Why William Hogarth’s polemics were so successful

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A CAT struggles as a dog tears out its guts. A group of children smirk as they hang two more tabbies by their tails from a post. Other figures scribble graffiti, or torture a dog with a cudgel. The violence in William Hogarth’s sketch, made in 1750, almost feels senseless, even as it is softened with humour (a well-dressed boy peddles pies amid the chaos). But it did contain a warning: later pictures show one of the boys graduating from abusing dogs to beating horses, before becoming a ruthless murderer. He eventually ends up dead—in a drawing subtitled “Reward of Cruelty” his corpse is splayed out for medical research. Violence, Hogarth is saying, starts young. Get a taste for it as a child and the gallows might be your fate.

The series, “Four Stages of Cruelty”, features in a small but pithy new exhibition of Hogarth’s work at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. “Cruelty and Humour” never loses sight of the art’s brutality, nor its wryness. One early image shows the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, a stock scam which ruined many Britons. Hogarth shows personified figures of “Honour” and “Honesty” being thrashed by “Self-Interest” and “Villainy”; a merry-go-round of corruption reflects the scale of the disaster as a priest, a prostitute and a nobleman all ride together. In “Gin Lane” (1751, pictured) a sallow alcoholic lies in the gutter, dropping her baby; a man gnaws a bone alongside a dog. There can be few better warnings against the dangers of cheap liquor in art.

It might be tempting to consign Hogarth and his pictures, with their powdered wigs and random barbarity, to history. That would be a mistake, Jennifer Tonkovich, the show’s curator, says: it should be impossible to live in New York and “divorce yourself from thinking about these issues”. Just as wealthy Londoners once gobbled up townhouses in Mayfair, “never to be met with” in the smelly neighbourhoods further east (to quote the anonymous author of one 18th-century book), New York has Hudson Yards. With its 720,000 square-foot luxury mall and $800-a-cut barbers, the development has been dubbed a “fantasy city” for the rich. Gin addicts might be a rare sight on Madison Avenue, but extreme poverty is not. Around 60,000 New Yorkers currently sleep in municipal shelters, and homelessness in the city has reached its highest level since the Great Depression.

Hogarth drew the injustices of his age in order to point his contemporaries towards a better London. The visceral and scatological humour was key, Ms Tonkovich says, as “looking at a picture of virtue is not much fun. On the other hand, looking at a picture of vice can motivate people.” With Henry Fielding, a magistrate, satirist and friend, Hogarth argued that new legislation was needed to tidy up the streets. Thanks in part to their lobbying, Parliament passed the Gin Act in 1751. Among other things, it promoted the sale of beer—and the wholesome civic life conjured by Hogarth in “Beer Street”, a mellow ale-soaked foil to the hard spirits that ruined “Gin Lane”.

All this has useful lessons for today’s activists. Straight moralising is not just unpopular: it may be ineffective. Follow Hogarth in spiking your polemic with humour, however, and views might soften. A recent study found people felt stronger support for Syrian refugees after watching political satire compared to similar stories on CNN. It helped, the researchers added, that being persuaded felt like fun.

Ms Tonkovich thinks the tone of Hannah Gadsby, a Australian comedian, is particularly effective. In her comedy special “Nanette” she offered a darkly funny exploration of growing up gay in Tasmania. “I think most people who watch it would reflect on times that they’ve been cruel or unfair, or harsh or uncharitable,” Ms Tonkovich says. “There is something about having that held up in a naked, obvious way that does make you reflect.” This is true of Hogarth, too. His pictures of urban squalor can still make the viewer smile, and think.

“Hogarth: Cruelty and Humour” continues at the Morgan Library and Museum until September 22nd