Print Culture: Art for the Masses?

March 2011.

Print culture, by which I mean the eighteenth-century boom in satirical prints by the likes of James Gillray and Richard Newton, was until recently thought of as a particularly accessible branch of art. To steal the contemporary Edmund Burke’s charming phrase, it was art for “the swinish multitude.” This seems to have been based on two things: firstly, being visual it does not require literacy, and secondly, it is funny. Simple. Except, of course, there is far more to it than that.

Gillray’s work, for example, employs different registers of reference: in just one print he manages to refer to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Old Testament, and Greek mythology. Other literary references, such as Shakespeare, are also common within his prints. The visual language of prints also extends to broader concepts such as John Bull, the quintessential Englishman. Here, references are on different levels: first, we – and viewers at the time – need to recognise him as a stock character, and second, classical references are employed: Bull is the equivalent of Demos in Aristophanes’ The Knights.

Clearly, levels of comprehension can vary: it would, of course, be possible to understand what satirists are trying to say in a print without necessarily recognising every reference. Also, contemporary references – such as those to Pitt’s tendency to be drunk in the House of Commons – would be widely understood. Historian Herbert Atherton argued that prints were effective because of their ability to “translate” difficult concepts into understandable visual representations. Thus it could be because of their grounding in references – whether classical or a joke about a politician’s bad habits – that prints were particularly effective and popular in times of unrest and ambiguity such as the 1790s.

Attitudes towards the artistic quality of satirical prints have changed enormously over the past 150 years: Ruskin, in his 1843 Modern Painters, rated satire below any “more dignified, or even more intrinsically meritous, branch of art”, yet by 2000 the Tate Gallery declared that Gillray, for example, had “produced some of the greatest prints of the eighteenth century.” The key, it seems, is to find a balance and to appreciate these prints for their historical content – and context – as well as their artistic techniques, which range from the sometimes slapdash lines of the young prodigy Newton to the meticulous work of the likes of Cruikshank and Gillray.

The inimitable and very much missed Roy Porter said that “words and pictures were never antitheses or alternatives, much less rivals.” Satirical prints were more than just visual representations; their texts communicated as much as their images. An appreciation of this art, then, is perhaps easier for the culturally literate – but as art for the masses goes, it is not hard to see why a print may have been preferred to, say, Boticelli. This must come down to what we mean by “the masses”: the implication in the phrase is of lower classes, but if we take it literally then yes – this could be art for everybody.

Originally published in The Student.

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