the cult of happiness

This blog entry is surely not going to be a very popular one, and will likely be taken as a defensive posture, but it's been something on my mind lately and since it's not going away, I decided I must say my piece and get it all out. That last phrase, "get it all out" will have some bearing on the words to come, and is at the heart of this blog. We all strive for happiness in life, most of us generally regard the pursuit of happiness to be a basic human right and desire we share in common. I would never say I was contrary to that sentiment or goal, but…

Lately there is a cult mentality forming in the obtuse world of social media which has largely replaced old-fashioned human interaction, and sadly passes for our friendships now. The Cult of Happiness, the Purveyors of Positivity, the Negaters of Negativity. In other words, those that have a zero tolerance policy for anything they perceive to be "negative" or pessimistic. I tend to fall into their radar often, and these are not just casual, online acquaintances, no, some are my friends, some are family members. They criticize anything you post that they perceive to be negative. They offer up advice in replies starting with "you should" or "why don't you…" Unsolicited advice, often.

I see many of my contemporaries doling out the refreshing Kool-Aid of positivity too, as if being a reservoir of good tidings will make people love what you create even more. Perhaps it does, but then, consider your audience, and why they need an idol of happy to warm themselves around. I see people creating art in my genre (for lack of a better term) focusing on their "message" of glad tidings more than their art, and I see their art suffer as a result. This is of course my opinion, and I will never name the names - it's an observation I have had for many months now. I see their desire to be thought of as positive outweigh their focus on their art, and I have to ask why, why is the attainment of "happy person" status more vital to you than your creative work? Who is that serving? Is it all just a marketing strategy? It may well be, and it may be working in the short term, but the more forced your outward appearance becomes, the more it becomes something to maintain, the more your focus is strained away from your art. You are not required to be an inspiration to anyone, and if you are indeed an inspiration to some, it should be as a result of your work, not your words or happy thoughts. Being inspiring should be a by-product, never the goal.

In our modern culture, we see these self-help gurus everywhere: on television, the insipid infomercials, and tome after tome of how to change your life and outlook and level of happiness. it is almost no longer allowed to express any dissension about anything, lest you be branded a malcontent. This puts me in the dubious light of defending negativity, and in a way I am, but only for the sake of rationality, honesty, and reality. But of course, it is also a defensive posture, as I have often been called a Negative Person. This category, this label, is something attached to people by the majority, otherwise known as the bully mentality, and it is no different than terms like happy, jock, ditz, brainiac, nerd, slut, or idiot. By calling someone negative, you are summarizing their entire being into a convenient category, one created by the majority for the convenience of you, the accuser, to organize your life and minimize the randomness.

In terms of art, the demands of the happy produce very little to sink your emotional teeth into. Maybe pretty pictures are okay for some, but I look to art as a reflection of the zeitgeist, the human experience creatively expressed through the changing times and resonating in a fundamental way. Shakespeare, for example, one the most profound writers of our history, produced sonnets, comedies, tragedies, and I am betting that the more popular or more often produced works of his are the tragedies. If you take the cultural phenomenon of "Star Wars" and ask any diehard fans of the first three films which was the best, it would be the second, "The Empire Strikes Back," the tragedy of the trilogy. There were no happy endings in that one, and all the heroes were suffering and darkness was winning. Why are we drawn to the antihero in the arts? Why was "Breaking Bad," "the Sopranos," "the Walking Dead" and even "the Dark Knight" so popular? Why do they endure? Why do they receive such accolades?

Once again, this is my opinion, my take on things, and I say the answer is, well, because tragedy and darkness is the more common experience in the human condition, and happiness is the rarity. Dark art, or tragic art, speaks to our own struggles, our fears, our experiences more than the lighter side of things. We connect to it because it is a shared experience, and in seeing that connection in art - be it visual or song, we feel a deeper connection to the tragedies in our own lives. The Cult of Happiness is around of late because in this epoch of human history we have more free time to ponder, more time to waste, and more time to complain than ever before. It is a luxury, this pursuit of happiness, and many do not have that luxury. Again, I am not opposed to being happy, I just prefer to consider the source of this happiness, and seek the legitimacy of its claim.

