Tom Sutcliffe: Happiness hides the bigger picture

The week in culture

Related Topics

When I was at university, a friend once said to me, apropos of something I can't remember: "It's all right for you. You're always happy." I was, quite naturally, deeply offended. Not only was this not true (I'm sure I was, at the very least, averagely unhappy for a 20-year-old). But I understood that such a charge carried an unstated implication. I might not be up to being unhappy. I couldn't hack angst and had settled for cheerfulness instead. And the really grave thing was that I wasn't being accused of dishonesty, of hiding unhappiness in a rather unsporting way. It was a suggestion that I didn't have depths in which to hide anything. Perhaps I was projecting a little at the time. Perhaps my reflex of indignation had something to do with the fact that I was studying English at the time... and thus not attuned to think of happiness as a particularly desirable quality. It was, after all, a negligible feature in the canonical works I was being invited to explore, which addressed themselves far more often to the many nuances of human discontent. In literary terms, there were a hundred words for misery, but just a handful for happiness; a gallery-full of portraits of human despondency but just a smiley-face lapel badge when it came to good cheer.

It's a truism that happiness writes white, meaning, I take it, that it's much harder to capture in writing than unhappiness. It's thought to be too uncomplicated to catch the light, so it effectively disappears on the page. And it's dull too, since one condition of happiness is that it's undynamic. From which, again, flowed the sense of insult in that dismissive remark. When thought about like this happiness is a problem for art in one respect only. It is recalcitrant as a subject, difficult to pin down. But the other day I found myself wondering whether happiness might be a problem for an artist in a different sense too. It was when I was walking round A Bigger Picture – the Royal Academy's show of recent landscape paintings by David Hockney – and one of the most cheerful, exuberant exhibitions I've been to for many years.

That really isn't to be sneezed at in January. The Royal Academy's galleries are – as the cliché goes – a riot of colour and captured sunlight. What a jolly riot it is though. There are no petrol bombs here, no restrained anger, no sense of strife or confrontation (except, perhaps, a cheerful tussle with the bright facts of the world). Everything is lovely, which sounds like a variation of "always happy" and isn't entirely meant to be. It can be a genuinely uplifting experience, and sometimes movingly so (I thought that Woldgate Woods, a collection of paintings that surround you like a chapel of trees, was particularly effective as an installation). It's a vision of England with the colour-saturation turned up, so that two very early works painted in the Euston Road School style look almost monochrome by contrast. And the glow of the paintings – their generosity of colour – is hard to resist.

Along with Hockney's public persona, as expressed in interview and broadcast appearance, the overwhelming impression is one of artistic delight. He might be grouchy about smoking regulations and mordant about artistic fashion, but he's never lost a kind of glee at the prospect of the world, or got bored with the task of rendering it in paint. When he's painting he is, I'm guessing, a happy man, and that means he sees the world as a happy man does, as all light and no shadow (chiaroscuro is not his thing at all). But it's also an account of the natural world in which cheerfulness seems to exclude all the other things that landscape can contain, besides things to look at. There's not a hint here that a vista can be the stage for a human drama, rather than just another challenge for depiction. Walking round, I overheard someone quoting a Hockney remark to a friend, to the effect that for an artist there's no such thing as bad weather. There is for humans though, and the experience of weathering it is one of the things art can help us to understand. Hockney's latest paintings – even the overcast ones, and the twilights – are as blithe as a sunny day. But you might just find yourself hankering for rain.

Is this a smash hit shooter I see before me?

I don't know how big the Venn intersection is between video-game enthusiasts and fans of Shakespeare, but whatever the size of that crossover they're going to be thrilled with Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes' film of the play. Somebody involved, surely, has been playing Call of Duty. As soon as the battle for Corioli begins fans of the game will get a feeling of déjà-vu, mounting to conviction that they've been here before when they spot the abandoned bus that is a fixed landscape in more than one Call of Duty map. Is this a deliberate reaching-out to a video-game generation? Or an unconscious admission that video games now make the running when it comes to depicting immersive combat? Or just a leakage from one field of creativity to another? To date, the traffic between video games and movies has mostly been from the older artform to the younger one. Spielberg's D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan provided the template for more than one playable version of that event; LA Confidential was a source for L.A. Noire; many Westerns fed into Red Dead Redemption. But a kind of feedback loop has been established, so that part of the charm of Drive, for younger audiences at least, was the sense that Grand Theft Auto had a real-world existence. I look forward to a Midsummer Night's Dream that draws on the rich, oneiric landscape of Super Mario Bros.

How to measure a hard day's art

Art has always had its Stakhanovites and its... well, what is the antonym for Stakhanovite? What I mean is that some creators pride themselves on the long shifts they pull at the word-face or pushing a brush, while others make a virtue out of the brevity of their working day. Gary Hume seems to be one of the latter: "I'm probably creative half an hour a day," he said in a newspaper interview the other day. I say "seems" because he added this: "The rest of the time I'm just doing what's necessary to make that creativity visible." By which he could mean an eight-hour stretch with the gloss paint, or spending an afternoon on the sofa watching Hollyoaks in an "ironical" fashion. Some writers set themselves a target wordage and call it a day when they've reached their quota, however quickly it was reached. Others have a fixed period at the desk and pack up when the hours are done, even if they've only managed a sentence or two. Some artists do nothing but make art. Others (rightly, I think) count all the time they spend thinking about it as part of the working day. But there is no single Artistic Working Hours Directive which governs what counts as a solid day. I can't work out whether I envy this state, in which even dicking around can count as research into the human condition, or feel relieved that I've got simpler ways of telling when the job's done for the day.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
SEEN graffiti Wonder Woman  

Warner Bros’ bold stance on Wonder Woman opens the door for Hollywood evolution

Matthew James

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us