The human condition: politics, pain and perspective at USD’s Humanities Center

James Gillray's "A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion," 1793 (printed 1851, Bohn edition), etching
James Gillray’s “A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion,” 1793 (printed 1851, Bohn edition), etching
(Image courtesy of USD from a private collection)

New exhibition ‘The Gout and the Guillotine’ examines artists during tumultuous times at the University of San Diego’s Humanities Center


In the 18th century, with revolutions rocking the world from France to the American Colonies — monarchies toppling, new regimes taking shape and diseases like smallpox and cholera running rampant — some of the most persistent voices demanding attention to the chaos of the times were artists, writers and other creators eager to demonstrate that emperors were in fact not wearing any clothes. These were times not unlike our own today.

“Gout and the Guillotine: The Satirical Imagination in Britain 1790-1799,” a new exhibition at the University of San Diego’s Humanities Center, takes a fresh look at the work of several such artists and the ravages of tumultuous times. James Gillray was one of a flock of British satirists of the day who shined a harsh spotlight on revolutionary politics and human bodies in pain — symbolized grotesquely by Gillray’s most famous etching “The Gout.” Gillray and the other caricaturists featured in this exhibit — Thomas Rowlandson, Frederick George Byron and Isaac Cruikshank — used their pens to paint statesman Edmund Burke as a mere toady to monarchy, and radical activist Thomas Paine as an alcohol-sodden and destabilizing mercenary. They portrayed the grim fates of French royalty at the blade of the guillotine, while English leaders quivered at the possibility of revolution migrating onto their shores.

“Gout and the Guillotine” exemplifies the pluralistic approach of the Humanities Center since its founding in 2016. Our center spotlights the wide spectrum of human thoughts, voices and talents — bringing together perennial issues and contemporary problems, pressing current events and forgotten points of view, vigorous wisdom and youthful exuberance.

With “Gout and the Guillotine,” the center lights a new spark of opportunity for thoughtful discourse; in this case, about the parallels of 18th century Europe with the global upheaval of the present, and how fear, disease, social justice and revolution become catalysts of change, for better or worse. In viewing this exhibit, one can see the correspondence between caricaturists ridiculing wealthy people suffering from the painful condition of gout due to gluttony and social media criticisms of local leaders photographed maskless in luxury suites at football games.

James Gillray's "The Gout," 1799, etching and aquatint with hand-coloring
(Courtesy of USD )

Our spring program presents viewpoints on historical change highlighting such parallels throughout human history. The Humanities Center’s expansive and inclusive survey of the human experience this semester includes a series, “The Black Present and Presence,” and lectures by visiting artists and writers such as Marie Watt, Matthew Crawford and Mark Z. Danielewski. Our newly established Minerva Lecture Series provides a platform for retired and emeritus faculty to reflect on their lives in academia.

For the past six years, the Center has maintained a commitment to stimulating dialogue and provoking opinions from all corners. Thanks to generous donations from Carol Vassiliadis, Mary and Churchill Knapp, and the Keck Foundation, we have the means to curate insightful exhibitions and invite distinguished scholars and accomplished practitioners to our campus and offer their lectures and displays for free. Our duty is not just to the university but to the entire community, to demonstrate the value of a liberal arts education that provides important tools for students — for everyone — to understand what it means to be human.

We’re proud to be a comprehensive center that serves as a catalyst of open-ended discussion — where radical ideas of past, present and future get a hearing, and a plurality of opinions are welcomed and encouraged. James Gillray’s etchings in “Gout and the Guillotine” are intended to stimulate thought, conversation and, perhaps, action. Please join us and be a part of it.

Clack is the A. Vassiliadis Director of the Humanities Center and Norton is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Diego.

‘The Gout and the Guillotine: The Satirical Imagination in Britain 1790-1799’

When: On view through May 20 (check online for specific times)

Where: Saints Tekakwitha and Serra Hall, 200, Humanities Center Gallery, University of San Diego, 5998 Alcalá Park, San Diego

Tickets: Free