Thu, Jun 08, 2006 - Page 15 News List

Three centuries of sending up the pompous and powerful

A new exhibition on the history of satire shows that taking the Mickey can chip away at religious intolerance, social conformity, fear, political correctness and electoral apathy


Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister in puppet form on the British TV show Spitting Image.


Religious hypocrisy, extremes of wealth and poverty, out-of-touch politicians, enslavement to fashion, obsession with gadgetry.

No, not today. These were targets of satirists in 18th and 19th-century London. And there were more: lawyers, doctors, soldiers, clergymen, intellectuals, even shop-keepers. All apparently merited deflating for the power they wielded.

True, the English did not invent satire. Horace and Juvenal were at it in ancient Rome; commedia dell'arte revived it in 16th-century Italy; Rabelais, Moliere and Voltaire brandished it in France. And long before Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and William Hogarth stirred things up in England, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were masters at ridiculing human nature.

The message is clear: Every age gets the satire it deserves.

Today it may be more necessary than ever.

That, at least, is one conclusion offered by Satirical London, an exhibition at the Museum of London through Sept. 3, which explores "three centuries of satire, sex and scandal." The show pays little heed to literature, focusing on graphic satire, like prints and cartoons. Nonetheless, it is a healthy celebration of irreverence.

And that's where today comes in. In an atmosphere of growing religious intolerance and social conformity, sustained by fear, political correctness and electoral apathy, satire can probably aid democracy by stretching the limits of the acceptable. That this may offend is precisely its value. Satire should disturb as well as amuse.

It is not always possible. In dictatorships it can be positively foolish to mock rulers, although satire can sometimes be disguised as parody or allegory. And in many parts of the world there is no tradition of questioning authority through wit or caricature; in such countries two preferred targets, religious and political power, are usually taboo for satirists.

A reminder of this was the angry Muslim response to those infamous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad after they were published in a Danish newspaper. If their intent was to satirize the way terrorism has exploited and distorted Islam, they were in practice viewed by many Muslims as insulting Muhammad. And when the Vatican and some Western leaders also criticized the cartoons, it was apparent that a line had been drawn.

This was possible in 18th-century London because England was already a lively, albeit still incomplete, democracy. As early as 1711, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison published The Spectator (unrelated to today's weekly of the same name), which was intended, as they put it, to "enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality." In later decades, satirists also exploited this freedom to poke fun at the monarchy (poor George III received a drubbing for "losing" his American colony), aristocracy and politicians, as well as to draw attention to greed, poverty and injustices.

The most popular vehicle was graphic art, specifically prints. Around St. Paul's Cathedral in London, print shops filled their windows with the latest and most outrageous images. And passers-by, even if illiterate, even if unable to afford a print, could revel in the knowledge that the rich and powerful were not safe from ridicule. (This show recreates the window of Humphrey's popular print shop.) In this Hogarth was the master, not only because he was a skilled painter and engraver, but also because he captured the idiosyncrasies of London.

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