Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Intensity, Craziness, and Creativity - Vincent Van Gogh

I have some vague recollection from childhood about The Agony and The Ecstasy and that it was a big deal.  Perhaps I saw a promotion for it on a billboard in Times Square, something akin to Cleopatra in its spectacle.  Or maybe it was because the Piet√† had come to the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows and as a result all of us became more aware of Michelangelo. Then, too, we had neighbors who lived diagonally across from us on the corner of 56th Avenue and 212th Street, and they were Italian.  Perhaps some of their cultural interests rubbed off on us.  I'm pretty sure that for a while my mother had the book on her nightstand.  She was a voracious reader of novels (yet not at all of the newspaper).  There were certain authors who especially appealed to her.  The works of James Michener emblematized the genre. 

Mostly my taste for fiction diverged from my mom's.  I did read Exodus by Leon Uris, probably in my high school years, this without any provocation from her.  Much later, I read a book that she had urged me to read as a teen, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.  I liked it very much and wrote a blog post about it soon after I had finished reading it. 

All of this to say that I've been aware of Irving Stone since childhood, but I never did anything with that knowledge until recently.  Part of this may have been a phobia about art.  Though I felt compelled to take myself to a museum now and then, and one day while I was a teenager I "ran away from home" and went to both the Guggenheim and the Met, all via walking after getting out of the Subway at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, I did this more for the solitude and sense of independence it gave me than from any spiritual uplift from the paintings.  I didn't "get" art then, just as I didn't get poetry.  Mostly, I still don't.

From time to time I would see a movie or read a book that touched on art in some way.  While in graduate school I recall seeing Savage Messiah.  More recently I've watched Pollock, after it came to satellite TV.  Soon after it was published I read Einstein and Picasso, a book that really helped me because it explained the big picture goals that both Einstein and Picasso were after, this to understand simultaneity in their respective mediums.  There are probably other movie and book titles I've encountered that tie to art but that don't come to mind now.

So it's been a low level and very casual interest.  I have an upside down curiosity about art now, as I have an interest in what spurs creativity and how creativity manifests. Further, there is trying to understand myself and my motivation.  When I read a biography about a very creative person, there is always the question - what bits of personality do we have in common?  For example, when I read Richard Ellman's biography of James Joyce, I saw some parallels between Joyce and me when in early adolescence, though these were mainly in outer manifestations, not in the creativity itself.   And with connections of this sort apparent there is a further question that emerges.  Is there a personal philosophy to embrace that matches the personality?

It is with these thoughts in mind that I want to discuss Vincent Van Gogh via the film Lust for Life, the book on which it is based written by Irving Stone, and another movie called Vincent and Theo that gives Van Gogh's brother and confidant equal billing.  Stone's book is fictionalized biography, but it is based on actual correspondence between the brothers.  The artist was also a prolific reader and writer.  These other forms of expression helped him with his art.  The writing especially allows us to regard Stone's work as close to the truth in most places.  Particular dialog is imagined, of course.  And there is one love scene that is pure fantasy.  But otherwise the work is true to the letters on which it is based. 

Van Gogh's life challenges us in our conception of success and what it means to be successful.  By the middle class standards that I was raised in, he was a failure, many times over.  His paintings didn't sell at all for most of his life.  Many of great Impressionists, contemporaries of Van Gogh, suffered a similar fate.  The patrons of the arts weren't yet ready to procure the works of these artists.  These rich buyers were too conservative in their tastes and thus didn't understand the impact these works would eventually have.

Nowadays, we have the (not quite) myth of the actor in waiting who struggles to make ends meet by waiting tables or doing other unskilled work, until the big break arrives.  It is unclear to me whether a struggling artist in France in the 1870s could live such a divided life, making enough to survive on while practicing one's art in odd hours.  In any event, Van Gogh did not.  For the most part he was sustained by an allowance provided by his brother.  Theo was an art dealer, an employee of one of the better houses in Paris.  He made a decent but not fabulous living.  The allowance was carved out of that.  In recompense, Vincent sent Theo all of his paintings, with the hope they might sell.  They didn't.

