Vincent van Gogh and the Abyss of Art

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most incandescent minds of all time. While it is true that he did sell a single painting in his life, it is not true that he had come to be utterly unrecognised. Albert Aurier, the most profound art critic around at that time, would write an exalted article, praising Vincent van Gogh as a rare genius, able to see through the material hyle of shit while at the same time not transcending (or descending) into otherworldy or celestial depths. Rather, you would have an overabundance, a plethora of world, due to an intense perception of „a bubbling brain that would burst out his lava into all canyons of art;  a terrifying, half-mad genius, often sublime, sometimes grotesque, always slightly grazing the pathological“. It is true, in the art of Vincent van Gogh you have the otherwordliness of the world. You may say, you have a vision that refers to the peak of human perception and episteme, the Unitary Consciousness, in which all manifestations that lie within reality and that lie within the mind and in the spirit amalgamate into single, intense, elevated, transcendent perception of totality. In Vincent van Gogh´s paintings, everything has an extreme presence; nothing is hidden, reality seems to emerge out of itself, in ways that might be beautiful, frightening, dangerous or disgusting. Nature becomes of an expressive character; therein Vincent would become a forerunner of Expressionism, while his vision and, consequently, his impact on art would be more general and more profound. It is a true metaphysical reflection of the metaphysical structure of the world; while Vincent would reflect on some kind of embracive overtotality that lies inside (or beyond) nature, he was also aware that it is not necessarily protective; Artaud would say that in Vincent van Gogh´s vision you have laid bare „the hostile flesh of nature“; haha, art and the recognition of art lies in the eye of the beholder, and the depth of vision would also articulate itself in the many aspects it oversees; the more abysmal the depth, the higher and more glorious the vision until it gets consuming like the flame. The Burning World. „I love a nature that is nearly burning“, and: „Some men have great fire within their soul“. – While he had not been a child prodigy, but rather a problem child (although actually problematic (or „problematic“) he would eventually become later in his life), Vincent van Gogh had a capacity to get immersed into things, a pronounced and synthetic/synaesthetic intelligence and a passionate heart from early on. Art, as well as science and religion would have a great fascination on him from early on as well. To him, art had to rely to a considerable degree on (quasi-) scientific investigation of reality, of perception and of the means and methods of art; like religion it would refer to the divine, the otherworldly, the good and it would create a spiritual bond between men. Despite his ever-present interest, Vincent had decided to become a painter relatively late in life – since all other attempts to find accommodation in life had failed for him. It was a stunning quest, as it did not seem very promising as Vincent usually combined talents as well as considerable deficiencies in any domain he would approach, with the latters ultimately leading into tragic failure of his endeavours. Finally, when Vincent reached perfection, it was a triumphant victory of subjectivism that would define new objective standards. Vincent´s art is so idiosyncratic and, eventually, ungraspable that it cannot truly be explained or that it could have been foreseen. It is true that technically Vincent was not a master painter in many respects; he could not paint freehand, his line was nervous and imprecise and, above all, he could not achieve much similarity between the portrait and the portrayed. People and things are depicted roughly as well as bluntly, but they carry both more idiosyncracy as well as universality (not only as the person or the thing portrayed, but also more idiosyncracy and universality as you have it most other paintings) and, above all, they carry a pressing immediacy. In his greatest paintings and his most mature vision you would recognise that „everything“, and everything that can ever be said, simply and bluntly is there (a not very intellecutal sentence, but therein signifying that intellectualism comes to an end when approaching visions of the Absolute). While the most protean painter of the 20th century, Picasso, would invent a new style every once in a few years, Vincent van Gogh would (apparently) come up with a new style with any new painting he would do; respectively, Vincent would both transgress style as well as „anti-style“, as what he would do could be described as a permanent quest, a processive both searching and finding of expression as something both more primary as well as transcendent to style. Vincent´s „style“ (nevertheless) has a childish innocence, nativeness and immediateness as well as the intellectual sophistication of traditional Japanese art (which had a huge influence on Vincent) with its focus on purity and simplicity, respectively it combines both approaches; it is very virgin and very eternal, very young and very old, adequate therefore to depict a world that is both in bloom and in decay. Of course, this can be quite irritating and (like Franz Kafka) Vincent was dismissive of most of his works, considering them as „etudes“, and his true art and his true form and message as something still to come. Yet, when intelligence/creativity reaches its most upper extreme, it will likely not present itself via a „classicist“ form: instead, it will become inherently experimental and establish multiple points of view, it will become a sort of phase space of the intellect and of the soul (which may, of course, easily be confusing for the bearer of that soul and it will take some time to become familiar with it). Vincent van Gogh´s vision refer to a shifting, dynamic and also a bit elusive reality: and therefore has a firm grasp on reality as how it actually is. His style of painting makes the painting process visible, therefore reassuring that one is confronted both with reality, a vision of reality, a perception of reality and an artwork/a construction of reality; therein Vincent was a forerunner of process art and, more profoundly, of the self-referentiality of art and its metaphysical quest for its exploring own „epistemological“ possibilities and potentials. Avant-garde artists after van Gogh (and at his time) became very self-confident about the possibilities of art, also because of this self-referential quest for art within art; more recently of course art would lose such self-confidence and the self-referentiality become increasingly pointless. Obviously, it lacks the spiritual strengh of a Vincent van Gogh. Vincent´s quest within art (and within any endeavour he would approach) would be for „the true“.  