Sunday, January 29, 2017

Rejecting the Myth of Artists As Madmen

"Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully." ~ Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo.

We remember him as somewhat of a madman. And to a certain extent his behavior warranted this. He cut off his ear, for love. A bit excessive, though it made for an interesting self-portrait afterwards. On another occasion he was determined to see the girl he loved but her parents would not let him in. To show them how intent he was on seeing her, he held the palm of his hand over the lamp flame and said he would not leave till he saw her. The smell of burnt flesh was not very convincing and ultimately he passed out from the pain.

This story reveals that he was indeed a man of intense passions, which poured out of him into his works, works now valued in the millions of dollars. During his lifetime he sold almost nothing, and died in a mental institution in his thirties by his own hand.

As for the source of his mental illness, psychiatrists by the score have studied his behavior and his work to identify its root causes, whether from schizophrenia or syphilis or some other variety of experience. What we know is the notion of "artist as eccentric" found a home in the pop psyche, a notion that treats artists as kooks and social misfits. Or rather, that to become a great artist you have to be a kook or misfit.

Dorothea Brande, in her outstanding volume Becoming A Writer (1934), assaults this notion head on. "The picture of the artist as a monster made up of one part vain child, one part suffering martyr and one part boulevardier is a legacy to us from the last century, and a remarkably embarrassing inheritance. There is an earlier and healthier idea of the artist than that, the idea of the genius as a man more versatile, more sympathetic, more studious than his fellows, more catholic in his tastes, less at the mercy of the ideas of the crowd."

OK, so Salvador Dali comes along and portrays this vain child-madman to the extreme and makes a fortune doing it. No comment. Brande went on to explain that there really is "an artist temperament" and it is not the same as the accounting mindset.* The book goes into detail about left brain/right brain thinking, a concept which became excessively popular in the 1980's and has filtered its way into business books, consulting, education and psychology. The notions have been with us a much longer time than many folks realize.

What Brande argues is that you do not have to be mentally unstable to be creative. In this instance she is speaking to young writers, but the same applies to creative souls in the visual arts or music as well.

Vincent Van Gogh once said, "A good picture is equivalent to a good deed." If you are in Duluth this month there are plenty of venues where you can see some good pictures... and probably there are plenty of places in your home town, too. Check out the Duluth Art Institute at the Depot. Or make your way to the Tweed up at UMD, especially if you've never been. Open your eyes and engage.

*The Myers-Briggs personality tests, developed in the 1920s and fine-tuned over time, demonstrate that indeed artists and accountants have differing personality traits that result in their engaging the world differently. It is not insanity that makes people creative.

The picture at the top of this page, titled Blue Van Gogh, is currently available as a giclee reproduction. $85 plus S&H for a limited time.

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