In 1870, says Janan Ganesh in the FT, after 99 days under Prussian siege, the citizens of Paris resorted to eating rats. And cats, for that matter, and stuffed donkey head. And a consommé boiled from the bones of a zoo elephant. But to look at the great art that survived this “living hell”, you’d have no idea. From Degas we have The Dancing Class – some girls rehearsing ballet at the Paris Opéra. From Renoir, a “promenading couple”. A couple of years later, when everyone had had time to really “process the trauma” of occupation, Monet served up a woman sitting among lilacs in Springtime. Rarely has a group of artists passed up a bigger opportunity to “dwell on misery”. And yet, the work of the Impressionists is “eternal”.
These geniuses saw no intrinsic value – “aesthetic, moral, intellectual” – in suffering. “I wonder if our own age is as clear-thinking.” We’re living through a boom in confessional literature, “wall-to-wall psychobabble”, and a prevalent culture of what Martin Amis called “one-downmanship” – a kind of “competitive negativity”. Which is why the new Netflix documentary about Wham! is so worth your time. It serves as a stark warning of how easily “joy is mistaken for emptiness, and suffering for depth”. When the “cheeriest non-manufactured pop act of all time” shot a video in Ibiza, some “dire-looking indie bores” went on telly to deplore the “shallowness” and “crypto-Thatcherite materialism”. Four decades on, it’s clear who was being shallow, “and it wasn’t Wham!” The real lesson of the film, as with the Impressionists, is that there’s nothing subversive about gloom. “You can view the world with some relish without being an airhead.”