18th-Century Hogarth and The Woke Culture

Tate Britain in London has defended the approach taken in its Hogarth and Europe exhibition (until 20 March 2022) following a wave of criticism focused on wall labels written by contemporary commentators, which one critic described as “wokeish drivel”. The museum’s director, Alex Farquharson, tells The Art Newspaper that “Tate Britain has both the confidence to provide a public platform for those conversations and the expertise to contribute to them directly.”

“A number of commentators were invited to write the shorter labels immediately alongside individual works. These texts bring a wider range of perspectives, expertise, and insights to the exhibition,” according to the exhibition wall text.

But the decision by Tate management to include commentaries on Hogarth’s paintings by several non-curatorial figures, including the artists Lubaina Himid and Sonia E. Barrett, inflamed UK national newspaper art critics.

According to a wall text written by Barrett, for example, a 1757 self-portrait showing Hogarth sitting on a wooden chair should be seen within the context of slavery. “The curvaceous chair literally supports him and exemplifies his view on beauty,” she writes. “The chair is made from timbers 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?”.

Farquharson stresses that the process of developing the interpretation strategy and inviting contributors is always led by the curatorial team, which includes colleagues with expertise in gallery interpretation. A UK museum consultant specialising in interpretation, who preferred to remain anonymous, says however that the Tate approach is “unusual”.

The Art Newspaper reports on the controversy.

Hogarth and Europe, a Tate Britain exhibition.

Michael Glover. for Hyperallergic, reviews the exhibit.

(Some trace the origins of cartooning and comics to William Hogarth.)