The Laws of Nature

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Van Gogh Syndrome

Chapter 4 of Roberts' book, Creative Authenticity, is about what he calls The Van Gogh Syndrome. By this, the author refers to the representation of Vincent Van Gogh as a tortured genius who did some crazy things and wasn't appropriately recognized for his work. Roberts declares: I don't think any one person has done more damage to our perception of the creative process than Vincent Van Gogh. The point he's making in this short chapter is that the creation of a strong body of work occurs only when an artist applies level-headed discipline and long-term consistency rather than being governed by episodic eccentric and lunatic acts. He supports that opinion by noting that most great art is created through a disciplined process and that, Vincent, who only painted during the last eight years of his life, produced his best works from a fifteen month period of focused effort. Roberts adds that it is those later focused paintings that gained Vincent recognition during his lifetime. However, the glimmer of success was unnerving to him; Vincent wrote Success is the worst thing that can happen not long before delivering the fatal bullet to his body.

So, Roberts concludes that the Van Gogh Syndrome, or myth as he refers to it, isn't useful to artists because it instills the idea that our creative genius must spring from lunacy when, in fact, it must be logical, deliberate and purposeful in a consistent manner. I'll add to this that a little lunacy doesn't hurt. I mean, take a look at Starry Night above. What a fascinating authentic painting! I could look at it for hours. But, I won't go so far as to stir my coffee with a loaded paint brush like Vincent did. My form of lunacy will have to emerge from a non lead-based source!

But, there's another point I'd like to make that Roberts seems to have missed. One of the reasons we like Van Gogh's story is because it's about overcoming adversity to create amazing works of art! Poverty and lunacy didn't stop him. It's an inspiring story and gives us all the hope that whatever assails us in life can be used to our advantage. And, his story gives us hope that our art can be significant, authentic and meaningful even if it doesn't sell. And, Vincent's openness about himself, his passions and his fears, gives us courage to be honest with ourselves so that we may face our own particular set of challenges. His suicide is also a reminder of what he could have accomplished had he chosen to live beyond the age of 38, and what we might create during our advancing years. So, Ian Roberts, although I see your point, I also like to look at the other side of this coin. There's inspiration on it.

One last thing Mr. Roberts: when you wrote I don't think any one person has done more damage to our perception of the creative process than Vincent Van Gogh you should have taken into account that Vincent only lived his life - it was others who later created the myth.

Your thoughts??


RH Carpenter said...

I, too, find much inspiration in the story of Van Gogh. I ache for his loneliness because I have felt that. I am in awe (the true use of the word) at his artistry and beauty in his work. So I agree with the other side of the coin. The myth of Van Gogh may have been idealized quite a bit but the man behind the myth still causes us to pause, reflect, and then pick up a brush and move on.

Casey Klahn said...

Vincent, Vincent, Vincent.

We love his myth so much that it's hard to assail it.

Vincent and me

I'm with you, Katherine. I would add that there is a pneumenous element in creativity that defies the discipline. The magic - the inspiration. VVG embodies this so well because he was out of his mind.

hw (hallie) farber said...

To spend so much time creating an unnecessary object that might not be appreciated probably requires a touch of madness. I don't believe we paint or sculpt because we dream of great success--I think we have that need to create. (I sometimes envy those people who are happy shopping and lunching.)

Van Gogh's story is an inspiration; you see something more each time you look at one of his paintings.

M said...

I'm finding Mr.Roberts a little too black and white for my tastes - not to mention judgmental. I feel there are many ways for artists to create exceptional work. Not everyone's personality or rhythms work with the focused, productive approach. Some people work in stops and starts over periods of time. We have to guard against one recipe for success (whatever that means to each artist).

Unknown said...

Hi RH - Amen to that! Thanks for commenting.

Hi Casey - well put! I agree completely. Thank you.

Hi Hallie - your comment reminded me of the definition of "insanity": to do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. So, I guess I agree that we artists are all a little "mad!" Thanks so much.

Hi Margaret - yes, I'm getting the same impression about Roberts' ideas, but it still makes me think and is a good basis for discussion. And, I agree that we all have a different approach to creating our work; one size does NOT fit all. Thank you!

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Anonymous said...

I’ve always liked Vincent Van Gogh. I think it’s a pretty heavy guilt burden to heap on a deceased artist. Kathy, your final statement sums my feelings up pretty well.

