brings “pleasure” and thus is a good for its own sake. As Ogée states in his introduction: “It is the major purpose of the following essays to try and examine the specific features and evolutions of such ambiguity, allowing for contradictions and inconsistencies to emerge, in order to draw a composite picture of an exceptionally gifted artist...” (23). But most of the essays resist interpretative closure after articulating contradictions and inconsistencies, and so the composite picture never resolves itself. Instead, as one reads through this volume, suggestions, evocations, and juxtapositions body forth, but often melt away as soon as one turns the page. These (in)conclusions frustrate the reader who expects a poststructuralist intervention to result in a revitalized sense of Hogarth’s place and meaning in art history.
Ogée’s insightful introduction begins with promise, calling for a reorientation of Hogarth’s art in relation to larger art-historical narratives. He notes the difficulty that scholars have had in appraising Hogarth’s place in art history—a difficulty which exists, he contends, because Hogarth was purposely at odds with historical and stylistic categories in his own time: “In more ways than one, and precisely because critics have often paid insufficient attention to the ‘otherness’ of his art, Hogarth’s reputation and historical positioning have too frequently been labored into the categories of a tradition which it was his intention and destiny to put under stress” (5). Instead, Ogée contends, Hogarth’s art should be seen in a re-evaluated “northern” context of empiricist epistemology and moralism. This context, with its stress on temporality and the centrality of the beholder, is indeed a fruitful new vantage point that makes for a better and richer interpretation of Hogarth’s art. Yet Ogée seems to back away from the interpretative power of this new rubric when he concludes that Hogarth’s art has an “essential ambivalent sinuosity” (26), a permanent ambiguity. While Hogarth’s milieu and artistic practice are certainly complex, it does not follow that they are essentially indeterminate. “Ambiguity,” with its implication of unresolvable mystery, is substituted for “complexity,” which requires analysis.
The best of the essays that follow are truly pathbreaking interventions into previously dead-end interpretative trajectories. For example, David Bindman’s essay on Hogarth’s politics, “The Nature of Satire in the ‘Modern Moral Subjects,’” is a refreshing re-alignment for all those who have struggled to understand Hogarth’s social and political loyalties. Here is a case where old narratives—liberal versus conservative, middle-class versus aristocratic...