The year is 1889. A man stands at his easel, toiling under the bright sun. With a vivid cadmium yellow, he strikes his canvas in a fervent and emphatic way, making sure to capture the brilliantly sunny glow hanging over some olive trees in the distance. In this moment, he is connected to his work in a way that is very primitive and divine. He feels the weight of the objects before him. By his own hands, he is capturing life and spirit and feeling in every brushstroke. It may not look like anything noteworthy to others – yet – but to him it is an absolute extension of his soul.
Anyone who has ever created a piece of art will understand this sensation. And, no, those places where people go to get boozed up and create paintings with their friends don’t count. I’m talking about real art from real artists - people for whom painting/sculpting/drawing/mosaicking/collaging/imagining/creating is their very lifeblood. Famous or not. Earning a living or not. Understood or not. A real artist is compelled to create despite the ridicule or roadblocks they have faced along the way. They are not driven by fame, fortune, or material trappings; they are only fueled by the intrinsic need to bring their ideas into existence.
Take the man at the easel, for instance. If you haven’t already guessed by the date, the olive trees, or the cadmium yellow, his name was Vincent Van Gogh. He now stands as a sort of goalpost for fame (his paintings sell for millions of dollars at Sotheby’s) as well as a cautionary tale about suffering (he only sold one piece of art in his lifetime). His work is EVERYWHERE – now – though he was rejected quite thoroughly in his own time. There can be no romanticization of what he accomplished without the cold, hard facts of his agonizing journey.
In his lifetime, people scoffed at him. They called him crazy (and he did have his issues). But they also dismissed his style. He was turned away from major galleries and rejected from the art establishment. Even his brother, who was an art dealer, didn’t know how to capitalize from his work. So, they sat and collected dust, all 900 of his paintings. Despite the urgings of a rational society, Vincent kept making art regardless of his poverty or predicament.
And aren’t we lucky that he did?!? Those of us alive today get to be the beneficiaries of his brilliance, basking in his splendor without much thought given to its cost. We look at his wild colors and vivid apparitions – things that were cause for misunderstanding and mockery in his time – and we nod our approval by singing a lackluster praise of tepid words. “How pretty,” we retort, as we breeze by a masterpiece. “Isn’t that amazing,” we opine, without really knowing all that it took to come about. We are privileged in the luxury of viewing his work without suffering the consequences of his struggles. And it shows.
We can gaze at his pictures anywhere we choose - in books, while sipping from coffee mugs, on our desk calendar, or maybe even at an art exhibition in a museum. By all accounts, we think that because we do these things, we take time to look at his work and appreciate it briefly, we must be art-lovers. Patrons, even. And maybe we even fantasize that if we had lived in the time of Van Gogh we would have bought one of his paintings and elevated his sold tally from one to two.
And, of course, who’s to say I/you/we wouldn’t?! I mean, we’re all good people. We all mean well. But the same can’t be said for those corporate vultures who’ve had their hooks in him for years, picking at his artistic carcass and profiting from his vision. They have shamelessly enriched themselves from his (and many other artists’) work for years by making posters, prints and puzzles, oh my! And let’s not forget all the other tchotchkes and novelty products consumers eat up! Gift shops are just teeming with them.
But recently there has been yet another money-grab at the expense of art; these loosely defined faux-art “exhibitions” with the word immersive stuck somewhere in their titles. Popping up all over the country like a fungus, they make the greed of these other businesses seem like potato eaters in comparison! What’s shocking to me is that apparently people are ready to accept this with no questions asked! The masses no longer require actual art in an ART exhibit anymore. Nope. Now they are just as willing to pay money to stand in a warehouse while projectors reveal a swirling array of images across a few otherwise underwhelming concrete walls. Then, like cats following a flashlight on the floor, these “patrons” express awe and amusement over….what, exactly?! Technology? Lights? Being out of the house? The idea that they are having fun? I don’t know. I can’t think of many things that would be a bigger waste of money…but maybe that’s just me.
Regardless of whether or not you are guilty of indulging in such shenanigans, the thing of it is this: if you really think of yourself as a lover of art, PLEASE stop enriching everyone except artists. We all know Van Gogh is dead, but there are so many living artists – RIGHT NOW – who create in the same spirit, who feel incomplete if they don’t make something beautiful each week, and who feel demoralized when their work piles up, unsold, because nobody seems to care. But you should care, dammit! Art is, after all, one of the few things that separates us from the animals. It’s also one of the few markers of a true civilization.
We need to think differently about our role in the art world. You are not just a spectator – happy with the meager, corporate-produced scraps you are given -– you are an influencer. A change-maker. You hold the power to give artists their voice by supporting them when it matters: WHEN THEY ARE ALIVE!
The dead won’t remember your contributions. The rich won’t care. The projectors won’t even notice you. But, the struggling, unseen artist will remember you forever. They will be grateful to you always. And they will make more art because of you!