:"On the Verge of Insanity. Van Gogh and his Illness"
Exhibition - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam - From15 July 2016 Up until 25 September 2016
"On The Verge of Insanity” What an insulting title for a “research exhibition” purporting to be about the life of a visual art genius. What is it that is so enticing about promoting a supposed link between creativity and insanity? Is it that we are trying to prove we are “better than” - i.e. : not “insane” like van Gogh? Is it, conversely that we are, but god forbid someone else finds out? Are we really as enlightened as we pretend to be? Are we really interested in being concretely embedded in a learning process which would render us more knowledgeable, more understanding and more appreciative of the varying degrees of capacity, of functioning and dysfunctionalities we all must deal with in our daily lives? Or are we simply side-show freak aficionados?
What is it in this dead man’s manifesto of “being nuts” that makes peeping goons of us all? Is it that he is dead and therefore “safe to play with”; so dead he isn’t able to take that ear cutting razor to our rather ghoulish psyches; so dead he can’t deny us the pleasure of believing whatever it is we choose to believe, and this, without requiring facts to bolster our oh so contemporary contentions?
We were once passionate about the incredible creativity of this man. Today, the tide has turned. I guess we all have to kill off our heroes lest they remind us we possibly, maybe, might be just as “crazy” as they purportedly are. In essence, we simply need van Gogh to be “mad”. . . Quite an enlightened mental health footing to be standing on. That “need”. . . What an enlightened research project that would be!
But why am I so irritated? Everyone knows that Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear! Really? Not true!. Everyone has been “told” he did. And everyone believes what they are told by those who just as intensely "cross their heart and hope to die" tell us they speak the truth. And anyway. . . It’s easier to go along and get along than have to “think” and even argue about what is factual and what is not.
With van Gogh passed away so very long ago, his work remains but, it seems, his “story” remains even more so. And with him long gone, we're free to romanticize, manipulate and conjure - all without corroborating evidence or proof that anything we “sing about” is true. And why would we bother to study any available facts further anyway? He was obviously crazy, wasn’t he?
Details do tend to get in the way. . . And so, it’s a lot easier to deal with “who’s its and what’s its” like : Did he chop off a chunk? A whole ear? A tiny bit? A big bit? Anything at all? Did someone else chop it off? Better go with self-mutilation. That’s “in” right now and sells a lot more t-shirts.
In the end, it is the "expert" cohorts who have led us astray - the least honest by promoting lies, the most honest by not delving into a situation which merited clarity - if only for the respect van Gogh was and is due. But such is not what has been nor is it yet to be. When contemporary scientific research acceptably incorporates more the concepts of “maybe”, “possibly”, “might have been”, “could have been”, “it is said” and the ubiquitous “hmmm, I think. . . ” what we get, in the end, is propaganda, manipulation, emoting - generally for product promotion purposes, drama and entertainment - along with all the benefits of enticing a paying audience. . .
Now, what is not in contention is that an ear was sliced. What is in contention is that the letter of Docteur Rey, being presented in this new exhibition “for the first time ever!!!! Come one, come all!!! provides evidence in that regard. Docteur Félix Rey’s report does no such thing. Dated the 18th of August 1930, it is a rather ironic note in the present circumstances. The most poignant and relevant comments made by the doctor are not obsessively related to the “ear event” as one would expect. Rather, the missive is a very human and not medically based plea. Loosely translated, it reads : “I would hope that “you” (the reader) would not miss the importance in these matters - and that is the celebration (as it deserves to be) of the genius of this remarkable painter.” To whom Docteur Rey addressed these words is not clear through the display of this artifact in the exhibition. No related references are made - either pre or post statement. In essence, this letter provides nothing but titillation.
The fact remains that interest in (obsession with?) the minutiae of van Gogh’s life is rather disturbing. It reminds us of our times. . . that, as individuals and collectives we too often remain at the low ebb of humanity : side-show freak (reality TV) aficionados. Our interest in others is far too often associated with their incapacities, weaknesses, frailties, foibles and failures rather than their extra-ordinariness or even ordinariness. We are attracted, or so it seems, to what makes others “weaker or lesser” (than we?) - lest the cravings for attention we so desperately try to hide impale us with the self-esteem issues we so ardently are fixated with today.
