Based on its original location, “Bedlam” was the name of London’s infamous mental hospital, whose official title is “Bethlem Royal Hospital.” Now at the forefront of mental health treatment, back in the eighteenth century, Bedlam was notorious for the cruel and barbarous conditions of its inmates. For sport, English citizens could even visit the asylum and for a penny, stare at the poor unfortunates.
In the final scene from Thomas Hogarth’s series of eight paintings “The Rake’s Progress,” Tom Rakewell is depicted – deranged, broke, nearly naked, dying on the floor of the Bedlam asylum. The 1735 painting suggests the ignominious end that awaits those who engage in dissipated lives of gambling, luxury, and prostitution.
Reading the current financial news, one wonders what kind of a morality tale that Hogarth might depict if he used his artistic talents to depict the tales of dissolution and woe developing around the developed world. After all, Hogarth had made himself an expert on the depiction of dissipation. His previous series of paintings had been “The Harlot’s Progress.” He followed “Rake’s Progress” with “Marriage-a-la-Mode.”
The past century would have proven an interesting case study for Hogarth. He could have depicted the gold standard before 1914, its abandonment during World War I, the development of a gold exchange standard during the 1920s, and its dissipation during the Great Depression. He could go to depict the Bretton Woods agreement, its breakdown, and Nixon’s closing of the gold window in 1971. The final scene, of course, would be the current bedlam.
There is still hope for the patient – rake though he is. Sick, deranged, and bereft as international monetary authorities may be, they still might rise like Lazarus were they willing to abandon their spendthrift economic morality and adopt the rigor and discipline of a gold standard.
Even Bedlam, after all, reformed.