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This exhibit is the result of the rich philosophical work of W&L students studying the meaning of decadence and decay. As the capstone for their 2022 philosophy Spring term course PHIL 297-1, students coming from various disciplinary and life backgrounds worked to envision the various layers and angles of decadence and decay, turning for help to the satirical work of eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth (1697-1764). Having learned that decadence and decay are experiences of finding oneself out or rhythm or beat in one’s life, they strived to capture concrete examples of this in Hogarth’s art.  

The work exhibited here, A Rake’s Progress, was part of Hogarth’s popular series on “moral subjects.” It encompasses eight paintings that were then turned into prints several times during his lifetime and after his death, a collection of which is held by the W&L Museums. A Rake’s Progress tells the story of the tragic descent into ruin of the fictional “Tom Rakewell.” A young, careless aristocrat with money to spend, Tom’s story portrays vividly the puzzle at the heart of decadence and decay: do they express the corruption of a life made up of one poor choice after another? Is it rather the result of a culture that fails to train young people for the inevitable encounter with forces of disorder and chaos? Or does it perhaps arise from a life that has not learned to affirm itself fully, choosing hedonism as an escape from aristocratic values of stability and continuity over reinvention and experimentation? 

This exhibit presents student interpretations from these three major angles, corruption, entropy, and stagnation. Each student essay focuses on a specific theme from each of the eight prints, ranging from the role of social class, the innerworkings of hypocrisy, the temptations of desire, and the symbolism in illness and disease. By working on these prints, students learned to use philosophical frameworks that helped them uncover the many layers of meaning in art and philosophical theory. They also worked collaboratively and interdisciplinary, using the digital tools of StoryMap to present in visual form their philosophical insights. They worked pluralistically, too, learning the value of various philosophical traditions, all the while contributing to an online exhibit for the entire W&L Community to enjoy. 

This online exhibit would not have been possible without the help of Patricia Hobbs and Brian Muncy from the W&L Museums who helped craft the project and prepare Hogarth’s prints for student use, and Prof. Mackenzie Brooks from the Leyburn Library who designed the online exhibit and worked with students to complete their digital assignments.

- Prof. Omar Quiñonez, Postdoctoral Fellow, Mudd Center for Ethics