When did we lose our capacity to appreciate greatness and especially that which exists DESPITE a superlative creator’s mental health issues? Have we ever been able to recognize another’s striving and thriving without being envious or jealous? Maybe that would make a more substantive research project than one which, once again, highlights our ongoing madness fixations re : van Gogh. But then, we’re not dead. . . And we might not like being probed by our "oh so imperfect peers”.
Sadly creativity, celebrated as a concomitant adjunct (now that is repetitive!!!) of madness or disability, is a growing “trend”. It has become so prevalent in the visual arts today, that some even promote themselves (first) as having a disability - either physical or mental - before promoting the work they do “despite” that disability. It seems some of us would rather receive pity than understanding, support and encouragement. Or is it that we seek our artwork to be considered of a higher caliber through associating it with our inherent or "adopted for the purpose" eccentricities.
Where mental health issues should be considered seriously and recognized through a looking glass of compassion and empathy, there seems to be a growing preference for manipulation over truth, profit over self-respect. By constantly harping on the mental health issues of van Gogh we inevitably belittle creativity, talent and lives fully given over to a passionate search for excellence. Even worse, we belittle those who suffer from mental health issues which are seriously real. In light of these wonderings, and within these parameters, is it that we are “putting in their place”; humbling those whom we see as so much more? Or are we egoistically elevating ourselves to a level that we do not deserve? That’s another research project which would well be worth the undertaking.
Coming back to the “On The Verge Of Insanity” hoax. . . (Ooops!) show. . . a book is being launched for the occasion. It is written by Ms Bernadette Murphy, an amateur historian and first time author. In an interview she states :
“There’s something semi religious to the way he offers a part of his body to repair a part of her body,” Ms. Murphy said at a preview of the exhibition. “She had a nasty scar on her body, and it’s as if he’s giving her fresh flesh.”
Would Ms Murphy please stand and deliver : What are her qualifications to utter such religiosity nonsense, Such utterances are more in keeping with sensation and ignorance than fact? What is it with us that we prefer peeping through a hole in the wall that we ourselves have inserted rather than stand in the open learning about what is or is not fact in the mental health arena. How is it that research and science have become no more than an assuming and a following up with anything and everything that serves to bolster the “veracity” of our emoting “spiritual” proclamations"? For such an enlightened era we are definitely showing ourselves to be seriously wanting. . .
Ms Nienke Bakker, curator of this exhibition, also adds to the insensitivity of this “ghoulish show and tell” by pointing out that apart from 25 artworks, it will present “other objects” like a corroded revolver that van Gogh MAY have used to kill himself when he APPARENTLY (not factually) committed suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Is this the fodder upon which respected historians, scientists and researchers base their conclusions? Or are we dealing, once again, with lowest common denominator titillation “à la Barnum and Bailey”? Ms. Bakker further adds (based on what “she thinks”) such insight as : this was the “delirious, unconscious behavior that became characteristic of van Gogh’s series of mental breakdowns”. Has Ms Bakker a degree in either psychology or psychiatry? If not. . . Should one, not recognized as professional in the psychological arena, refrain from making such nonsensical statements that only an amateur could spew forth without recrimination?
Ms. Bakker further adds :“The three most frequently asked questions are: What happened with his ear? What kind of illness did he have? and, Why did he commit suicide?”
One would think that a legitimate curator would have directed questioners, ringing their hands with glee, to the fine works of the artist who’s only goal was to celebrate the wonders of life and light, not the ghoulish implications of a side-show freak enhanced death.
Steven Naifeh, an American historian and author, puts the final nail in this coffin of idiocy when he states that after giving this show the benefit of the doubt he could only conclude that the “proof” offered up by this reality TV display (surely in search of increased numbers of museum visitors) is neither new nor is it credible.”
