I originally wrote this article in late February 2020. I may as well have written it in 1820. Life seems so, so different now, even from just a few weeks ago. What felt significant or disconcerting then has faded into benign inconsequence. So, with the permission of the lovely Cordelia at TheArtGorgeous, I’ve quickly snuck back into my column to make changes. Necessary additions and subtractions because the mathematics of meaning just doesn’t seem to make much sense anymore. I hope my words – new and old – colour some of the collective mood we’re all feeling, having been forced to swallow these Quaaludes of quarantine. Methaqualone – like self-isolation – has the propensity, of course, to offer wondrous amounts of delight whilst simultaneously scaring the fucking shit out of you.
Let me begin, then, at the beginning again.
Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 anthem to optimism, Don’t Worry Be Happy encourages us all – just like Eric Idle sang in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) – to always look on the bright side of life. McFerrin’s tale of that Pythonesque piece of shit we call life, plagued by eviction, litigation and starvation, comes with a little cure-all for any such woes: “Don’t worry, be happy” because “In every life we have some trouble / But when you worry you make it double.” That’s right, Bobby here preaches from the pulpit of positivism. No matter how little you earn; no matter how hard you work; whether you’re furloughed, fret, frit, fucked or forgotten, you can always turn to Mr. McFerrin and wrap yourself in his silver lining. Don’t worry. Be happy
Well, Bobby, I’m as partial to a fat slice of psychotic optimism as the next sucker but, honey, as Ralph Rugoff’s Venice Biennale reminded us last year, we live in interesting times. Very fucking interesting times. A paraphrase of “May You Live in Interesting Times,” uttered by some British MP in a speech he gave on the eve of the second World War. Itself, an invocation of a Chinese curse and employed in such a thaumaturgical way as to illuminate the shit that was about to hit the fan in late 1930s Europe. “Don’t worry, be happy” wasn’t really going to fly in 1939. Nor does it so today.
I blame the world’s distinct lack of happiness on David Bowie dying on 10 January, 2016. Everything has gone tits up ever since. Prince, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen and Gene Wilder also popped their clogs that year. Even Christmas in 2016 got fucked when George Michael died on Christmas Day. But these deaths were mere appetisers for the two true disasters that came in 2016, at least in my and my husband’s countries of birth. 51.9% of the British electorate voted in a Referendum to leave the EU on 23 June, 2016. A similar cerebral prolapse took place in America on 8 November, 2016 when Donald Trump became the 45th POTUS. Winning with 2, 868, 686 fewer votes than his rival, Hillary Clinton. That’s more people than the population of Latvia, Namibia or Kuwait. Simply mind boggling that a country can call itself a democracy and vote in someone with less votes than their opponent. A lot less.
That Chinese curse wishing us to live in interesting times was a busy little bee in 2016 and, over the past few years, it has stung us often. Britain has flimflammed from one embarrassing Brexit crisis to another with the UK now firmly dressing to the right, with a political caricature of privilege – a right Etonian mess – spearheading a Slytherin government. Likewise, America’s dear leader, who can allegedly grab pussies galore and supposedly rig elections a-many and still not get fired, remains the leader of the ‘free world.’ Whatever that is. I’m not quite sure these days.
As we all welcomed in 2020, hearts full of hope for a new year and decade, we faced a new challenge. One that transcended nation, boundary, identity. One that made Brexit look like a fucking kindergarten nativity play. At this time of (updated) writing COVID-19 has infected over 2.5 million people and killed nearly 200, 000. Society, exchange, experience has become completely paralysed by coronavirus. Normal just doesn’t exist anymore. Flames of fear lick at the feet of billions of us. This virus has alchemically transformed toilet paper and paracetamol into the new gold. It’s shut the shop of life as we know it, incarcerating us all in our little prisons of domesticity, desperate for interaction with anyone. Computers have become the new windows on the world. We now WhatsApp, FaceTime, Zoom away the gloom. Zoom, that magically mechanical masturbatorium, acting as office, concert theatre, pub and sex dungeon. Just not at the same time.
Coronavirus has rather stolen the dark limelight usually reserved for never-ending wars, no-deal Brexits or the atmosphere literally evaporating before our very eyes as Australia or California or anywhere else for that matter in our sadly scarred and scared world burns, helpless and wretched. We’re all burning now, just in a different kind of way, staring at this single bonfire of coronavirus with an effigy of humanity stuck on the top. If anything, our collective focus on the pandemic has separated the wheat from the chaff; the meaningful from the banal. Do you really care about Meghan and Harry? When was the last time you heard the word ‘Kardashian?’
Mr. McFerrin, I’m so sorry to inform you, but your good friend ‘Happy’ has died. ‘E’s passed on; no more; expired and gone to meet ‘is maker (to paraphrase a different Monty Python sketch.) So, where do we find the new Happy? Who do we need to call to resurrect this fondly remembered, much-missed old friend? How does one restore Bobby’s unadulterated joy for life and sew us a brand-new silver lining? Is it alcohol? No, too ‘30s. Is it marijuana? Nah, so ‘60s. Is it cocaine? I may as well dig out my “Huey Lewis and the News” greatest hits album and squeeze my fat ass into my stonewashed skinny jeans and air-guitar around my living room. With a mullet. And a nosebleed.
I’d like to think that we can find our neo-happiness in art, what with me being a gallerist and this article being in an art magazine, ’n all. But art doesn’t fix shit. People fix shit. Art holds up a mirror, offers a lens. It scrutinises, questions, inspires, galvanises. But you still have to look, to listen, to digest the art first. And then get off your ass and actually do something about it. Art doesn’t say “don’t worry, be happy.” Great art speaks of its time; is locked into the narrative of its age, and so should remind us all to be scared. To be very scared today. The bit about doing something about that fear rests with each and every one of us. Sorry, Mr. McFerrin, but I’m currently full of worry, anxiety and trepidation. And I’m kind of OK with that because it reminds me, with each political waffle and flatulence from governments and their leaders, stabbing in the dark to try to rectify this unprecedented disaster we all face, that we have work to do – together and hard – to overcome such constant, nagging, terrifying perturbation. Maybe Edith Wharton hit the nail on its head when suggesting that “If only we’d stop trying to be happy we’d have a pretty good time.” Perhaps we can all start smiling again not if we stop worrying but stop worrying about being happy and start focusing on what’s making us all worry in the fucking first place. The virus. And the shit that came before the virus, whilst we’re at it.
That smile on our faces in April 2020 isn’t because Bobby’s telling us all to just chill the fuck out and take each day as it comes. Even though that’s exactly what I try to do. That smile is like the one the Joker’s father gave him after asking him the question that was, in many ways, Heath Ledger’s immortal line in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). It’s a question we need to ask ourselves again and again to check on what’s right but, more importantly, on what’s wrong. And how to get all Batman about those problems and start fixing shit. It’s the title of this article: “Why so serious?” In February 2020 I wasn’t quite so sure. I am now.
Stay safe. Stay sane. Slap passive on the ass with active. Turn your worry into your mission. And let that mission bring you comfort and joy.
text by Matt Carey-Williams