Normalcy. . . And Beyond
detail image from: Return Of The Vietnam Vets - 1978 painting by B.A. Poulin
Responses to comments made on my postings at times tend to be long-winded, I therefore sometimes reply as a post rather than a simple yay, nay or hmmmm. This is one of those times and I would like to both acknowledge and thank William Beckwith for his comment on my last presentation : D'ja Hear Van Gogh's Crazy. . . Again!
William always makes me think further. And so. . .
It is not the caring observation that William describes so wonderfully in his response to me which bother. Willam Beckwith's presentation of an experience before a van Gogh piece simply and profoundly highlighted the human in the man van Gogh rather than the "sickness". There was empathy rather than sympathy or ogling in the discovery of this artwork's power. And I only wish I could have been there to experience it also.
No, my reflections are rather linked to the morbid interest in the mad van Gogh by those who seek out "the sick guy who painted and shot himself" rather than the artist who created despite his illness. It is also the connections we at times collectively make between mental health issues and creativity - i.e. : that the former is the cause and/or stimulant of the latter, which are upsetting.
Our own little mental health nest?
Being as the “art world” is a small segment of society (presumed to be 2% of the total population - though research is sparse ) is it not odd that we collectively associate (if not emphasize) mental health issues as being part and parcel of the creativity realm? Are we saying : “well, you have “issues” but then, you have a compensation - you’re creative?” or. . . “well, you may have “issues” but then, what do you expect - you’re creative?” So. . . mental health "acceptability" is only a viable topic when associated with the arts? It often seems so as it both differentiates "them" from those who are not artistic while pointing a finger at somewhat questionable (yet tolerated) differences in being within a purported "normal" environment.
But how is it that we shove aside, if not ignore this same issue, (no pun intended) when referring to the rest of the world - those who are not seen as “artistic”? Is it that we consider other spheres of human existence as having no mental health issues or is it that those issues beyond the arts don't really titillate us? Or is it, rather, that these issues frighten us - being that they hit too close to home. . . ?
When an excellent truck driver, a scientist with lauded research discoveries or a loving parent kills themselves, we don’t associate their achievements or lack thereof with the suicide but rather speak of their accomplishments as after-thoughts - asides about which we know little and which therefore are not seen as relevant to the consequences of the illness which afflicted them.
In the arts we immediately create a link. Is it because most of us who are not artistic perceive creative action as an impossible magical exercise - if not a devil worshiping one? Is it because the door of “artwork creation” is always slightly ajar - teasing us. . . at best dangerously welcoming. . . at worst “allowing us” a peeping tom look into an “eccentric” world most of us fail to understand? Or is it that we who are in the arts consider our little world to be oh so special that we can be and do whatever we say because we can get away with saying we can?
In Dr Judith Schlesinger’s book : The Insanity Hoax, she clearly references this dichotomy of perception in that we speak of the artistic crazies (whilst giggling even) but fail to recognize that the issue of mental health is a universal phenomenon which does not hold artists more dearly within the folds of its cape than it does others. And despite an increased public awareness re : mental health, we still cringe at associating “those things” with “us” and rather continue to speak of mental health only insomuch as it relates to others. Are we keeping a “healthy” distance from this still unknown yet ”say we know more about it” state? Or is it, possibly, that we who need to be perceived as “normal” are not as up-to-date on these matters of import as we say we are.
The perfect normal
Normal is what most of us purport to be. Yet, normal is nothing more than what there is the most of. So then why is this the state in which most of us want to be? Well, it's the “good to-be-in" state. . . Right?
But then why is normal so boring to most of us that it constantly needs to be enhanced or compensated for? Why does the state of normalcy require its adherents to consistently search out the rationally impossible “perfection” as its zenith? Is it not evident that the quest for perfection has two great failings : (1) : It’s an impossible to achieve goal. And (2) : If perfection was a plausible accomplishment, there would actually be nothing beyond it worth pursuing other than death.
Perfection implies having accomplished everything, in the only and therefore best way possible and therefore nothing more can be accomplished since we are now "perfect". Ergo, the next step? Death. But in our societies, death and its "normal" precursor "growing old" are verboten. They are "things" we most heartily and “crazily” try to avoid as they imply demise - and that is a sorely feared thing. Now, if that is not abnormal as a baseline for normality, then what is?
But then, with death being fearsome we do try to compensate by looking at more "insanely realistic" (?!) goals. . . : i.e. : “to be seen to be as perfect as possible”. . . Sigh!. . . Long live the elimination of wrinkles, flab and motivational speakers. . .
But, as the goals of perfection and being seen to be - along with their concomitant “being seen to be normal” - remain the ultimate (though impossible and restrictive) achievements, I guess normal is as normal does. None of these goals allow for discrepancies, self-bettering or any other accomplishments. In essence, normal is as falsely elitist as it gets, perfection as domineering as sanity purportedly allows and nothing actually is worth pursuing or even exists beyond either perfection or the quest to be seen to be.(So there! Harrumph!)