If the goal of this exhibition is “not” to link the artwork to van Gogh’s mental state but rather to make clear that he was struggling to work despite a debilitating illness, its intentions and concept fail miserably. To realize such an intent would have been more honestly and less creepily accomplished by creating yet another exhibition focused on van Gogh’s incredible work - work which has never ceased to base itself on one wish and one wish only : and that was to highlight the wondrous extra ordinariness of the world before him. . . and us.
And, crazy as he was, van Gogh simply persisted in this quest to celebrate life and light “despite” his greatest obstacle : the fact that most of his “sane people” audience failed and continues to fail to grasp the obvious, the real and the wondrous.
This post is dedicated to a loyal reader who recently admonished me for laughing at a recent other post.
Ashes To Ashes - A response to a LinkedIn article entitled : The Burning Question of the Starving Artists - Nov 25, 2015Read Now
Whether by motivation or arousal (!), so-called starving artists (I must beg to differ) do not create "art". Whether starving or otherwise, with or without training, with or without talent, individuals are universally creative. But at best, most of us create "artworks" whose legitimate lofty goal is to say something, to share something with others. Some, from the very beginning simply want to speak to themselves - thus the concept of art therapy is born. Others have a deep compulsion to go beyond themselves, to give their creations the tools to speak on their own. In some rare occurrences, that happens. Some artworks do become more special than others. They exude far more than the generalized norm when, on their own, they "say" something mesmerizing or enigmatic, unexplainable, but nonetheless incredibly enticing. And that is when "art" happens. . .
Artwork may attract or repel but on its own - without further assistance from its creator - it may, when it is excellent, touch and move the world. When artwork is at this level, we know it to be "art" and we know it emerges over and above the physical created elements of it. In essence, art is what artwork becomes when it exudes an aura of wondrousness. For the goal of artwork is always to be, to become "art". But because that essence so rarely emerges, few artworks - despite the billions created daily - achieve that goal.
As for Ramit Sethi. I am not a fan. His views are much too generalized in that he perceives the ultimate goal in life as making money and everyone trying to do so as being the same. We’re all a homogenized package of “wanna-be richers” rather than individuals to motivational speakers . In a consumer-based environment, that may be a legitimate perception. But to be quoted as saying that “artists. . . are constantly adopting worthless beliefs. . . .” is a rather belittling attitude toward a segment of readers who just happen to help him make his money. Under what category does this motivational comment fall in the quest to make his clients richer? Discouragement or encouragement? From this citation, I presume he sees this segment of the population as rather faulty elements in the process of distribution and consumerism. Basically, it is implied that “artists” are lacking in what it takes to disperse their product lines.
Yes. In the marketplace (whether we like it or not) our names are nothing more than a brand. In the studio we may be Joe ordinary wishing to create the ultimate in “the art of” painting or Mary extraordinary wishing to sculpt the finest essence of curves and angles. But, when we step away from this idyllic setting and enter the marketplace we, as Ford and Chrysler, are just another brand. But before that brand can have value, the product itself must not only be worthy of being branded but also prove itself to be over and above that sense of “self-aggrandizement" that branding sometimes conjures. Despite all contemporary considerations, or Mr Sethi’s speeches, the selling of artworks has more to do with the product than its inventor - at least until that creator is anointed with a special recognition of "greaterness". But then, as with artists, and art. . . greaterness is a rather rare thing and therefore hardly fits standard branding and or marketing principles.
That being said. In order to market a product, it must first and foremost be marketable, have an interested audience and have a price tag that fits the needs, wants (or illusions) of those who would wish the purchased artwork to be “valuable" art. In essence, we have to get over the marketing of ourselves as being more important than, or at the core of, the sellable product itself. That we, as painters or sculptors, are eccentric, outlandish, dreamy or boringly ordinary matters not - we are not the product. The quality of our work is not us. It is the drawing, painting or sculpture - the artwork presented which is of value. . . or not..
