Vincent's lessons to us.
Early in his ten-year career as an artist Vincent wrote:
What am I in most people's eyes? A nonentity? Or an eccentric and disagreeable man? Somebody who has no position in society and never will have. In short the lowest of the low. Very well if this were true, then I should want my work to show what is in the heart of such an eccentric, of such a nobody. This is my ambition, which in spite of everything is founded less on anger than on love, more on serenity than on passion. Then I want to progress so far that people will say of my work--"he feels deeply, he feels tenderly.'
200 years after Johannes Vermeer died he became recognised as one of the greatest painters of all time; 100 years after Vivaldi's death he was rediscovered and now rates among the great composers; Johannes Bach suffered the same fate; Mozart died a pauper's death; Vincent sold only one painting in his lifetime and killed himself; Nijinsky went insane, and so on ... Every civilisation leaves only its art and its history. From history we learn that man doesn't learn from history and thus the arts remain an oddity, a luxury and the artist usually an outsider.
What a different world we would inhabit if our leaders understood and recognised the act of creation instead of the act of destruction. If they were required to have an artistic vein and realised that culture has nothing to do with war memorials or the celebration of victories or defeats on the battlefield. What a different world it would be if the arts were to feature at the forefront of our endeavors--if the artists had a say in the matter. If there were politicians who actually understood what Vincent felt when he said: 'Let the storm rise, the night descend. Which is worse? Danger or the fear of danger? Personally I prefer reality, the danger itself'.
There are, of course, among our leaders examples of exceptional courage and daring. When George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier--docked only five minutes by rowing boat from the mainland, dressed in a borrowed pilot's uniform with all the appropriate decorations in place--and proclaimed, 'Mission accomplished', people who prefer reality stood in breathless silence. This was a profound celebration of virtual reality and artistic daring. Overnight our concept of reality was challenged. Virtual reality became our new reality--one of the great surreal spectacles of our time that now reverberates in the streets of Baghdad and on the New York stock exchange. George took his artistic freedom a bit too far though--and with his fellow terminators, painted the town red on a large suicidal scale. 'Mission accomplished' ... The full impact of this display of mega-ignorance can only be assessed when George is gone and his throne has crumbled. The world somehow has a conscience. Vincent's legacy shows us that this conscience cannot be bribed.
He wrote to his brother, 'Isn't life given to us to become richer in spirit?' Then he explained, in the most mesmerising way, how insignificant we are and how immensely beautiful the universe is:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why? I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot go to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion--just as steam boats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age, would be to go there on foot. We do not feel we're dying, but we feel the truth that we're of small account.
All of us will be dead in another seventy years or so. Maybe a few vegetarians will still struggle about, but the bulk of us, some six billion human beings as we now have it, will be gone. What will have been the point if our brief stay on this earth is starved of love, dignity and tenderness towards our fellow travellers? What will have been the point if we keep destroying our planet and fighting wars in the name of various religions or bringing democracy to the underprivileged? Vincent says:
I know nothing, but it's just this feeling of not knowing that makes the real life we're actually living like a one-way journey on a train. You go fast but cannot distinguish any object very clearly and, above all, you do not see the engine. So at the end of my career I shall prove to be wrong. So be it. Then I shall find that not only the arts but everything else were only dreams. That one has nothing at all oneself. If we're as flimsy as that, so much the better for us, for then there's nothing to be said against the unlimited possibility of future existence.
We perceive reality through our conditioning. The reality of home, work, career, politics--not the reality of our feelings and intimate thoughts. For that we're given no language, no possible medium to communicate our true personal reality--what really goes on inside us. Vincent puts this so aptly: Do our inner thoughts ever show outwardly? There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney and go along their merry way.
Vincent called painting 'a faith'. A faith that imposes the duty to disregard public opinion. In painting one conquers by perseverance and not by making concessions. Although he believed until the very end that there was nothing more artistic than to love people, he couldn't escape the fate of all great humanitarians--to be sacrificed. In his last letter to his brother he said:
Well the truth is we can only make our pictures speak. But yet, my dear brother, there's this that I've always told you, and I repeat it once more with all the earnestness that can be expressed by the effort of a mind diligently fixed on trying to do as well as possible. I tell you again--that I shall always consider you to be something more than a simple dealer in paintings, that through my mediation, you have your part in the actual production of some canvasses, which will retain their calm, even in the catastrophe. For this is what we've got to. This is all, or at least the main thing that I have to tell you in a moment of comparative crisis. My own work, I'm risking my life for it, and my reason has half floundered because of it. That's alright. But you are not amongst the dealers in men, and you can still choose your side, acting with humanity But what is the use?
Well--the use is, dear Vincent, that many of your brothers and sisters here have chosen your side, have retained their calm in the catastrophe. Have come to realise, through your mediation, what beauty is and have been guided by your great humility and humanity. I'm honored and humbled to say on their behalf--Thank you dear Vincent.
Speech delivered by Paul Cox at the opening of After Van Gogh: Australian Artists in Homage to Vincent at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, 10 September 2005.
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