Twee sentimental postcard voted most popular in the world; for good reasons

Claude Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, 1899, the world’s most popular postcard

To the frustration of many sophisticated people, the postcard of Claude Monet’s pretty and sweet Japanese footbridge, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has topped a survey of the world’s best selling art postcards on sale in museums in thirty countries.

This isn’t surprising. People love cheerful, pleasant and pretty art: art that shows meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes and smiling children. This is often deeply troubling to people of taste and intelligence. The love of prettiness seems like a low and ‘bad’ response. What about the starving people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? What about unemployment, carbon emissions and tax evasion? Are people just stupid?

The worry is that prettiness might numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices around us.

But, far from taking too rosy and sentimental a view of life, most of the time, we suffer from excessive gloom. We are only too aware of the problems and injustices of the world – it is just that we feel debilitatingly small and weak in the face of them. Rarely are today’s problems created by people taking too sunny a view of things; it is because the troubles of the world are so continually brought to our attention that we stand in need of tools which can preserve our more hopeful dispositions.

The worry is that the fondness for this kind of art is a delusion: those who love pretty gardens are in danger of forgetting the actual conditions of life, which (as readers of the news know) include war, disease and political error and immorality. Audiences need art constantly to remind them of this kind of material, sophisticated types will propose, or they might end up deluded as to what life is actually like.

But this is to locate the problem in completely the wrong place. For most of us, the greatest risk we face is not complacency; few of us are likely to forget the evils of existence. The real risk is that we are going to fall into fury, depression and despair; the danger is that we will definitively lose all hope in the human project.

It is this kind of despair that art is well suited to correct and that explains the well-founded popular enthusiasm for prettiness. Flowers in spring, blue skies, children running on the beach…these are the visual symbols of hope. Cheerfulness is an achievement and hope is something to celebrate. Let’s keep buying that postcard.