General 10-23-2003

The Column: What Vincent Van Gogh Means to Us Today

Michael Fallon finds an answer to what we long for in the art that we love.

Michael Fallon

News Item: Aug. 4, 2003
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (Toby Sterling,
Associated Press) – “Film of Van Gogh allegedly discovered.”

“Photography was still young and celluloid film had scarcely been invented when Vincent van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. Yet a team of Dutch filmmakers claimed Monday it has made a documentary about a snippet of film shot that year in which the artist allegedly appears…. According to Lumineus Film Productions producer Jeroen Neus, Van Gogh was attending a welcoming party for a new pastor in Zundert when he was coincidentally captured on film for a few seconds by an early film enthusiast. The film supposedly lay for almost a century in a damp attic before it was discovered in 1984 and restored.”

I WAS NOT SURPRISED to read the above news, for I’ve long thought that Van Gogh is accorded a near-Messianic status among the art lovers of the world. Of course we all know there’s little chance that the figure in the film is actually the artist, but it’s pretty to think so–in the same way we are fascinated to hear about Jesus Christ’s visage in a potato chip, or the Virgin Mary stain on a brick wall (or Elvis at the local minimart, for that matter).

In the art world, Vincent Van Gogh has a cult following and his paintings are granted the status of sacred relics–their worth is almost incalculable. The most expensive painting ever sold was a Van Gogh–his “Portrait of Dr.Gachet” was bought by Ryohei Saito in 1990 for $85 million. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is one of the city’s top tourist stops, drawing 1.3 million visitors last year, according to once source. Last March marked huge celebrations of the artist on the occasion of his 150th birthday. The Dutch village of Zundert, where he was born, has named 2003 the “Van Gogh Year” in his honor.

Meanwhile, any institutions that are fortunate enough to have a relic of the artist’s hand are given cathedral status. (“Does the Arts Institute have a Van Gogh?” is a question I’ve heard more than once.) Van Gogh’s work is revered more than any other art saint’s (perhaps only Leonardo’s work competes). “He is a big name like Einstein and Beethoven,” said Andreas Bluehm, head of exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum. “We are always amazed by how popular he is and his popularity seems to be growing.”

One can only speculate why Van Gogh has attained such luminance. Yes, his paintings have a certain magic to them–they’re at once colorful, expressionistic, and edgy but still easily accessible. Still, just to compare, Gaugin was a far better painter than Van Gogh; Cezanne was more innovative and influential to the generation of the artists who followed him, and fellow post-impressionists like Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made more immediately eye-catching images.

If anything, Van Gogh was an eccentric in art history, a painter with an anomalous style of fairly negligible influence. After all, as we often hear, Van Gogh was a complete flop in his own time and sold but one painting while he lived (a mediocre and muddy effort called “The Red Vineyard”). And he has no direct artistic lineage into the twentieth century.

Many might suggest his popularity has to do with the sensational facts of his life–his scandalous love for a pregnant prostitute and for a cousin, that whole episode with his ear, his falling-out with the painter Gaugin, his institutionalization for mental illness, his suicide at the age of 37 in 1890. Much of the turmoil of his life is well documented in his paintings–the madness that tormented him is apparent in the eyes and swirling color of his later self-portraits, and in the wild fantasy of his most famous painting, “Starry Night.”

But for my money, these facts of his life don’t quite add up to his paramount status. After all, a lot of artists through the ages have been troubled or scandalous or infamous. Andrea dal Castagno was involved in murder and other mayhem; Michelangelo feuded publicly with popes; J. L. David had a hand in the French revolution and was nearly executed, and so on–and none of these artists are nearly the icon that Van Gogh is.

Instead, I think Van Gogh’s status today says something about our age, and the ideals we strive to attain as a culture. Van Gogh represents to many modern people the quintessential romantic dreamer, a cultural-creative Don Quixote-cum-urban hipster who was above the quotidian trials of daily life. Because of the obstacles he overcame to paint, and the single-minded passion he brought to the task, Van Gogh is representative of the burning, soul-wrenching passion to create that we want to believe lies at the heart of human experience. In this, he is an archetypical ideal. His life represents all the risks we wish we could take but are not brave enough to–giving up the day job and all the bourgeois comforts of middle class, dropping out of society and fleeing to the south of France, attempting to establish an artists commune and above all else burning to make up for the time lost in genuflecting to the daily fucking grind.

He gave up the day jobs–the comfortable life he could have had if he’d found any pleasure dealing art, teaching in a boarding school, preaching to Belgian coalminers–and in his late 20s set out to follow his passion, painting, in the biggest possible way. Here’s the truly unique fact of Vincent Van Gogh: he knew what he wanted to do, and he set out to do it despite its unconventionality. And he did it damn well despite that he attained absolutely no material success for it (and despite the fact that his early work shows little conventional talent for it).

It’s a pet theory of mine that humans are born with an endless capacity for passion, but everyone in our lives–parents, teachers, bosses, society-at-large–conspires to wean us of this trait. If you’ve ever heard a baby shouting for her mother’s milk, who is certain only in the knowledge that she is surely going to die of this hunger-pain, then you know how raw and human this sort of emotion is. Yet when’s the last time you felt remotely like that inner infant? If we think on it, passion is a great evolutionary tool. When we somehow find it in ourselves, not only does it help us perpetuate the species but it also spurs us to attempt great things–build bridges, make sculptures, invent life-saving devices–even if everyone you know is telling you it’s a damn fool mistake. Passion helps us say “scupper the consequences,” and it lies at the heart of most of our culture’s most meaningful achievements.

Unfortunately, nowadays we live in a well-mannered age, a time when all the passion has been drained from our manner of living. We spend endless empty hours on the freeway, sitting at a desk in front of one cathode-ray tube or another, attending PTA meetings or watching kids practice soccer at a park, avoiding our own lives with diversion and entertainments, and doing very little of any creative significance. Our lives are anything but passionate. Our age is an age of anti-passion.

Is it any wonder then that art is so popular a practice now? We all dream of being a closet Van Gogh–chucking our shit jobs, our credit debt, and all the chintz that fills our crackerbox houses to live a life more meaningful and real, to be the passionate humans we are meant to be. No wonder there are so many more people who claim to be artists than ever before (2.5 million according to the last census), and no wonder we worship the painter Van Gogh so–we’re all looking for a glimpse of the natural creative passion that is our birthright.