Detail - The Censor / La censure - Graphite - 28" x 12" - 1984 - Private Collection
In the 21st century, we cannot get enough of heroic victimhood. It seems to enhance the sharing we do on Facebook with our stranger-friends. - a meting out which, at times, appears to be more tantalizing than our daily fare of anniversaries and accomplishments. But If social media is our new forum for the sharing of pain and sadness, among pics of kitties and kids, we are nonetheless selective : a bit of our own mental health issues and a lot of that of others. And the victims we most love to hate and hate to love appear to be those we consider "above" our station - i.e. : those who tend to be seen to be "more" than we are.
A reflection of this evident "obsession du jour", is the infatuated romanticizing of the mental health of “creatives”. How is it that the lives of movie stars, painters and writers so fascinate us? Is it part of our contemporary love-hate relationship with the “elitist” cohort - those who shine - and, in so doing, make us feel small because they are, (in our minds, at least), so much bigger - which triggers either extreme left or right "idées fixes" in their regard?
A prime example of our disproportionate interest in the lives and foibles of the notorious are the numerous headline grabbing online discussions, readings, videos and now recent movies on Van Gogh. In their quest to illuminate, they all show a tendency to mainly focus on his "disturbances" - what with his ear slicing flirtations and his "surely", "must have been", "possibly and probably was" suicide. Add to this a rusty gun's been found and displayed in a museum as "most probably" THE gun. . . And we now know his purported bar-maid girl-friend's name and the "kid's" name who "may or may not" have shot him in the field where he was painting.
That being said. . . Is there a hint in the wind that we consumer's have had our fill with Vincent? Is it all getting a bit stale? After so many years regaling in his popularity, are we tiring of him? Seems so. . . Public reactions to the latest offerings are slim. Maybe, as with Doritos regular, we're bored and need a new and improved spicy brand. . .
In essence, we now know more of nothing about Vincent Van Gogh than we did before we got all hot and bothered with his mental health issues eons ago. Had we remained entranced with his artworks rather than his sliced ear, possibly we would have learned of compassion and empathy rather than sympathizing and identifying. Possibly we would have discovered the wondrousness of his soothing colours and the calming effects of his landscape compositions and the inspiring pathos of feelings he displayed in his human subjects. Possibly we could have integrated within our own souls the strengths inherent in Vincent Van Gogh's actual "beingness" : achievement despite the pain. Possibly we would have learned more of the heroic combatant that he was than so much innuendo about the submissive sufferer that he purportedly was.
But then, maybe we prefer our illusions, our romantic notions to the truth. Focusing on what was known to be and are real : his genius in paint and story-telling - would only lead us to shockingly surmise that he might have been saner than we are - more prone to fighting his demons than submitting to them. What Vincent did best was paint. And through his paintings he told the truth both about himself and of the world. But then, such considerations are not entertainment fodder. And so we've preferred eviscerating most of him, And now, with so very little left to stab at, we move on, it seems.
So, where to now?
Instant gratification times demand instant gratification variations. . . On the heels of our increasingly lessening interest in Van Gogh, conveniently rises yet another (even greater?) bad boy. His name is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio - and to his multi-million new friends that we all will be soon, he's simply called : Caravaggio. His artwork is super powerful and was considered shocking in its time. It's even spotlit in its precocious presentation of reality. The drama within is blatantly in our face and the compositions and subjects earthy and even crass to those habituated to the saccharin holiness and purity of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
We definitely could learn to hate to love Caravaggio for sure! . . Why? Because this new attraction on the titillation horizon has secrets and behaviours not in keeping with a painter of spiritual symbolism and religiosity. His is a mercurial connection with the world. He's perfect as a Van Gogh romantic hero replacement. He seems to have been more strong willed, more deliberate in his actions. His life teamed with sin and suffering. He was a self-serving aggressive figure - a subject for both reviling and admiration. And so, as a new and improved obsession, he fits the mold to a T.
New side-show freaks must always provide an increased tension, an exponential component to them in order to fill the space left vacant by a former fixation.
Caravaggio is known to have been a murderous hot head, was he not? Yet, he painted oh so sensually! Did he also kill sensually? Did one provoke the other? Did he paint to arouse or was his work his own arousal mechanism? Ooooh! Titillating! . . .