In marketing, no matter the number, the power or the repetition of ads, the flamboyance of websites or the presentation and/or promotions by galleries and art mags, nothing sells unless, at first presentation, the artwork is “attractive”; it lures and has the wherewithal to hold onto “them” (potential purchasers) even after they have left the displaying premises.
As for neuro-science affirmations and dissertations, any definition of reality in the arts is rarely "academic" though it is often a question of logic. Actually, the basics are : I want to be an artist. But, whether I become one or not doesn't depend on my wishes and dreams but rather on my abilities to create something which says more than its physical presence. In this, those who wish, need to or actually do see themselves as artists often delude themselves. Wanting to be something more than we are not is wishful thinking and rarely fulfills itself beyond our dreaming. In essence, what we do with what we have is not often art - whether worthy of the attentions of others or not. But here's the rub. This very fact does not mean that our creations have no value. But, like glass, that perceived value must be tempered in order that it (we) not shatter at the realization that chances are rare that our work will ever be perceived as great "art" or that we will ever be identified with the likes of Warhol, Michelangelo, Pollock, Tiepolo, Cassatt, Monet or any other "brand name" of historic renown.
Nevertheless, most artwork created is not hogwash. Some of it is recognizably horrid but much of it is rather acceptable. Some even reaches level that even the creator never expected. But art, as in “‘art” and not artwork, remains hard to find. Overall, reality dictates that our creativity is what we should concretely celebrate - not “being” an artist. In contemporary terms, “I am an artist” has become a rather speculative, if not vapid statement. Actually, what most of us do serves the purpose of soothing the savage beast within - and that is a most noble purpose - if not a grandiose one.
Despite all that has been said above and in the previous posting entitled : The Burning Question of Starving Artists, today is no more nor less a bad time for those who would be artists - except for the illusion that we all are, simply because we say we are. And because we say we are "starving" (often-times with a glint of pride in our eyes) the very thing becomes a quality of life manipulation rather than a decision made to not be “ordinary” - i.e. : getting a job like everybody else. Starving has nothing to do with or without “art”. It has to do with our compunction to believe that a so-called “artist” needs to not work at anything “else” lest he or she be seen to be less than what they want to “be”. Because so many of us continue to espouse the illusion that the 19th century bohemian artist ideal is still (if ever it was) a reality, we maintain the accompanying false premise that this makes us “passionate” (special?) rather than obstinate - and for some even obsessive.
Today’s artist would best study more the efforts and determinations of those who came before the 19th century- those who were of the working class and who sought to receive recognition not for themselves but for their work - for what they did rather than for who they were. In the beginning, these creative laborers” were students, apprentices and workers in ateliers. They were eventually hired out as assistants and then possibly, maybe, hopefully, with time and honed skill, owners of their own studios where clients would commission works they wished to have identified with their names. For these individuals who earned the title of artist, life had little room for illusion. Theirs was a world of long hours of work which eventually qualified them to be seen to be the uniquely creative independent painters and sculptors that they were. Today, we want it all when we want it all and often redefine the world's parameters to meet our needs whether they fit in with reality or not. And that is often our downfall.
My father’s first reaction to me announcing at 9 years old that I would be a portrait painter was a deep sigh. . . accompanied by a discouraged : “My eldest son wants to starve for a living.” Like many others of that time, he saw the arts as an increasingly vapid environment filled with non-working individuals crying out to be looked at and appreciated for who they were rather than what they accomplished. He was partly right. Nonetheless, the impression of that concocted reality, right or wrong, is still with us. And so, if creativity stands for anything today, it is left to us in this 21st century to get beyond the ill-founded perceptions - i.e. : It's time to get back to work.
The beautiful word amateur once meant : “lover of”. Over time, it has evolved from its original French, Italian and Latin origins to becoming a generic belittling reference. Once, it highlighted a recognition of and respect for "appreciators" of one thing or another (whether professional or not). Now, it is often used with sneering emphasis to describe those who do not earn their living whilst doing this or that - or for that matter appreciating this or that. Today, amateur defines someone who is more or less (usually considered “lesser”) an “ugh!” hobbyist; nothing more. It is often how the least talented or skilled in an area of self expression are defined. But this nomenclature has its greatest negative inference and impact when used by those who have a desperate need to NOT be associated with these “lesser” amateurs.