Our insane view of sanity variances
So restrictive are these 2 existence elements (perfection and normal) that it is rather odd that this pair would allow for the perception of insanity (a generically defined negative) as having a somewhat tangential link with creativity (a perceived "somewhat" positive).
How ironic that normalcy would hold such a seemingly unstable view - in light of its consideration of perfection being the ultimate quest. Does a recognition of "acceptable abnormalities" not open the gates to insanity now being perceived as nothing more than an all-encompassing title for an indescribably long list of degrees of variance? (Horrors!) And in this sanity/insanity variance display are not all of our own “states of being” listed along its continuum. . . “somewhere”? (even greater gasps of horror?!).
And if that is so. . . would fitting somewhere along such a sanity scale of variances therefore not be a positive? Would it not be a more healthy state of perception and being than the euphemistically called “normal” - whose sole battle appears to be that of maintaining stasis at all costs? Are we not all, in one form or another, sanity challenged - and this on a daily, if not hourly basis? If so. then why the ghoulish obsessions with the so-called disturbances "in others" - especially those who are "higher ups" than we? Are we afraid of the ever sneaky "pointing finger of fate"?
The paradox of OK and not OK
Normality has always been a collective (read : “acceptable”) arena of functionality. It is the bar by which we (morally?) define the (with it) solidity of our governmental, corporate and social structures. By normal we mean that anything else (then what there is the most of) is oddball if not crazy and at our most "paranoic" : dangerous. In other words, we tend to classify and codify in order that the great majority (us?) is always (despite acceptable variances) perceived to be “OK” (on top) and therefore can control that which threatens us : i.e. : what isn’t OK. As for those "left-overs" in our societies who fail to pass the OK test. . . Well. . . Their “states” will always be debatable by those who have a strangle-hold on what is “normal” or OK and who have the power to establish how these not-OK people are to be handled. And that is good. . . Right?
The abnormality of that which is normal
Out of generosity (!) on the part of those in authority - (we are civilized societies aren't we?) - creatives have grudgingly been deemed to be “acceptably abnormal” as members of our societies - despite the fact their individual creative quests remain at odds with the seeking or the being seen to be of perfection - the single-minded goal of normality.
Creatives believe in "achievability", not impossibility. Theirs is never a goal of perfection, of being the best, but rather of being the best that it is possible to be today. While tomorrow is simply a future timeline during which a new door opens - one which allows "all creative people" the freedom and challenge to better their yesterday’s best - despite the hordes surrounding them who seek perfection - often through ads and the taking in of marketing ploys rather than the wisdoms of the likes of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, of Maureen Jennings, et al.
Consequently, despite perceived eccentricities, maybe creatives "amongst us" aren't all that crazy. Rather than defeat themselves through discouragement and an existence who's only goal is foiling death, they reach beyond to that which consistently opens the door to more rather than less - to a better life through a never ending search for excellence. And so, would this not mean that perfection seekers, the normals of this world, are at a much higher risk level of insanity then creatives?
In this light, van Gogh would have to be a very highly rated sane individual, despite his mental health issues. His goal was never to copy (render perfect) that which he could not create but to create every new day the best reflection of the perfect wonders of visible compositions he encountered daily. In essence, his need was never to be perfect but to "perfect" himself, his "seeing".
As painters we may be on a more intense acreage of the bell curve that all of us straddle. But this does not make us more crazy and therefore more creative; or creative therefore more insane. It simply explains the varied levels of passion eccentricity requires in order to strive to be the best we can be despite all odds.
That being said, it cannot be denied that our sane-insanity may have “asides”. . . i.e. : overtones which, like cancerous cells, may cause havoc with the healthy elements feeding our need to better ourselves each and every day. But then, does this not imply the wondrousness of the unknown, of the challenges, of the possibilities which allow us to stand firm against the odds threatening our well being and our ability to “function despite”? And does this not confirm, rather than deny the healthy aspect existence of our wondrous yet "imperfect" immune systems in both our bodies and our minds?
Basically, being human means being that imperfect, that much incredibly and beautifully flawed - that much of an unknown. And that in turn possibly means that our definitions of normal are also seriously and eerily flawed.
In essence, we are all astride this curvature of the unexplainable. Some of us on the edge of numbing boredom, others on the razor’s edge of a passionate need to discover, explore and express. And so, degrees of normality are nothing if not simply degrees of sanity at one end of a “being” spectrum with extremes of insanity at the other. And with time and experience and fate and happenstance, all of us never-endingly slide up and down that bell curve we inhabit; being positive, being negative, being creative, being not, being sane and insane.
And through the acceptance of what is, and the ebb and flow of it, it suddenly becomes possible to find within our worlds the greatest of all attributes of the greatest of all states of being that can be : the mystery of our own personal “uniqueness” - that seemingly frightening thing which makes us "us" and, which at times upsets others, whilst keeping us on our toes.
In essence, we are all in and of the same box of “chocolits”. What type of chocolit are each of us individually? Well. . . The world all on its own will decide one day. . . Probably when we are no longer around to have a say.
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait
"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.
Bernard Poulin. . . I paint, I draw, I write