I have wondered about personality type and artist. Years back when we took the “Myers Briggs” test, I was in the artist type. As an artist type, I functioned pretty well in an un-artist profession. And, many fellow artists come from a large variety of backgrounds and disciplines. The number with engineering degrees surprises me. So, I wonder about “types” and artist myths. Are they easy ways to categorize people then move on?

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Dear Katharine,

I feel so very lost, only because i am still playing catch up from my trip.
I too have this book and found it well worth the reading. Though I do not necessarily agree with all the chapters, there were several that seem to address resonate, but I cannot recall off hand which ones.

I shall keep popping in and hopefully I can catch the string and contribute.

Warmest regards

-Don said...

My first thought as I was reading the first paragraph of this blog was, "I'm not sure I like this Mr. Roberts' ideas very much." Of course, I usually feel like that when someone's ultra-conservative ideas are being represented as 'the way'. I agree we need some discipline and consistency in our work and working process. But, to imply that van Gogh's ways were the wrong ways makes me wonder where Roberts came up with the title Creative Authenticity for the book. I've been in front of many of van Gogh's paintings and I don't know that I've ever seen more authentic work. We can all learn from van Gogh's mistakes and tragedies, but to lump everything he did into one big glob of negativity just makes me red in the face.

I see Mr. Roberts' point, but wish he would have made it without targeting this tortured soul who created some of the most amazing paintings ever created. My perception of van Gogh's creative process has always been that he put his heart, his mind, and his soul onto canvas with a passion that is tangible in the viewing of his work. I find that inspiring. I would LOVE to leave a legacy behind when I clock out that is even a miniscule fraction of the one he left behind.

I don't know if my rant is helpful, but it sure feels good to get it out. Hopefully it doesn't do any more damage to our perception of the creative process...

The last chorus of Don McLean's song "Vincent" seem very relevant here:

"...And now I think I know what you tried to say to me
how you suffered for your sanity
how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
they're not
list'ning still
perhaps they never will."


Unknown said...

Hi Pam - Ah, you pointed out the danger of publishing a book (or a blog, for that matter): everyone gets a glimpse of your psychological profile :) Although I admire the fact that Roberts isn't afraid to state his opinions, I do wish at times that he'd broaden his outlook. Nevertheless, there are a few gems in this book, as you'll see in the next post. Keep working, Pam - you'll get there!!

Hi Peggy - it's been my experience as well to meet artists who are also scientists. I think the right-brain dominance of our abilitiy to paint (non-verbal) and our ability to conceptualize in science are one and the same. I had one foot planted in both worlds for a long time and it so did many others that I know. So, I agree with you that there's no single "type" that could characterize an artist. And, as I've learned from all of you, we have similarities but we're also very different (in a good way!).

Hi Egmont - good to hear from you! I hope you are catching up on your rest and we'll look forward to your viewpoints when you're ready.

Hi Don - I had exactly the same thoughts: if Vincent's work isn't the paradigm of "creative authenticity" then what is??? Well stated, and I was humming McLean's song when I wrote that blog :)

Mark Sheeky said...

van Gogh was such an inspiration to me at first, as much or more his life than his art. I read each of his letters over a six month period and, for me, those are as much an artistic contribution as his paintings.

I don't think his paintings were that good until the last few years. The remarkable thing for me was that his letters were at times very sad and negative, when his paintings to me were not. Without those letters, and without his story and suicide he wouldn't have become as renowned. Does this show that the context a painting was painted in is as important as the picture itself? Is the last painting painted by a man about to be hanged, inherantly more poignant than an identical painting rolled of a production line? I think yes.

Mark Sheeky said...

Oh, and I agree with Don completely about authenticity... our Don that is, not just Mr. Mclean :)

Unknown said...

Hi Mark, I, too, have read Van Gogh's letters and found them inspiring, poignant, and depressing at times. I don't agree, however, that his work wouldn't have received recognition without his tragic life and suicide. During the last 1-1/2 years of his life he was invited to show ten paintings at the Salon de Independants in Paris, and also at the Art Society in Brussels. His work was favorably reviewed in a Dutch magazine and by art critic Albert Aurier for the Mercure de France. His star was rising just before he killed himself.

Unknown said...

Thank you Alisha, and welcome! Please feel free to join our conversations :)