Painter sees red: Is David Hockney the grumpiest man in Britain?

The smoking ban, 'hair-shirted' talk of climate change and now a government threat to criminalise drawings of naked children: the artist is disgusted by them all. By Andy McSmith

Thursday 05 June 2008 00:00 BST

David Hockney is over 70 years old, and very angry. With the passing of the years, the Sixties working-class wonder boy has metamorphosed into a very cross pensioner. That he is Britain's greatest living artist might be disputed by Lucian Freud devotees and others, but surely he, and no one else, holds the title of Britain's Grumpiest Artist.

This is too bad for Gordon Brown. With his radical background, libertarian views and general disrespect for authority, Hockney might seem like a natural Labour voter. But yesterday he made it clear that he is not any more. "I detest the cultural vandalism that contaminates New Labour," he pronounced. "I hope they go – and soon."

That is another vote lost for the Government, and it appears that the minister responsible is Maria Eagle, at the Ministry of Justice, who has alarmed many of the people who care for the right to free expression with a proposal she announced last week to deal with computer-generated pornography.

Ms Eagle had been urged by children's charities to close a loophole in the law which allowed some American paedophiles to avoid punishment by claiming the pictures of child abuse they had been watching were not genuine, but had been computer generated. Fearing that British paedophiles might slip through the same loophole, Ms Eagle proposed that anti-pornography laws would be extended to cover drawings and cartoons.

To Hockney, this was a step too far. Not long ago he was in a house where there were three rooms filled with hundreds of pictures of naked children, and a large number of naked adults. It was Burghley House in Stamford, home to a large collection of works by Antonio Verrio, painted between 1688 and 1698.

Mrs Eagle insists that the new law would never be used to ban legitimate works of art such as that, but Hockney, who is not one to take the good intentions of politicians on trust, does not believe her. He has accused the Government of "moving into very dangerous territory".

"The suggestion that drawings of children should now be prosecuted is mind-blowing in its ignorance," he said in a letter to a newspaper. "I am out of step with the mean spirit of the age."

This then joins the long list of things that make Hockney furious, such as the nanny state, the shallowness of the age, ugly language, the BBC, iPods – because they are creating a generation that listens but does not look – ecologists and, most of all, the ban on smoking.

Some of the world's finest artists were lifelong smokers, he will happily point out, including Picasso, Matisse, Monet and Turner. Hockney does not smoke while he is painting because he needs his hands free, but when he steps back to take stock of his work, he lights up. And when the Government announced its proposed smoking ban in pubs and clubs, Hockney turned up at Labour's annual conference to lead a protest funded by the tobacco companies. "Death awaits you whether you smoke or not," he proclaimed. "Pubs are not health clubs. People go to drown their sorrows. We could save a lot more lives if we refuse to serve alcohol, you could argue. This is ridiculous. It's bossy."

Bossiness is one of Hockney's pet dislikes. He has a slogan: End Bossiness Soon – "soon" because he thinks "now" would sound bossy. "People should start standing up for themselves," he says. "Where has the awkward squad gone?"

Another bugbear is Mr Brown – "a dreary atheistic Calvinistic prig, who I'm sure will never be elected in England. He goes along with a 'health lobby' whose view of life itself I detest."

He is also outraged by the severe penalties for marijuana use. Marijuana, he said in a letter to The Spectator, "is a harmless and pleasant plant that, like a couple of cocktails, makes you feel relaxed and, unlike them, quiet."

He added: "Why is the stuff still illegal? I assume it's the power of the alcohol lobby being behind most things. Alcohol has damaged and killed friends of mine, but I've never known anyone harmed by the weed, whose relaxing pleasure I have enjoyed for 40 years."

Then there is the "health lobby" – guilty, in Hockney's eyes, of using statistics to take the joy out of people's lives. He told one interviewer who had the temerity to raise the subject of climate change: "Oh no. Here's another hair-shirt person coming towards me and telling me to ride a bicycle. I blame computers. They can make predictive models of anything, and tell us we're all heading towards doom. But in our grandparents' day, what do you think people were worrying about? Hellfire and eternal damnation caused by our bad conduct. Global warming has just replaced God. Something to feel guilty about. The new religion."

Near his home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, there is an old Wesleyan chapel. "Now it's a skincare centre," he told the London Evening Standard. "At least when they built it, they cared about souls. Now it's all about wrinkles. What kind of shallow age do we live in?"

In the early Sixties, Hockney seemed to be part of the emerging generation of young radicals, but then he went to America, where he found a livelier gay scene, and met Andy Warhol. As his work became more naturalistic and less "modern", it seemed Hockney was not angry, and was loving life in Los Angeles. Coming back to England seemed to put him in a bad mood.

He was offered a knighthood in 1990 and turned it down – but was furious when the information leaked out, particularly as he had since accepted being made a Companion of Honour. He told the local paper in Bradford: "I don't value prizes of any sort. I value my friends. Prizes of any sort are a bit suspect. I turned it down because at the time I was living in America... but in the end I changed my mind because you have to be gracious."

He added: "If people declined an honour that is their private decision and it should stay that way. People should be able to decide without it being all over the papers. I think it is terrible. There is too much self-hatred in England."

As he watched the turmoil that overcame Labour in the last months of Tony Blair's leadership, Hockney told the BBC's Andrew Marr that it reminded him of the closing lines of the poem When the Watchman Saw the Light by the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy:

We won't be deceived

By words such as Indispensable, Unique and Great.

Someone else indispensable, unique and great

Can always be found at a moment's notice.

As the nation's foremost grumpy old artist, David Hockney is great, unique and indispensable.

Six sulky rivals...

Bob Geldof

Once he was a rocker who went into music to "get laid", then he saw images of famine and wanted to feed the world. Now he is a middle-aged man living with his girlfriend, moaning about the devaluation of domestic life, and blaming the soap opera culture for a high divorce rate.

Alan Sugar

"I don't know who Gordon Brown is," he wrote in 1992, complaining about how his "meagre" salary of £170,000 a year would be hit by tax if Labour was elected. Now his salary is not so meagre, he knows Brown, but as anyone watching The Apprentice knows, his temper has not improved.

Jack Dee

They say that off stage he is pleasant and cheerful, but the persona he has shown the public is unrelentingly gloomy. He hated being on Big Brother so much that he tried to escape – so the audience voted him the winner.

Ann Widdecombe

As a Tory minister, she is remembered for defending the policy of taking pregnant women prisoners to hospital in handcuffs. As an agony aunt, she has offered advice like: "What is the big deal here? Get a life?" Infidelity, abortion, fox hunting, or women priests – she disapproves.

Martin Amis

His bad-tempered father, Kingsley, wrote some pretty unkind things about him, so perhaps he cannot be blamed for the bile that seems to grip in late middle age, particularly his fury at liberal commentators' "failure to identify Islamism as dangerous" and their invention of the word Islamophobia.

Lily Allen

Some say "feisty" is the word for Lily the pink, but her tirade against the NME, which put her only third on its Cool List, her threat to boycott the Brits and her complaints about the paparazzi make her sound like she is destined to be a very grumpy old lady.

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