Have they ever met? What an odd couple they would make. Definitely the life and soul of anyone’s imaginary dinner party. Decades apart and operating in totally different mediums yet with so much to say to one another. This is what I was thinking about as I followed my mother around ‘Love Life’, the exhibition of Hockney’s line drawings from 1963 – 1977 currently at the Holburne Museum in Bath. It’s a brilliant way to spend a few hours and I really do recommend it for anyone in need of an easy day trip from London or Oxford. The exhibition is named for Hockney’s irrepressible zest for life and ability to find and translate beauty wherever he went. This is the precise ability I find reflected in Zadie Smith’s enlightening essay writing. The two of them have been reappearing ever since, bumping into each other in the vacant parts of my mind left tranquil by the long vac. At this point in my adult life particularly, I need to hear what this odd collage of these two brilliant artists have to say.  

Hockney’s drawings are clear and deceptively simple. Detail is sparse. Generally, there is no colour, no line indicating repeated sketching, no shadow. Minimal background. Bare strokes of perspective. The subject is all: accentuated without explanation or apology. Asleep on the bed (Peter Feeling Rough, 1967), sketching on the sofa (Christopher Scott Making a Neat Drawing, 1970) here he is, alone on the page (and in this exhibition, it is always a he that is the subject of this type of drawing, which are in my view his best type of drawing. The few women that appear adopt more conventional frames of portraiture, looking at the subject with faces marked by coloured pencil and detailed shading). This is the drawing, beautiful and intriguing precisely as it is. It needs nothing else, and it wants for nothing else. It is enough. In fact, in the exhibition this idea is well expressed via W. H Auden, whose portrait by Hockney is also included:

To me art’s subject is the human clay 
Landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cezanne’s apples I would give away
For a small Goya or a Daumier. 
(‘Letter to Lord Byron’ – from Letters from Iceland, 1937)

Zadie Smith also  believes in this approach to art that centres around human  interest. Her essays are marked by the silhouettes of engaging characters. Sometimes eccentric neighbours (“The funny thing about Barbara is she has a little dog whom she insists is a well-behaved dog, who, in reality, either barks or tries to bite pretty much anyone who comes near – except Barabara” from  ‘A Woman With A Little Dog’ in  her 2020 collection Imitations) or subway stragglers, other times her parents or children. Most often herself. 

Yet the more profound similarity between her essays and Hockney’s drawings is not necessarily the foregrounded individual themselves but the way in which the individual is foregrounded. Like Hockney’s calm, precise, unfaltering, and unfussy line, Smith’s prose is unapologetic and unguarded about what it chooses to focus on. The reclining young men that populate many (the majority?) of Hockney’s drawings without self-consciousness or justification mirror the everyday subjects of Smith’s essays which are painted with the same certainty. Both of their art in their different mediums speaks loud and clear to its audience. It says: “This subject is art, and it is art although it possesses no inherent qualification to be so. It is beautiful and worthy of attention because I say that it is.” 

Anything may be art, the potential for artistic creation is limitless. Stop waiting for some invisible intractable intellectual judgement to legitimise your choices. Create with what you have to hand, and love life. When put  like that it all seems pretty obvious. But this is a time in my life where I have been consumed with a personal – although I suspect widely shared – anxiety about exam results and job searches. Late nights and frantic mornings, stressed about my ability to justify myself and objectively quantify my ability to perform and prove my suitability for professional positions. I have needed to hear what Hockney and Smith evidently figured out long ago: there is art in beauty in all things, and you need not hide behind anything to point it out. You are endowed with the authority to make it wonderful and interesting because you say that it is. It is enough to pick up a pen or turn to your laptop and say: This is what I have to say. That is enough. That is enough.