According to Vincent, „the true“ is the force „that brings light into darkness“, that transforms suffering into solace, that consoles, that has the power to heal. It is „what encourages you and inspires you and is good nurture for the true life“. It refers to a kind of epiphany, and when Vincent would become aware of anything of that kind, he would say: Dat is het! „The true“ „can be found everywhere“ and in great numbers; „the world is filled with it“. In contrast to the pessimists and existentialists (and, seemingly, most people, notably intellectuals or art critics) I perfectly agree with Vincent on that; and for instance when people would ask me why, for instance, I often post harmlessly lascivious images of females with big tetas (or try to mock me whether I do it out of sexual frustration (or, as feminists would suspect, in order to exercise power over women via the „male gaze“, while it is actually them exercising power and impression over me)), I may simply respond: Because dat is het! Those are images/epiphanies that show that the world is good and life is worth living. „The true“ is the essence of things. Dat is het. „The true“ Vincent would also find in the portrayal of humble or everyday people, hitherto rather neglected by „high“ artists: peasants, craftsmen, maidens, more generally: in (the portrayal and investigation of) the idiosyncratic and the subjective (and he was especially fond of sentimental artworks, depicting children, melodramatic situations, girls in love, families living in harmony, Biedermeier-like art, like I am as well). Due to the evaporation of traditional and a stable metaphysical structure in which man would find himself embedded in modernity, the modern artist could not create a closed, consistent and total portrayal of (man within) the world any longer. Traditional iconography, allegories or metaphers had become obsolete by Vincent´s time. What is more, in the later 19th century moral foundations had become fundamentally shaken and modern man became confronted with the possibility of nihilism; most dramatically illustrated in the vision of Dostojevski, it would become the task of the individual to enliven morality and establish universal moral standards. The subjective had become prevalent. But how can you create a universal grammar out of something that is subjective, i.e. that is opaque and cannot (and should not) be generalised? Van Gogh however would note that it is precisely the subjective experiences and the individual idiosyncracies that are experienced by everyone all alike and may therefore become a basis for collective experience. An enlightened individual with a profound and empathetic vision of reality and of high personal integrity could serve as an exemplar of humanity and create universal grammars, a subjective vision that embodies/enlivens objective truths. Therein, the artist would become comparable to a saint. By the end of his life, Vincent van Gogh would consider himself to be an otherworldly, transcendent being (which is a correct perception), and art and religion he had always seen as intertwined (which, as both is based on worship, is also a correct notion). He would become godfather of modern art as a quest for subjective expression of objective truth, and a kind of guardian angel of what would become the difficult and demanding task for true artists for decades to come: finding new modes of expression anew – „We all started with van Gogh“, Picasso would say, in that respect. In the later 20th century such endeavours still were/are there but somehow have lost intellectual substance and rigor. Vincent van Gogh at his time was dismissive of the Impressionists, he found them to be „merely clever“ and resting on the foundation of a merely tricky idea, whereas true art would demand „extreme seriousness“ (nowadays, the tide has moved against the notion of Vincent once more, probably to an extend that would surprise him even more (although humor and irony usually are good, it is probably also good that Vincent to a considerable degree lacked humor and irony, i.e. basic principles of postmodernity)). Vincent van Gogh would notice Aurier´s essay of exited praise for him, but he reacted somehow indifferent and dismissive. He had a low self opinion as he had had to experience himself as a failure throughout his life, he saw that he could not reach the mastery of other, technically more profound painters, and he did not consider it possible that he was „a rare genius“. Also, while Aurier could see the polished surface of Vincent´s art, Vincent the artist himself knew about the (unelegant) difficulties and coincidences within the process of creating his art, therefore he was less ready to see it as results of a divine inspiration. While the article by Aurier and also a subsequent exhibition of some of Vincent´s works would attract attention, he still could not sell anything while at the same time Theo´s financial situation had become more problematic, terrifying the ashamed Vincent that he could not escape the situation of putting financial stress on his brother ever more. Irritated, Vincent fled to the countryside again, fully in bloom of his mastery he would create some of his greatest paintings; yet soon thereafter he would succumb to a fatal injury inflicted by a gunshot.