Tell us more! No, no, no! Not about his paintings!!! (We've seen one, we've seen them all!) What of his "tendencies"!
Let's make him (at least for now) our latest victim of "maybes", "possiblys", "could bes" and mythical circumstances and propensities. Why not? He's just another dead man from far off times and places to denigrate for our discussing pleasure?. . . Oh my! He had a really rough childhood too!!!!!!. That is such a fun beginning!!! And so it is as articles begin appearing in "art mags" and online blogs :
More savage than Caravaggio: the woman who took revenge in oil - Jonathan Jones - 05- 10-16 - The Guardian
Caravaggio's ‘assassin’ finally revealed four centuries after his mysterious death at 38
Published time: 20 Sep, 2018 - RT
Renaissance Master Caravaggio Didn't Die of Syphilis, but of Sepsis - By Laura Geggel - September 28, 2018 - Live Science
Sometimes our fascinations say more about us than about those at whom we point a finger. And so, I repeat, Caravaggio, is fast becoming "our novelty du jour". Oddly, with imaginations easily gone wild as our world is wont to do, it's a wonder most of us are not the renowned anointed "artists" and these poor schmucks we dig into the recalcitrant nobodies.
That being said. . . Caravaggio, so it is recorded, was brought to trial more than 11 times (mostly for silly stuff). But then who cares. He actually got arrested!!!! We like that. John Ruskin, the art critic - sounding like one of us, sneered at Caravaggio's "vulgarity, dullness, and impiety". He stabbed at him with impunity only 200 or so years after Caravaggio's death. How daring! How sad he was without the wide-afield capacities of Facebook! Fast forward into the 21st century. . . :
"Not a month goes by without a sensational discovery about Caravaggio appearing in yet another headline." (The Art Tribune - Didier Rykner, 2010)
And so the story "grows".
A field of intrigue, discredit and envy
In the arts, it is the "fate" of those who dare be "in it" to be celebrated in the beginning of one century, and not a decade after, be castigated. Limited "lovability" in the visual arts is par for the course. Ironically, this more often than not occurs as a result of the unpredictability of our ever "newer and improved" populist hate-love contentions and not because of the quality of an artist's work. But then, amateurs investigating "this one's" propensity to blow up, that one's gender-bending, that other's inversions or his/her anti-social behaviour doesn't help matters in the area of objective "historic" considerations.
Ironically, it's not the paradox of the likes of Caravaggio which should intrigue us but rather the miracle of the enigmas and mesmerizing compositions in the artworks presented by him and the likes of him. But then, again, who cares about artworks after discovering the juicy bits?
The value of disassociation - the creator is not the artwork
When “visiting” a painter, I personally need to comfortably disassociate myself form his/her creator persona. I want the man/woman to step away - to let me read the book before me in peace, to scan the painting, to feel the sculpture without interference. I want the work to be “served up” on a silver platter- alone in all its want-to-be lusciousness and glory. That is a viewer's role - to receive artwork and to be mesmerized by it, or not.
But for that to be, artwork must be “mature” - ripe, ready for the tasting. Professionals are aware of this. They know that beyond the last brush stroke they have nothing else to say - though they may want to. But at that point in the game, the only role a creator has is to be the silent servant, the "bowing to a viewer and 2 step back” presenter of artwork to be scrutinized for its ultimate gift of "art" - if art be within at all. In the end, it is always up to the completed work to start the conversation by simply standing before the critical eye of an observer - where silence and nothing more emanating from a product presented is an assured death knell.
The fading of notoriety
Why would I even need to consider the creator of an artwork when I am scanning for the mystery hopefully to be found within a newly created artwork? Hell. If I want superficial thrills; if I need gawk at the artist more than I need look at his/her work, I should take a tour of homes in Hollywood and get my envious voyeur kicks there amidst a busload of "likes" (no pun intended).
Basically, an artist's role (if one is lucky enough to reach such a status in a contemporary arena filled mainly with visual art technicians) is grandiose but fleeting. Success is not in the doing (except for the practitioner). For the rest of us, it's in the "fact" of all of that creative élan - the "product" of it. And for an ever more limited fewer, the essence within it which calls out to us - the art emerging from that product which seeks to speak, to reach out, to touch and move us.
