Hogarth and the aesthetics of dance

Annie Richardson, Winchester School or Art

Dance was not normally discussed in eighteenth-century philosophical aesthetics, yet Hogarth gives dance a significant role in supporting his definition of beauty in his Analysis of Beauty (1753). Focusing on his references to dance is one means to uncover, source, and explain that difference in position from other philosophical accounts of beauty which Hogarth claimed for himself and which Hogarth scholars and historians of aesthetics have largely endorsed.

The basis of Hogarth's claims to a different and more successful account of beauty included his claim to write as a practitioner and for a general readership, his claim to base his definition of beauty on nature, observation, and experience, rather than on theory, his avoidance of deviating into a moral consideration of beauty, his refutation of commonly held but false understandings of beauty as based on mathematical proportions and the upright body, and his privileging of the living over the represented and the female over the male body. The paper asks what it was in existing understandings of dance which encouraged Hogarth to use it to sustain most of these claims.

Eighteenth-century dance is also investigated in order to illuminate two aspects of Hogarth's difference which offer a key to understanding his personal agenda and position: his insistent linkage of the social semiotics of the body with the body's material fabric, and his emphasis on the beauty of human movement and, indeed, on beauty of movement, as the quintessentially human attribute.

Empiricism is a sine qua non of aesthetics as an autonomous field, but Hogarth radically particularises the experience of beauty as visual and sensory pleasure. Some historians have suggested that Hogarth's aesthetics are based on an anti-authoritarian stance informed by Country Party ideology, a concept of the body-politic as a mixed social order, or an attempt to use aesthetics to empower or mentor the middle class. This paper seeks to demonstrate how an exploration of the social history of dance in eighteenth-century England can contribute to an understanding of the place of the Analysis in the framework of the politics of aesthetics and the politics of pleasure.

(Abstract of a paper read at the Dance Symposium, "So Publick an Approbation": Attitudes to dance in eighteenth-century England, New College, Oxford, 26 April 2000)