Saying you are positive does not make you so. Saying you are happy does not mean you are. Shunning what you perceive to be negative will not eradicate it from your life. Mantras do not work, and cannot be wielded as a talisman against the sadness. I wish it were so, but I am a realist, a pragmatist. I am also an artist, and I think filtering your thoughts is exactly the worst thing you can do to your creative output. We are born into a hostile world. The birthing of a human is pain, the consciousness of the human able to perceive their own mortality is to be afraid, and the crimes both physical and emotional we commit are terrifying. Our history is bloody, our emotions are strong, and we all carry a large amount of stress with us in our lives. How we choose to deal with it is a personal decision, but the role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to society and reflect back creatively how we are.

I choose to examine the darkness in my concepts. I choose to speak of loneliness, the silence of God, the hopes betrayed, the depression I experience. I am a live wire with no insulation - have been since I was a child. It is who I am. But then the Cult looks at my work, my penchant for sarcasm, misinterprets my sense of humor as defeatist, and labels me "negative." What they choose to overlook, or what the strangers in his Cult do not know about me, is that I have a quiet life, have my basic needs met, have a loving partner and a devoted dog, and a fairly satisfying creative life. To say I am happy is not exactly true, but then, those labels of "happy" and "sad," "negative" and "positive" are too simplistic, and I think they are naive. There are things I wish were different, there are things about me I wish I could change. Who doesn't? But this label continues to follow me around, and I decided here to speak to it. You can take your limited information about a person, about me, and reduce it down to a label, or you can examine the whole picture and see what nuances lie beneath.

The truth of the matter is, our need to label someone always speaks more to the person assigning the label than the person they are describing. What you are really saying is "this person is not like me, and I do not like that." It's really that simple. And then you need to peel back another layer and ask yourself "why do you not like that?" What's behind your attractions or aversions? As tempting as it is to reduce things into convenient categories, it's just not very realistic, and batting back the randomness or unseemly in life is only an exercise in futility.

And so here we have social media, where we express our thoughts, share our witticisms, provide our points of view and share things we find funny or disturbing. It is a platform of celebrity wannabes, all of us included, and we have the stage and a potential audience for every post. If you continue this metaphor, you are alone on the stage, a microphone in front of you, and an audience in their seats. What do you say? What do comedians do? Do they express what makes them happy and keeps them satisfied? No, they do not. Comedy is derived from the darker stuff, the stuff we all find maddening, the fights we have, the miscommunications, the push and pull of life. You need to hook your audience, and most of all, you need to be real with them, and not a caricature. You cannot step up to the microphone and list things that make you smile, things that keep you nominal, and only say positive things. That is a different audience, that is an audience looking for answers out of their misery, the self-help flock - exactly the perfect audience for the Cult of Happiness to cater to.

So, for the record, I do not validate the dumb categories in this world, and I refuse to own "negative" or "positive" or any such artificial classifications. You need to term me so, I do not. You need to bat back the darkness, I do not. I am choosing to hold it, to get it out in another form, to hopefully transform it into my art. And you know, in those simplistic terms, I think that is the most "positive" thing you can do with it. As for my sarcasm, it is intended for the audience seeking to be entertained, and if you find my pessimism or "negativity" off-putting, I suggest you may be in the wrong auditorium - the Tony Robbins lecture is in another room. In this room, it's just the truth as I see it, and you might not want to hear it. You don't have to.

As a footnote to all this, recently I saw one of my images shared on another person's wall. The image was shared without the title or the explanatory notes that usually accompany my work, and the comments of the piece shared on another's wall were all decidedly optimistic. The piece I did, at the top of this blog, was about trying for an escape but everything is conspiring against it, and it was certainly a "dark" piece, and yet, depending on who is looking and their own personal outlook, the piece read as optimistic to some. I really loved that - it meant that it was open-ended enough to allow differing interpretations. It meant that for that one image, and therefore me as its creator, I was supplying something optimistic to some, and not only "negative."

03/14/2013
Michael Bilotta