The above understates how much Vincent failed and how he regarded himself as a failure.  Vincent actually got into painting late, in his mid to late 20s.  He did other things before that and made a botch of things, both in his work and in his love life. He started out as an art dealer in London.  His family had that profession in their blood, which is why both he and his brother took a go at it.  While in London he fell in love.  Only she didn't love him back and got engaged to somebody else. Heartbroken by the result, he left London and the work as an art dealer to follow in his father's footsteps, so he went to school to become a minister. 

He performed poorly at the school.  He could not commit a sermon to memory nor could he speak extemporaneously.  So he had to read his sermon from his hand written text, long and awkward constructions.  This was ineffective and his teachers dismissed him - the worst student they ever had. Yet he wanted to serve and that conviction enabled him to become a minister in the Borinage, a very poor mining region in Belgium, not a place to send the more able students.

The miners and their families had a dismal life, earning a subsistence wage only, maybe even less, being exposed to health risk on a daily basis from the coal dust, with fatal accidents in the mines also a possibility. There was child labor in the mines.  It was all very brutal.  Vincent's job was to minister to these poor people's spiritual needs.  He began in earnest with what he had learned at the school, but this was a surface kind of ministering only, and didn't at all address their deprivation.  So he changed his approach to be more like them, live like them, and aid in their physical needs.  He gave away most of his worldly possessions to the families of the miners.  He likewise gave away much of his food.  He often went hungry, for days on end.  He endured personal suffering (which would continue later when he turned to painting).  And he lobbied the mining company, unsuccessfully, to raise the wages of the miners.  When visitors from the church hierarchy came to look in on him, they disapproved of his approach; it was undignified.

Much later in Stone's book there is a recollection of this time by another artist who had visited the Borinage while Vincent was there.  He recalled stories of the Christ minister.  This seems like a good image to have of Van Gogh.  He had a purity about him that others don't possess.  He was entirely unconcerned for his own physical well being.  He believed strongly that these poor as dirt miners were deserving people and that they should have a somewhat better life.  After all, they toiled, doing honest work.  Later, when Van Gogh was in Paris, he became known as a Socialist among his fellow artists.  The roots of his political beliefs are to be found in this experience in the Borinage.

I do not want to recount all of Stone's book. It's better to read it yourself.  (I got a copy from the Undergraduate Library.)  But there is one more aspect of his life that needs mention before talking about his creativity.  That is his mania.  Later in life he had seizures, one of which occurred during the famous episode where he cut off his ear.  The Wikipedia entry on this matter makes it clear that there is no consensus view as to cause.  In Stone's version of the story, epilepsy is the primary explanation.

Further, Stone introduces the idea that the mental illness was part and parcel of Van Gogh's personality.  He does this first by describing at great length the high intensity, long time commitment, and total dedication that Vincent demonstrated while painting.  Then, later, after Vincent has befriended Paul Gaugin, Stone has Gaugin critique Vincent's painting style as if epileptic. Images from the painting burst from the canvas and it is evident that Vincent in the construction of these images worked in great haste and that he himself was bursting, getting paint from his palette onto his canvas.  So the reader is left with the impression that Vincent is exploding inside his head with ideas of how to render nature through art.

That much of Van Gogh's personality I can identify with via my own experience, writing this blog during the first year.  I had many ideas in my head that wanted expression and I didn't have enough other outlets for that.  (One alternative outlet was having conversation with colleagues in the CIC Learning Technology Group, many of whom had comparable positions on their campuses to my Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies position at Illinois.  But our frequency of meeting was only once every three months or so and then typically only for a day at a time, and we had official business to conduct much of the time.)  I found I could generate reasonably good prose (about 1500 words per post) in fairly short order and do so every day.  I also found that I could experiment with style and a little bit with topic. But after a year or so I slowed down.  I began to exhaust the set of issues I found pressing.  In contrast, Van Gogh kept going, developing his technique and sense of confidence.  He didn't slow down at all until the fits of mania made him slow down.

(One of the things, I'd like to learn in the future is to know Van Gogh's paintings themselves, understand something of the issues he was trying to address in their making, as well as to learn when they were done so to understand how Stone's telling of the story maps into those paintings we consider masterpieces today.  In the movie, some of these paintings are on display.  But in my ignorance of the art itself I couldn't distinguish a masterpiece from a prop.)