But then, that discovery is after the fact of conceptualization and process. Beyond that, notoriety stands (maybe) shines (possibly) and fades (always). And those in the field know it. Their role, despite it all, is simply to create, nothing more. And if history and social media are kind, those makers of artworks may "eventually" be recalled from their imposed purgatory and, just maybe, remembered as the wondrous enigma magicians of timeless time that they should always have been considered to be from day one.
But what about me, the all important viewer?
As a viewer and appreciator of artwork it isn't in my purview to tell others what they should do, could do, might do, possibly can do sitting before an artwork's possibilities. I can only say what I do.
As an amateur (in the classical sense of the word), I want to see the paint and texture and composition and design and the whole structure of the piece. I want to discover the composition through its blending of elements. In the end, the artwork must be open to telling me the story it has been created to tell - be it representational, abstract or non-representational. I want the painting to speak and the creator of it to shut up. In that position of “exigeance” I may rediscover the author - or not. Therein lies the possibility of knowing the essence of the creative soul of the artist; the cells making up his/her genius. But I don’t want to see those cells physically, mentally or emotionally human in my mind’s eye. They must be part of the mystery of the creation I am taking in, or they are not. I want to see the mastery, the miracle, the enigma in/of the work, not the foibles which cause populist inflections such as : “How in hell can this type of crazy guy do this type of wondrous work?”
In essence, we don’t have to like or to understand the personality or persona of a painter in order to be mesmerized or to be awed by their work. It's a bit like acting. The best acting is done by those who in the process of presenting their character - disappear. They become the character who obliterates the act of acting - since, at this point, the character's exponential presence annuls the presence of the artist. . . THAT is acting, that is painting, that is sculpting and dance and writing and singing. All we should want to see in artwork before us is the statement made, a presentation of itself in all of its blatant nude, glorious, sensual, aggressive and/or gentle powers. Creating is the art of a process which elevates a virtual reality to reality. Creating is a concept come to life as a mystery, an enigma. Art therefore is felt. It is sensual, not logical. It is tactile, appealing to the gut. As artwork is the product - the vessel, Art is the contained mystery to be revealed from within.
Speak, or forever. . . .
That it SPEAK is what I want form artwork - to tell me that it is worthy of bearing the “art” which (if it is there) will emerge to mesmerize me. Yet, for this to be, we must accept that Art is an extreme rarity - no matter that we call everything art today. Art, as a consequence of excellence and enigma, is the greatest symbol of man's capacity to shine and, as such, it is therefore above and beyond the person creating the work from which it may emerge and the "made container" in which it can be found.
For example, The most recent adaptation of Madama Butterfly was recently presented at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Expecting nothing special (it being a contemporary version of the original), the discovery of it was stunning, astonishing, overwhelming. What a wondrous production! Did I want to know who designed the set, the costumes and the adapted story line? Yes! Did I want to dissect their personas? No! I got what I wanted: the awe-inspiring nature of the beast - the artwork become art. If tears are any matter of proof, they flowed freely.
In essence, I have never stood before artwork wanting it to be less than it is - i.e. : yet another of the billions of “artworks” out there - efforts striving so intensely to be more than simply paint and canvas, stone, wood, dance, music or sketch. In the end, some make it. Some don’t. But by that time of discovery or non-discovery, the artist (if he or she is so) is already back in the studio creating yet another "stab" at a statement - because an artist never tries to outshine the vessel from which art may emerge or the art that eventually does. And an artist never assumes, never presumes that everything he or she "makes" is art.
But what of the wondrousness of the heart and soul and mental angst and emotional status in being an artist?
For all intents and purposes (and I am repeating myself) I don’t give a sweet damn what the mental health issues were/are of a painter - or what their perceived flaws purportedly are - or posthumously are deemed to have been. Artworks - as they relate to the visual arts universal mandate of sharing - are created despite pain and suffering and not because of it - Their purposeful possibilities lie in the "to be shared with the world" universal mandate we impose upon ourselves in that realm.
