On a winter's afternoon in London this week, hundreds of drizzle-dampened visitors tramped through the Royal Academy of Arts to look at pictures of the English countryside splashed out in splendid Technicolor. No trace of recession, riots or tabloid racketeering in these vast and stately galleries, just canvases the size of squash courts depicting the ebullient variation of nature's ever-changing seasons. The artist, of course, is David Hockney, and most of the people who've come to see him are (judging by the abundance of white hair and foreign accents floating around the place) retired art lovers on holiday.
The show is the city's hottest ticket of the year thus far, with attendance expected to beat last year's blockbuster show by a little-known Dutch painter named van Gogh.
Once a Pop Art renegade, today Hockey is generally regarded as a national treasure, one who's recently laid claim to the title of "greatest living British painter" since the death of Lucian Freud. The public loves him. The critics, not so much. Generally speaking, they wish he'd go away and let his "early stuff" speak for itself. The British press has described the exhibition as "overblown and corpulent" (The Evening Standard), "garrulous, gaudy and repetitive" (The Observer) and "the sorts of landscapes that we expect from amateur Sunday painters" (The Telegraph).
Why are they all so cranky? Not because Hockney's work is controversial, but because it's not controversial enough. As one young critic recently put it, the works of the 74-year-old painter are generally perceived as "too polite and unthinkingly happy … if they offer a vision of Arcadia, it is a mindless one."
I may sound like a young fogey for saying it, but I thunderingly disagree. What's wrong with celebrating art that's technically proficient and openly pleasure-giving? His vision of the Yorkshire countryside in dazzlingly dreamlike colour is balm to my sun-starved expat soul. Give me these landscapes over dour postmodern minimalism any day.
Hockney is unrepentantly populist, but then so is his art-superstar rival Damien Hirst – now also showing his series of mass-produced "spot paintings" in London's Gagosian and in the gallery's 10 other locations around the world. Hockney made headlines earlier this month when he implicitly criticized Hirst for using assistants, pointing out that his own works were all "made by the artist himself, personally." And while the senior artist did sound a bit of a tiresome old crank for saying so, he does have a point: Today, Hirst's work feels sucked dry of humanity or relevance, while Hockney's – uneven as it is – still fizzes with exuberance for beauty, for nature, for life.
If Hockney has taken a drubbing for the wrong reasons, he's being championed on other grounds. Since returning to his native England in 2004 (after four decades in sunny, seasonless California), he's suddenly been taken up by social conservatives hoping to use his popularity and stalwart commitment to landscape painting as proof positive that political conservatism is the answer to beleaguered Britain's problems. "David Hockney did not return to Britain after a long stay in the United States because he had been told that David Cameron would be the next British prime minister, but his arrival here nevertheless says something very important about the national direction of travel," Peter Oborne wrote in the Daily Telegraph last week. "Appearance and reality are no longer identical. Good and bad are no longer indistinguishable. The Royal Academy matters more than Tate Modern."
Similarly, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, committed liberal commentators such as the historian Simon Schama and actor/writer Stephen Fry have lately taken to slagging Britain's other great recent cultural export: The quaint TV period drama Downton Abbey, which recently took home the Golden Globe for best miniseries. What could possibly be politically offensive about a bunch of charismatic actors swishing around a manor house saying things like, "Your quarrel is with my daughter and not me, so put that in your pipe and smoke it!" Well just about everything, according to Fry, who recently tweeted that hearing nice things about the series made him want to "puke," and Schama, who wrote in Newsweek that a lingering "Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs" from childhood prevents him from having any patience for the innocent American (and indeed Canadian) love of the classic English country-house drama.
Hockney (like Downton Abbey) evidently represents something quite different to his countrymen than he does to those of us from the other side of the pond. While abroad he's rightly recognized as a genius and an iconoclast, in Britain, he's a former renegade-turned-sacred cow, returned home to enjoy the spoils of fame. The local critics might be suspicious of Hockney's work as a consequence but that won't stop the tourists from pouring in to enjoy it. Hockney certainly won't be the first artist misunderstood in his homeland, nor will he be the last. But he's the only one who can make my heart burst with an image of a hawthorn bush in bloom. And for this young fogey, that's actually saying something.