The Art of Unhappiness

Why are creative types skeptical of joy? Because somebody has to be

  • Many things make people think artists are weird--the odd hours, the nonconformity, the clove cigarettes. But the weirdest may be this: artists' only job is to explore emotions, and yet they choose to focus on the ones that feel lousy. Art today can give you anomie, no problem. Bittersweetness? You got it. Tristesse? What size you want that in? But great art, as defined by those in the great-art-defining business, is almost never about simple, unironic happiness.

    This wasn't always so. The earliest forms of art, like painting and music, are those best suited for expressing joy. But somewhere in the 19th century, more artists began seeing happiness as insipid, phony or, worst of all, boring--in Tolstoy's words, "All happy families are alike." We went from Wordsworth's daffodils to Baudelaire's flowers of evil. In the 20th century, classical music became more atonal, visual art more unsettling. Artists who focused on making their audiences feel good, from Usher to Thomas Kinkade, were labeled "pop."

    Sure, there have been exceptions (say, Matisse's The Dance), but it would not be a stretch to say that for the past century or so, serious art has been at war with happiness. In 1824, Beethoven completed the "Ode to Joy." In 1962, novelist Anthony Burgess used it in A Clockwork Orange as the favorite piece of his ultraviolent antihero. If someone titles an art movie Happiness, it is a good bet that it will be--as the 1998 Todd Solondz film was--about deeply unhappy people, including a telephone pervert and a pedophile.

    You could argue that art became more skeptical of happiness because modern times have seen such misery. But it's not as if earlier times didn't know perpetual war, disaster and the massacre of innocents. The reason, in fact, may be just the opposite: there is too much damn happiness in the world today.

    After all, what is the one modern form of expression almost completely dedicated to depicting happiness? Advertising. The rise of anti-happy art almost exactly tracks the emergence of mass media, and with it, a commercial culture in which happiness is not just an ideal but an ideology.

    People in earlier eras were surrounded by reminders of misery. They worked gruelingly, lived with few protections and died young. In the West, before mass communication and literacy, the most powerful mass medium was the church, which reminded worshippers that their souls were in peril and that they would someday be meat for worms. On top of all this, they did not exactly need their art to be a bummer too.

    Today the messages your average Westerner is bombarded with are not religious but commercial, and relentlessly happy. Fast-food eaters, news anchors, text messengers, all smiling, smiling, smiling, except for that guy who keeps losing loans to Ditech. Our magazines feature beaming celebrities and happy families in perfect homes. (Tolstoy clearly never edited a shelter mag.) And since these messages have an agenda--to pry our wallets from our pockets--they make the very idea of happiness seem bogus. "Celebrate!" commanded the ads for the arthritis drug Celebrex, before we found out it could increase the risk of heart attacks.

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