(Note: This does not preclude the value of art therapy wherein individuals create artworks for their own personal needs - where they are speaking to themselves therapeutically and not to the world. This is a highly legitimate and valued healing practice. But even art therapy is not always limited to a sole purpose - wherein the message conveyed may not only be a healing consideration for the "self". When artwork reaches beyond the self in a display of universal therapeutic messaging, it is no longer only therapeutic - it takes on a perspective which reaches beyond the pain and suffering expressed in a single soul and renders itself open to the understanding of that ache as universal. In essence, some art therapy expressions, due to the talented intervention of their creator, are of value not only to the individual but to the world. Prime examples of personal angst of universal consequence works are those of Munch and Egon Schiele - among others.)
Insinuations vs analysis
But to link an "insinuated flaw" or mental health issue as muse or catalyst to genius is ludicrous. There is a sober difference between the perception that someone is "a mentally unhealthy artist" and an artist who happens to suffer from mental health issues. The former predetermines the artwork created is dependent on the issues themselves and the latter despite those issues.
Reading Dr. Judith Schlesinger's well documented book: "The Insanity Hoax" is to become seriously informed and less emotional and reaction-laden on this misleading assumption of "mad artistry". Dr. Schlesinger's latest presentation at a symposium of experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (2016) was so well received that the final determination re Van Gogh's mental heath was certainly in part based on her research. The finding? : Van Gogh was NOT crazy! Despite emotional cries to the heavens by some who need him to be so, experts at a 2016 symposium at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam determined otherwise. A good read summary is available at this address :
Demon speculations and determinations
In Venice, my wife and I spent 4 and a half hours visiting with Tintoretto, Bosch and Veronese masterpieces. We so enjoyed our visit, we forgot about ourselves, about time, about the purported personalities of the creators and only focused on the creative genius before us, which - when not interfered with via our own thoughts on the artist, was most evident and not in need of redefining, explaining or revisioning. Why? Because the evidence of what was there before us was enough to open the door to whatever it was of the artist that either of us needed to know. The rest, if pretending to be of any concern, related more to an errant need to pry than to any truth or fact.
What needs be universal is that creators "make" despite and not because of their supposed blemishes. And if this be so. . . What, then, becomes the purpose of our arousals at discussing someone else's demons?
If a logical sociological and/or psychological premise is that all of us are, in one form or another, flawed" what is the purpose of populist speculation on an individual's "pointed at zits" other than to "bring those individuals back "down" to "our level" of feeling lesser?
When someone offers up the best they can be today and that best seems to be over and above any best possible anywhere else at that time - this is enough to know about a creator and even of the world. If we knew what it was to be an artist we would know that the maker never competes with his/her creation for attention. Only a fool would do that.
Artwork becomes art when the artist takes 2 steps back to allow the creation to speak on its own - to independently do what it was created to do : reach out and touch and move and take viewers in. There is no more “knowing” than that required when it comes to a creator of artworks. If we need more, we are either historians on the take for a story or voyeurs in need of a populist fix. Only we can determine the facts of that statement.
Generalized narcissism in need of a fix
Contemporary narcissism has fixated us on Van Gogh’s mental health - not Van Gogh the man and even less the phenomenal incredibleness of his artwork - from which so much ART has emerged - and this from the soul of one individual. No. . . From awe-inspiring creator of wondrously bright and engaging images, he has become for our century nothing more than "a thing", a side-show subject bandied about in an era of nothingness wishing itself to be something - and finding no other solution than to belittle in order to rise up from the muck we so often wallow in.
And because he became a fixation, we lost "him" and his genius in the process - as we will eventually lose Caravaggio. When we begin to see artworks as nothing more than results of expressed turmoil - rather than a powerful stance against the demons that assailed their creator, we are the ones who fail in our status as human beings. Fixating on Vincent the depressive became a lucrative industry which turned this brave man (admittedly with issues) into a side-show freak. Ours will be remembered as the time which ripped from him his essence - the genius of it - the genius of him. And this for the simple purpose of meeting the needs of our own obsessions and the reality TV drama we believe to be "the very truth" of our own lives?
In summary, I can only ask myself 2 questions: Is our interest in artists of the ilk of Van Gogh and Caravaggio simply a craving to have those who succeed served up on an altar of sacrifice - for their daring to be great? Or/And. . . Is our incessant scrutiny of their mental health a reflection of the denials we hold up before our own mirrors?
Bernard Poulin. . . I paint, I draw, I write