Van Gogh's need to draw preceded his becoming an artist as his life work   He did it as a hobby, a way to express himself and to relieve the stress from his other work.  He drew, for example, in the off hours while he was a minister.  (One has a sense that he slept very little, even then, and would labor till he was exhausted.  This behavior, in itself, may be have at least part of the reasons for the subsequent mania.)  So when he turned to art as what he would do, he had an inner knowing that it was right for him.

He struck out miserably, however, in terms of receiving recognition and emotional support for the work, apart from his brother Theo.  In fact, where he initially got support and encouragement from other relatives, he eventually got rebuffs that he wasn't making progress with his work.  He remained too primitive in his approach.  In this case, it was the relatives who were wrong, but how would Vincent have been able to determine that in any objective way at the time?  And in the absence of such confirmation, wouldn't his resolve to continue working become shaky?   The issue seems all the more important because he was living off that allowance from Theo and if the work wasn't very good then devoting all his time to painting was being irresponsible, while at his core Vincent tried very hard to be an ethical human being.

Eventually, when in Paris, he met a community of fellow artists with whom he could exchange ideas as peers and as friends.  This provided some of the confirmation that he was on the right track, though his paintings still didn't sell.

Now I want to posit an odd conjecture.  Vincent had no fear of privation, even if it destroyed his health, and later his mind.  He learned to accept it when a minister.  Once privation becomes a normal occurrence, the fear of failure that haunts most of us disappears.  Failure can then be a good friend and an able teacher.  And Vincent trusted himself enough to learn from his errors.  Indeed he was inventing technique as he learned.  He had the independence of mind to do that.

Vincent also spent an enormous amount of time alone, with his paints and his canvases, but without other companionship.  This was true when he returned to live with his parents and again when he was in Arles.  (Though when at his parents' place he did have a one-sided love affair with his cousin Kay, who entirely rebuffed his advances.)  His work was primary for him and he toiled on it till exhausted.

Again, thinking of my own situation, I have the sense that creativity is blunted by various buffers in my life - work, family, and friends.  With each of these "being reasonable" is an important value and enjoying the comforts provided by the circumstance an immediate reward.  But there is also a different thing about me that I learned a long time ago.  After I've had my own bursting and release of creative energy, I need some fallow time to refresh myself.  If I'm too tired I can't think at all and can't produce anything worth a damn.  Van Gogh was totally different in both respects.  There didn't seem to be anything moderate about his personality at all.   He had very few buffers to produce such moderation.  While he did relax some, compared to other talented people I know he did comparatively little of it.  And apart from those brief times of relaxation, I got the sense that Van Gogh was "on" most of the time, leading to prodigious creativity but the mania too.  This comes across more from the reading of Stone's book than the watching of the movies.

Sylvia Nasar's book on John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, is another that I've read which marries intense creativity in the individual with mental illness.  In Nash's case it was/is schizophrenia.  The difference between Van Gogh and Nash, from the reader's perspective, is that for Nash all the creativity was going on in his head and it is much harder to represent what that is like to the reader, even for as able a story teller as Nasar.  As an economist who has done a fair amount of math modeling, I probably have a leg up on most readers in considering what Nash did, yet his process is still entirely opaque to me.  In contrast, Van Gogh's creativity had a physical expression that anyone can understand.  The movies are good for this, because they do convey a sense of what it is like to paint, especially on a wet canvas that is near completion but not completely done.  You can almost smell the oils in the viewing.

Let me close with reference to this piece in Slate, people don't like creativity.  I had always thought of myself as an exception to that rule.  (I do concur with the thesis in the Slate piece.)   Thinking about Van Gogh has got me to reconsider how much of an exception I actually am.  I like my moderating influences, often prefer to compromise than to remain a purist, and my drive is nowhere near as strong as Van Gogh's.   None of this says anything about talent.  But it speaks volumes about motivation.  Though I teach microeconomics, which at root is about making tradeoffs, I live my life trying to have it both ways.  This shows in one fell swoop that I don't practice what I preach and that I'm human.  But it also gives me a different sort of appreciation of genius.  There are plenty of bright and very talented people to go around.  The vast majority of them, however, aren't willing to pay the ultimate price. Van Gogh was among the very few who were willing.

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