Real artists could care less about someone painting on velvet or using “magic white”. Amateurs, as an “other defined” contemporary phenomenon are not a threatening lot. They draw and paint and smile. No arrogance there. It is those who take it upon themselves to point out their “amateurism” who most “clearly” assert that these lessers do not fit into “our” self anointed realm of visual arts superiority.
Why is this? Why, as purported artists, are we so upset about being associated with all the amateurs out there? Possibly because they remind us of worker bees - of those who toil, labour, “work” for a living. I would assume that we in the visual arts see them as production without angst or vision bees - those who do for pay what they are told. They work hard 5 days a week in jobs they dislike or maybe even hate - and all this for that one day in the future when they will retire to a life of leisure and maybe, just maybe, paint their way into the sunset, whilst being satisfied to sell their artistic wares at church fairs. . . . So where’s the threat?
It doesn’t seem to lie in their dreams but rather in their everyday identified lives - their work lives - that which they do in order to achieve what they wish to achieve - whatever the cost. In essence, what bothers us (it seems) is that they (amateurs) are associated with us and us with them. And “we” (the royal we) do not like this one bit. They are amateurs. Nothing else. We, on the other hand, are artists (which is more)! They “willingly” work at jobs they hate. And even some of us (gasp) must do so also. . . but we downplay that aspect of our lives by emphasizing to everyone within earshot that we are more. . . That we are actually bona fide artists. Though to eat, pay rent, survive, we work at stuff we hate to do we nonetheless need to be seen as “better than” the otherness of lowly labourers. We are artists. And our need to be seen as such is often crucial to our well being.
This should not be perceived as unexpected in an era which thrives (especially commercially) on self-esteem issues. Add to this the most prolific phrase of the past century in western democracies : “Thank God it’s Friday!” and if it wasn’t for “happy hours”, we’d all be on the streets protesting “woe is me”.
Despising having to work and having to be seen to be a “worker” has been normalized. We’ve been raised to be more than that! (Harrumph!) Democracies have become so comfortable in being democratic, we’ve become oddly demeaned by the very idea of labour, by the very concept of its existence, its demands and (most especially) by the time "wasted" doing it. We’ve even lost interest in the idea of making our workload better, more productive, more efficient, more pride inducing. We fail to see such effort as creative enough. Work is work is work and nothing can make it other than what it is, or so it seems.
In the mid to late 20th century we killed industrial colleges, considering them lesser places of learning, whilst elevating and growing universities like prized rose gardens. This was not so much because more and more students needed to go to university to meet the needs of the contemporary job market as it was to differentiate between a “higher learning” graduate and a lesser college or “trade school” graduate. Trade schools reminded too many of us that we were not what the advertisers were promoting - smart, sassy and technologically academic. Attending university became a priority for those who were so inclined and for those who saw themselves as lesser if they did not.
No one ever says, these days, they are saving money for their grandchildren to become whatever it is “they want” to become. No. They say (in saving for education insurance ads ) : “I’m putting money away for my grandson’s university. . .” We've been sold and we now sell our kids on the idea that if they don't have a university diploma they are lesser, more ordinary; i.e. : nothing special. . . God forbid that today someone would proudly admit to being a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter or the “best PC repairman in the county”! Never mind that many of these professions are usually chosen because the student loves the trade in which they wish to become proficient. . .
In essence, we’ve lost sight of the fact that a university education, in the true sense of the word, is not about jobs and work but rather about learning and expanding one’s mind. It is not about acquiring skill sets but rather “mind” sets. And so. . . Why are they not therefore for everyone at any time in their lives, from young to old age? Isn’t learning from birth to death not the most precious gift to a living being?
That being said. In these purportedly more enlightened times, few of us end up choosing work we would "oh so love to do". Why?
