Monday, 11 January 2010

Death by advertising - why we hate happiness.

How did we get from Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' in 1824 to Anthony Burgess' 'A Clockwork Orange' in 1962? Times have certainly changed. It's fair assumption that any work with a cheerful title these days will actually be saturated with irony, and if entitled 'The joy of living', will probably be about someone's painful death. The classic example of this is Todd Solondz's 'Happiness', in which the lives of the protagonists include anything BUT happiness.
So from where did this cynicism arise? Have we become more skeptical of happiness because we are so inundated in this day and age with report after report of human brutality and despair - need I even mention Africa? But then earlier generations saw perpetual war, disease, disaster and genocide and did not seem to have the thirst for miserable art as we do. I mean to say, could you imagine living through the Blitz and still wanting depressing art? Perhaps we crave depictions of unhappiness because, in contrast, we are actually bombarded with incessant images of happiness. Often these images are seen in celeb culture and are frustratingly unrealistic; they leave the world with a sense of deep dissatisfaction. (Do I sound like a bitter, jealous, chocolate lover who's days of size 10 are long gone? It's because I am) Could it be that there is too much happiness (or at least the illusion of happiness) in our world today? Advertising is almost exclusively dedicated to the unobtainable. The exercise and health craze is practically a religion (I think to New Yorkers it literally is). Has anybody spotted the correlation though? The rise of 'unhappy art' has risen at almost exactly the same rate as the emergence of advertising and mass media that attacks our senses with images of perfection and joy. Commercial culture and celeb culture hold out not just an ideal but an ideology and, of course, with the great Gods such as 'Brangelina', and 'Heat' etc being such advocates for them, of course we're hooked... it's killing us though. Our frustration at being such light years away from the images of beauty we see has created a new faith - Cynicism.

Earlier generations were surrounded by images of sadness and despair, if we take Dickens at his word anyway. Life was hard; they worked hard, died young and we're constantly fearful of incurring the wrath of God and of being morally screwed over. The last thing they needed was for their art to remind them of the misery of daily life. Today we see nothing but images of beautiful homes, barbie-esque models, infallible celebrities, and dreamlike holidays. Mass media is surely OD-ing on the 'Be Happy!!'. With such frighteningly unrealistic ideals of perfection - isn't frustration, dissatisfaction and misery an inevitable kick against that pressure? THAT is why we crave artistic depictions of misery.

On the one hand, the news makes us more aware than ever of the atrocities and disasters that are occurring all around the world today, and on the other, we are being force-fed images of flawlessness (who else hates airbrushing?) and sublime happiness. Therefore, when it pops up in our art, how can anything 'happy' be considered as anything else but hopelessly fake?

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