Thursday, August 4, 2011

The British Word from Hogarth to Today: A Desire to Tell, Not Show

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress, Plate 3, 1735 (taken from the BBC)

It's been a while since I haven't posted any of my art-related essays, and I recently got inspired to rummage through my old essays. During my sophomore year at Barnard I took a great seminar with Simon Schama on Contemporary British Art. In that seminar, I wrote a paper on the relationship of words and images in British art throughout history. Since it's a bit on the longer side, I'll post this one day by day, and hopefully I'll keep you interested! :

The history of British art reveals an affinity for incorporating words in artworks, particularly in the form of narrative. Beginning with the Reformation period, there prevailed what Graham-Dixon terms a sense of “anti-art,” where the image was thought to deceive, while the word had the virtue of introducing a clear narrative or message (218). These beliefs sprung from a Protestant perspective, which feared that “the supernatural can never be made manifest in the likeness of a figure” (42). The essential belief behind this statement – that words can communicate more directly than images – remains relevant to this day in British art.

As Graham-Dixon describes it, in the Post-Reformation period, “words did not replace images, they incorporated them in a different way. Language was to summon up all the pictures that had been destroyed” (53). With this, there developed a trend in British art where images became often verbal, and literature, likewise, pictorial. Over time, words shifted from being solely tools employed by religious and political authorities to a significant mode of artistic expression.

This shift becomes most obvious when moving into the eighteenth century, where words and images are twisted in an ironic and satirical fashion to make social commentary and attack authorities, as in the work of Hogarth. Known as “the guilty conscience of the British eighteenth century,” Hogarth’s work is one of the first to reach out of the aristocratic mindset into the public realm and to express a personal view (Graham-Dixon, 95). By delving into wider social and largely middle class concerns, he “[revised] the aesthetic discourse for art with its rejection of low and inappropriate subject matter” (Paulson). Indeed, he insisted on incorporating the imagery and language – the signage – of his time. He depicts the street, which appears as it would have been then with salesmen and women, pub signs, placards and public spots. This way, Hogarth’s work communicated with the public; it facilitated the important process of drawing associations among the images and the words. Indeed, whereas words had previously been about instruction, now the words were more open to “interpretation” and aimed for “the interplay of artist and spectator” (Paulson, 24). With this in mind, “Hogarth brought works of art into the lives of men and women who had never owned or purchased images before…He was the chief pioneer of…a genuinely popular visual art form” (Graham-Dixon, 99).

Hogarth has been a model for many British artists to this day. Of the contemporary British artists that will be discussed, all of them have taken after Hogarth in that they have incorporated language that is accessible, critical of authority and artistic conventions, and frequently satirical. Graham-Dixon claims that “the history of British art after Hogarth cannot be told in quite the same way …It must take account of a growing sense of duty felt by artists to themselves…The lives and struggles of individual British artists will necessarily form a greater part of the story from now on” (103).

Indeed, following the French Revolution, British art and literature took on a more self-expressive form. “The restrictive taste of the aristocracy” was regarded “as a kind of tyranny” and artists “would write in the plain language of plain men,” a desire that still persists today (Graham-Dixon, 104, 130).

The early nineteenth century saw an establishment of ‘the self’ as the main subject among writers and artists. William Wordsworth’s writing attests to this self-centered vision in its sentimental and introspective quality. However, as Graham-Dixon puts it, “Wordsworth’s desire…was to armour his own frail subjectivity by making it appear a monument” (137). We shall later see that artists today likewise verbally express highly personal matters while making their work simultaneously stand for universal concerns.

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