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3 June 2022

Forget irony, I have discovered earnestness – and it is wonderful

My tendency towards glibness did not protect me from the madness of Covid. What helped, instead, was art.

By Marie Le Conte

My problem with art was always that you had to take it seriously. I liked the idea of it, went to galleries once in a while, but struggled with the self-importance of it all. To counter this, I behaved like a child; I went to museums and tried to find the ugliest baby Jesus on display, took pictures of bare buttocks and sniggered.

If asked about my tastes, I would deflect by quoting Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock. “As we all know,” I would say, “the horse is one of only three appropriate subjects for a painting, along with ships with sails and men holding up swords while staring off into the distance.”

Then something changed. I am not sure how or when it happened; all I know is that I have become the sort of person I used to loathe. I will walk into art galleries if I have ten minutes to spare during the day and I will quietly look around. I will gaze at the contemporary art I used to mock, at abstract shapes and splotches of colour, and I will not dismiss it. Instead I will stop and think about it: think about the feelings it elicits in me, and what the artist may have had in mind when making it.

It is mortifying. This is not the sort of person I ever wanted to become. I mean, I grew up online; sarcasm and irony were all I knew for a very long time. For most of my formative years, being sincere was the single worst thing you could do on the internet. Earnestly enjoying things just wasn’t the done thing. To make matters worse, I moved to Britain as a teenager – Brits don’t do sincerity. You mock your friends and they mock you; feelings are concealed and any hint of pretentiousness can and will be rightly derided.

Oh how I have changed. The other week, I took a poetry book with me to the park and read, poem after poem, by myself. Admitting this feels about as comfortable as willingly scratching your nails on a chalkboard.

Still, I am enjoying it. It feels novel and oddly refreshing. After all, we are not living in the brightest of times: the cost-of-living crisis is out of control, a recession may be around the corner, and climate change is already ruining the lives of millions. It is hard to read the news and feel even vaguely optimistic.

We cannot even seek solace in the recent past. It has been under six months since the last coronavirus variant threw the country into chaos. The pandemic is mostly over, but the anxiety hasn’t abated quite yet.

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Of course, one way to deal with the unrelenting bleakness could be to embrace callous nihilism, to make fun of everything because, ugh, nothing matters anyway. It is a natural impulse, and one I have leaned into in the past. Being a sarcastic arsehole isn’t just easy, it’s fun too.

Or at least it was for a while. I worry it would just feel a bit flimsy these days. We are still figuring out the ways in which the lockdowns changed us and, in my case, I think I learned that not taking anything seriously will only get you so far. Not everything can be dealt with by laughing and sneering. In the end, my tendency towards glibness did not protect me from the madness and loneliness of those pandemic months.

What helped, if only for a little while, was picking up pencils and a notepad and drawing again, for the first time since I was a child. I am, for the avoidance of doubt, an appalling artist; my drawings could be used as a how-not-to in GCSE classes. That didn’t really matter. I was not drawing for anyone but myself, and I found the process soothing.

Making art requires taking both the project and your own intentions seriously. What you create may end up being joyous or silly, but you will only get there if you engage with it earnestly. It isn’t always enjoyable – reckoning with your feelings rarely is – but it really is liberating.

Though I put the pencils down once the world reopened, I unexpectedly found myself reaching for my paintbrushes the other week, on a quiet night in. I made an unremarkable little painting and, the next day, I posted it to Instagram. When once I would have been far too self-conscious to be this sincere on social media, this came quite naturally: I made something imperfect but which made me happy, and I shared it with my friends.

It is a very small thing to have done, in the grand scheme of things, but it felt important to me. I was never someone who engaged seriously with the world but I do not think I want to be that person anymore. Life is too short to coat everything in a layer of irony, lest you get mocked or hurt. It is nice to care about things; it is nice to go into galleries and look at things that people made because they cared. It is mortifying sometimes but I think I can live with that, you know? I think I can live with that.

[See also: Why can’t the UK get over its hatred of London?]

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