What do you see in the above image? It’s a self-portrait by William Hogarth from the late 1750s, in which he sits palette in hand, absorbed in the work of painting the Muse of Comedy. An apt theme for the bawdy satirist, you might think. But the curators of the Hogarth exhibition currently on at Tate Britain could see only one thing – slavery, supposedly embodied in the curved mahogany chair:
“The chair is made from timber 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?”
Seriously? That’s what you see? I suppose, if you are determined enough, you will find racism everywhere – even in works by an 18th-century London artist who had no connection with slavery and whose political views tended towards radicalism.
The fact that Hogarth was no slaver does not deter the woke inquisitors of Tate Britain (whose chair, talking of chairs, is Roland Rudd). Nor does his humane and often sympathetic portrayal of the handful of black characters who make it into his works. Hogarth was satirising the world he knew, and many of his black subjects appear as servants in grand houses, looking out on scenes of upper-class degeneracy. He occasionally gives them the tiniest hint of a sardonic smile, as if they alone understand what is going on.
What might have been an interesting exhibition that set Hogarth (who was, for want of a better shorthand, a Eurosceptic) within the context of contemporary Continental trends instead descends into a harangue against the man it is meant to celebrate.
Where you or I might see, for example, a room filled with comical drunks, the show’s curators prissily tell us that “the punch they drink and the tobacco they smoke are material links to a wider world of commerce, exploitation and slavery”.
Where you or I might see, at the end of the Rake’s Progress, a young dandy brought so low that he ends up in a madhouse, the authors of the wall text see a white man “shackled and near naked, like the enslaved African”.
Where you or I might see, in Marriage A-la-Mode, a morality tale about a faithless couple, the authors see “overall a picture of White degeneracy”
Consider this image above: Southwark Fair, painted in 1733. Again, what do you see? A rumbustious outdoor crowd, yes? A vivid portrayal of ordinary people carousing noisily and chaotically? Well, reader, check your privilege. The young black boy playing the trumpet in the foreground might look as if he is joining the fun. But apparently “the dog makes a racist juxtaposition with the trumpeter”.
And what happened to the canvass itself, hmm? It turns out that “Hogarth’s Southwark Fair, painted for Mary Edwards, was subsequently owned by William Atherton, who joint-owned two plantations in Jamaica”. Hogarth might as well have fashioned the coffles himself, eh?
“All is race, there is no other truth,” says a character in one of Disraeli’s novels. That sentiment, already slightly nutty when Dizzy penned it in the 1840s, was utterly discredited a century later. But it is making an unlikely comeback in the Anglosphere.
Everything – absolutely everything – is nowadays seen through the prism of race. Horatio Nelson is judged, not as the man who sank our enemies’ fleets, but as someone who failed to support an abolitionist measure in the House of Lords. Jane Austen (a strong abolitionist) is condemned because her clergyman father (also an abolitionist) would have become the trustee of a plantation had a friend of his died – which he didn’t. Every work of art, music and literature is judged by standards which, in effect, damn every white man born before the First World War.
The oddest thing about this monomania is its timing. I understand people becoming obsessed with slavery at the height of the campaign for abolition. I understand people seeing things in racial terms while fighting for desegregation. But why now, at a time when (at least before the rise of BLM last year) race relations had never been better?
I know optimism about race infuriates wokies, but take pretty much any measure you want – mixed marriages, mixed neighbourhoods, violence, composition of Parliament and Cabinet, public attitudes towards immigration, acceptability of racist language – and find me a less bigoted decade.
Why then, when slavery still exists in parts of Asia and Africa, are we so preoccupied with Britain’s past participation in the trade? After all, we don’t extend the same test to anyone else. Go to an exhibition of Chinese or Arab or Russian art and you won’t be lectured about how everything you see is the product of forced labour. No, our obsession is purely – and paradoxically – with the country that poured its blood and treasure into a campaign to end the slave trade.
I fear the monomania is precisely the attraction. The experience of many ages teaches us that people respond to simplicity and certainty. From Marxism to Salafist extremism, we are drawn to creeds that allow us to interpret everything, from marriage to music, through a sacred precept. The very unreasonableness of the creed turns out to be part of its appeal, giving devotees a sense that they are set apart from the run of humanity.
The devotees may be few in number, but their intimidating fervour allows them to set the agenda. Just as the Bolshevists pulled behind them mainstream Russian socialists (who had had enough of Tsarist tyranny) and just as the jihadis pulled behind them peaceful Muslims (who had had enough of secular dictators), so woke hardliners exert a pull on moderate Leftists who have little time for cancel culture, but who don’t like to line up with conservative opponents of identity politics.
Thus, one by one, the Enlightenment values that we have taken for granted since Hogarth’s age are extinguished. A long night stretches before us.