Humanity has done Van Gogh no justice. If today his name is at the tip of our tongues almost daily, if we have decorated our homes with his flowers and flowered his auto-portraits in classrooms and exhibitions around the world, we would think that we’ve honored the artist justly; that surely his repertoire of songs for his successors have all been sung; his cautionary tales well told and that now honoring his memory is enough.
Of course, a crash course on Van Gogh, or a few jokes about his ear on shows or sitcoms, would nuance our understanding of an artist who never tasted the glory we so often embellish his name with; a man who died poor and alone.
This is all common knowledge. Despite the haunting context behind his works, we feel no responsibility whenever we cast our eyes deep into the blueness of that darkened sky in his famed Starry Night. In fact, we dare find in the artist’s misery an inspiring motto, a lesson to our art students; even a self-congratulatory nod to ourselves that we are lucky today to be admiring such pieces of art as though all Van Gogh aspired to be was a martyr.
What if, in Van Gogh’s dying wish, he had asked us to hide away…. tear… no, burn all his works? What if, in some divine oracle brought with that lonely church centering Starry Night, he knew what posthumous glory was waiting for him and that instead of resting his eyes with a final smile, he pierced his lips?
Stunned. Cheated. Petrified
As though instead of dying, he was doomed to forever be in some lucid coma and that for centuries he would have to stand witness to the flowering of his art, to the exponential way his name would be more and more uttered, to the unexpected enlargement of his estate and the surreal acquisitions of his works in auctions crowded by the same kinds of folks who never bothered looking twice at him when he was alive. Imagine a poor and shabby Van Gogh bearing witness to all those smiles and cheers and happy tears without ever being able to say what he thought of this mania that he had unwittingly left in his wake.
No. Van Gogh, himself, would not be smiling. Whatever inspiration he brought to your life or to your own art-making, whatever lasting joy his works have kindled in your hearts — it all truly, I suspect, won’t matter to him. Not one bit.
In fact, if the specter of Van Gogh could go back in time, get rid of his stashes of works and risk erasing centuries of artistic refinement and endless moments of small but fulfilling cases of idolatry and inspiration, he would, I imagine, do it without the least bit of hesitation. Take it all away, he would have surely said, take it all fucking away.
Why? Because Van Gogh never asked for a fancy gala dinner in his name or any ritzy testimonial for the date of his death which itself wasn’t so ceremonial. He never wanted to be your idol or the subject of your dissertation or movie or even of this piece I am writing.
Because faced with that foreboding starry night in the last days of his life, the shooting star he was waiting for would not, if it ever had come, fulfilled some new and vain desire for recognition or fame. He would have exhausted that one shot of a wish on neither glory or love — but rather, simply, on bread.
Yes. None of us should be surprised if any artist would substitute a glory they would never taste with a piece of wheat they could indeed place between their teeth.
It is worth wondering what would have been Van Gogh’s fate if he hadn’t struggled economically. Surely he would have lived at least a few more years. At least. Surely whatever insanity we think possessed him at the end of his life — it would have, I suspect, crashed down on him with at least some brief delay.
Perhaps because he would have had more time to paint; instead of wondering incessantly about how many bills he had in his pocket or whether he would be staying in that same apartment an extra month or at best an extra year.
You might be thinking a terrible thought. What if we subtract from Van Gogh the pain and the loneliness and the burden of merely surviving? Would we still find his genius? His morose colors. The frenzied and psychotic way with which he must have slammed his canvas after a bad day. Would they all disappear?
It is not only foolish to the entertain this selfish hypothesis — it is also amnesiac. We forget that our history has been painted by two kinds of artists: the one who did okay; who was wealthy enough or who was backed by some rich patron; and the one who didn’t do so okay; who, like Van Gogh, had to preserve some kind of balance, though often impossible, between what they wanted to do and what they needed to.
Today the picture is not so different. We find genuine and ambitious art students, enrolled in prestigious and expensive MFA programs, working peacefully, or sometimes under their own emotional intake stressfully, in a state-of-the-art studio with incredible facilities, along with other peers with whom they would go out with afterward for a calming pint.
Then you have the struggling artists; those attending, not so much by choice, the school of hard knocks; working double shifts while attending the local community college; going back home to whip up that long-due assignment, rushing to put their younger brother to sleep — only to hope, by the end of the night, to find a modest half-hour to conjure up some kind of art… a brief endeavor that would nevertheless define their whole day because it was an enterprise they genuinely wanted to embark on, rather than a task they had to attend to.
Fast forward and you might find those well-to-do art students holding their first private exhibition, or second, or third, at the gallery of a patron daddy knows well. The struggling artists, on the other hand, would be split into two paths: some might actually make it, somehow becoming enough of an outlier for Hollywood-bound rags-to-riches stories, while others might have dropped their artistic dreams, opted to focus on something else, chose to pursue some more remunerable vocation, which, at best, could still “do the job” of fulfilling them and their craving passions.
Among the latter, some may succeed in moving on and end up finding new ways to sublimate their artistic leanings — perhaps a new hobby, children — or something less burdensome, hitting the gym. But then there are those other folks who may have tried to settle for something else but couldn’t — those who can only sublimate and feel fulfilled if they do get, at the end of the day, at least that half hour of artistic practice.
Take that small pleasure away from them — because the rent is up so they had to be somewhere else in the afternoon and now their younger brother who is no longer so young must be picked up from some far-flung bar in the city — and expect that struggling artist to struggle to the point of no return… or simply put, Van Gogh style.
If it is true that artistic endeavors are no more than manifestations of a drive that demands to be sublimated, then perhaps, when they cannot be sublimated for whatever reason, we ought to expect the artist to go down a dark path.
Yet this simple causation rarely awakens in us any sense of alarm. If we know that some people need to make art, and not merely want it, then why are we more and more focused on those that want to make art, but don’t need it?
I mean those actors-turned-singers, singers-turned-actors, those media influencers that find the idea of creating their own fashion line a cool extra hobby, those athletes that don’t mind penning some kind of memoir, those artists that feel like trying this or trying that simply because their followers on Twitter or their brand in itself allow them to.
What if in this monopoly of arts and crafts, we would cede some room to those who would be satisfied, once again, from no fame or glory, but simply with that piece of bread at the end the day?
That is why Van Gogh is not smiling. He would be horrified if he knew that a movie about him stole the laureates of another person, or at least the few running minutes at a festival that a young struggling artist like himself could have received.
If he could come back to life, I imagine he would be slamming against the wood of his grave, storm into the local library, and empty up those long shelves about his childhood or his secret relationships or his medical history — empty them all up for some other aspiring novelist who will soon drop their passion.
Van Gogh, if we accorded him one last moment of frenzy, perhaps would have exhausted it on the destruction of his own museum… scratching his bit and bloody fingers against the yellow of his flowers, ripping out the eyes of his own portraits and setting to flame that isolated village that only once saw a clear starry night.
I can only assume that Van Gogh would have done all this so he can turn that museum into a free accommodation center for artists that just need that half-hour of alone time at the end of the day.
So please, whenever anyone of us does encounter an auto-portrait of Van Gogh again, we shouldn’t be smiling. In fact, we should be embarrassed to look at him in the eye. Not before we acknowledge the burden we ought to carry on our backs every single day. The burden we owe to the many Van Goghs out there who were never listened to… not once when they were alive, and not even in their wake.