Possibly for 3 reasons :
1) - The"jobs" we may like might not pay enough to keep us in the lifestyle to which (since childhood) we have become accustomed.
2) - The jobs we go to fail to stimulate us or make us feel proud.
3) - And last but not least, we are a consumer society, consuming ourselves to the nth degree of consumption. We need to fill the jobs out there, as dictated by our society, doing whatever in order to successfully navigate within the parameters of this pre-determined and rather static environment. Never mind the anti status quo considerations of creativity
Work, therefore, has become a negative - a forced upon us ill. . . necessary to feed and house us and fulfill our needs and most especially our manufactured wants. And this we do to the final day we are “pensioned off”. As such, daily work is generically perceived to be an annoyance. It wastes all the time we wish we could spend doing those things we love to do as. . . well. . . “amateurs”. We love sports (watching more than doing), games (playing), drinking and eating (lots) and playing with our ipads, ipods and our ever evolving game boys - aggressing virtual worlds found in our online war games. Not much creativity compensation there. But frustrations do have to be let out, Eh?
Nonetheless, some of us actually do other things such as - oh my God!!! - sculpt and paint!!! And therein lie "those people", those we sneeringly point to as the dreaded “amateurs” - Sunday painters and carvers; free time “artists”; those who are so commonly and irritatingly associated with us - the “real artists”.
But then, what is being an artist?
Being one today, is not as it was in the 14th to the late 18th century - i,e, : more a commissioned labourer than a self-perceived visionary. But with time, much like the word “amateur”, the title “artist” has been re-moulded and “re”formed by us and our contemporary democratic expectations. Once the definition of a master painter to now what is more commonly known as : anyone who says they are.
Today, the title does not so much define professionalism as it does connote rebelliousness, a “pooh-poohing” reaction to the status quo, a freedom of expression bathed in an environment of art for art’s sake. As such, the calling of oneself an artist (often despite giggles to the contrary) has garnered for itself an elevated status of devil may care - of an “Oh my gawd, look what he just did, thought, uttered, created”!
Since the 19th century, painters and sculptors (who forget that Impressionist mentors were learned men and women, well on their way to becoming painter labourers of their time) have introduced the concept of eschewing regulations and authority; defying traditions, rules, laws and anything else a citizenry associates with its own perceptions of "labour" (i.e. : drudgery). At its best, art for art's sake has given us many great painters and sculptors and at its worst an appropriation of and an entitlement to the status of "artist" - as if it had ever been up for grabs.
Being an artist is “now” seen as what one is when one either has the gall to do nothing or the wherewithal to be seen to be an expert in a field of contemporary collective indefinability - for example : "I am an artist because I say I am. My world is separate from, and even more important than, the world of those who know nothing of this specialized environment of mine." And this is possible because, in our times, the status of "artist" is one which can either be deserved or not, formally acquired or not, proven valid or not - or bestowed or absconded with. No matter. As everyone has the freedom (licence?) to call themselves an artist and their creations art, in the end what we often get is neither art nor an artist. In essence, we have simply arrived at another moment in time when, once again, the emperor has no clothes.
Ironically, as a title - a status - the credibility of the word "artist" has been as damaged as the word amateur. Both have, over time, been seriously diminished and/or denigrated. With no recognizable skill sets required or regulation body to monitor such a nondescript profession as artist, the validity of it becomes questionable within the environments from which it stems and professes itself “different”. Concomitantly, with a title no longer associated with the need for excellence in the creation process, the reality and value of it as a status no longer exists - at least as it once did.
But then, as craving the title "artist" seems to be about “being” rather than doing; being something different, being something "more special" - something which says that we do not (like everyone else) hate what we do (and therefore hate what we are). . . maybe that is the enigma solved. The only question left would be : Is it an equal need or is it a "greater-than" need to NOT be seen as an amateur, as an “ordinary” lesser person? Tomorrow's social history and psychology books will tell. :)
I am a painter and writer who's whole life has been influenced by one precept : "thinking each our own thoughts makes us relevant and relevance makes us powerful."