A recent issue of TIME magazine featured an essay by James Poniewozik on why artists today, at least in their subject matter, tend to focus more on unhappiness than happiness. Artists explore emotions and lately, as he puts it, they’re choosing mostly to explore those that make us feel lousy. Joy isn’t their model any more. It’s been a long time since anyone produced a masterpiece and called it, An Ode to Joy. Perhaps Leo Tolstoy spoke for modern art when he said: “All happy families are alike”, implying that they are boring and unhappy families are not.
Why? What’s behind this? Is there a special depth inside unhappiness? Is what’s broken more interesting than what’s whole? Is unhappiness more beautiful than happiness? Why are so many artists sceptical of joy?
Poniewozik suspects that the problem is not that artists are sceptical of joy, but that they are reacting aesthetically, as one would to anything that’s over-sweet, to the millions upon millions of unsolicited smiles that greet us from every billboard, magazine page, and television ad. Everyone we see there is always smiling, in perfect health, with perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect family, suggesting a perfect life beneath it all.
Happiness is so easy, it would seem, effortless really, all deep struggles can be put aside simply by using the right laundry soap, eating low-carb hamburgers, choosing the right shampoo and make-up, carrying the right mobile phone, making the right wine selection, and driving the right car. The very air we inhale suggests that, since everyone else is already smiling and happy, there’s no excuse really to feel the heaviness we’re feeling.
But, when happiness is promised this easily, someone, Poniewozik says, has to say that it’s okay to feel unhappy and not be smiling all the time.
Formerly, the church did that. It had religious symbols that reminded us daily that we lived in a broken world, amid fractured dreams, that life was a struggle, that happiness was hard to come by, that we were always vulnerable, that death posed a constant threat. Religion made us aware that humanity had fallen from grace, that we were wretches in need of God’s help, that we were here as pilgrims on earth with no real home, that real joy had to be waited for, that the sublime came only after long sublimation, and that we lived in “a valley of tears” within which we shouldn’t over-expect.
Much of this sounds pretty morbid however in a culture where, precisely, there is the promise of easy happiness, of easy smiles, and of having the full symphony here and now, without any sublimation. How, when happiness is seemingly so easy, can we sing a song that proclaims that divine sweetness lies in the feeling that God can save “wretches” like us? No wonder we resist words like sin, unworthiness, purgatory, death.
If love, beauty, and happiness were as simple and easy as the latest television commercial suggests, why, like the prophet, Isaiah, would I feel so unworthy before them that I should want to cleanse myself with a burning coal?
But, and this is the point, when I no longer see myself as a pilgrim in a fallen world, as a wretch in need of grace, and as living in a “valley of tears”, then I don’t have moral permission either to feel unhappy, to feel as if I’m missing out on life. Nor do I have permission to be alone on a Friday night, without a soulmate, lonely, hurting from broken relationships, caught inside a dysfunctional family, frustrated inside a far-from perfect church, not in great health, and trying to find happiness without a perfect body or a perfect job.
Today, many of our artists are doing for us what the church used to do, namely, they’re telling us that it’s okay not to feel happy all the time and that if we’re trying to smile all the time we’re probably in denial because life isn’t simple, joy is elusive, and it’s perhaps found in places where we haven’t been looking lately.
There are many reasons why artists tend to focus on what’s unhappy. Partly it’s the artistic temperament itself, its hypersensitivity, its tortured complexity, its capacity to name what’s under the surface, its sensitivity to how beauty reveals itself (“That’s how the light gets in”) in the cracks of our brokenness. Partly too, and less flattering, it is simple arrogance, an elitism, a condescending intellectualism that can easily make an ideology out of unhappiness because it secretly believes that ordinary joys, and laundry commercials, are beneath its dignity.
But partly its an insight which sees life deeply enough to understand that happiness is not an easy thing, that a genuine smile should be sparked by more than just the right toothpaste, that there are problems that cannot be solved by a newer software, that there are lonely seasons too in life, and that honesty compels us to admit that we cannot always be smiling and happy.