They say there is a thin line or a similarity between genius and madness. That is not actually true. Genius refers to an abnormal intensity of perception and of experiencing the world by getting immersed into it, as well as to great fluency in making unusual associations between (often remote) perceptions and concepts. Due to the unusualness of his ideas, the genius may become mistaken for crazy by others (and therefore become prone to identity crisis and feelings of estrangement himself), but he is, to an abnormal degree, rational in all his endeavours – whereas the madman is, profoundly, not. What makes Vincent van Gogh´s story so attractive/tragic is that he was both a genius and a madman. Rejected by his contemporaries, he is now considered pure and a saint, born to suffer in a world hostile or injudicious to purity, illustrating the tragedy of the genius; yet, apart from that, Vincent actually was a misfit on his own accounts and a challenge to most people he met, including those who were sympathetic of him. About the origins of Vincent´s irrationality there have been debates and scholars have tried to identify it as a bipolar disorder or some kind of schizophrenia. Epilepsy has also been suggested. Likely Vincent had a schizotypal personality disorder, maybe combined with other abnormalities. Schizotypy is a condition that involves unusual emotional and perceptual intensity, capacity to ruminate, associative and network-like thinking, anhedonia, introversion and impulsive nonconformity. Therein, it may be a condition that enables genuine creativity, personal autonomy or genius: Einstein, for example, appears as a perfect illustration of healthy schizotypy. A schizotypal personality disorder involves all those features but gives them a turn towards the unhealthy and the irrational. You may have odd perceptions and personal ideologies within the schizotypically disordered individual, magical thinking, irrational impulsiveness, getting overwhelmed by emotions and social isolation and withdrawal due to reduced capability of getting along with others and to intellectually empathise with them. In contrast to the schizoid individual, the schizotypal individual, who specifically knows both emotional intensity and may have a strong sense for „connectedness“ between people and things, may experience his social isolation as very painful, and that may generate considerable mental health problems and depressions that, in addition to the odd ways of thinking of the schizotypal in the first place, may degenerate into states that are near to psychosis, or into actual psychosis and schizophrenia. Theo van Gogh has experienced „two personalities“ within his brother, respectively a „Jackyll and Hyde“ personality within Vincent. Very strangely, Vincent was capable of extreme rationality and understanding as well as compassion and love for others, transgressing into self-sacrifice, as well as he easily was very subborn, argumentative, self-righteous, impossible to get along with different opinions and, therefore, with most people in general. He was both very fluent and considerably limited and inflexible. Clearly, there are problems for sensitive and intelligent or unusual individuals to get along within society, especially within childhood and youth, and that may lead to problems of adaption, but Vincent´s irrationality, in its stubbornness, cannot, however, actually get traced back to traumatic origins, but appears as something genuine, and in such a case a personality disorder or mental illness is very likely at play. Mental illness came to affect also other members of Vincent´s family; his brother Cor later commited suicide and his sister Wil went insane and spent nearly four decades of her life, until her death, in a nursing home. Theo´s tragic decline came from syphillis nevertheless; it is however possible that Vincent´s aggravated mental health problems later in life had the same origin, and one of the possible motives for his (apparent) suicide was the fear of plunging ever more into insanity. While failure to adapt to institutional logics (or get accepted by institutions in the first place) and an irregular, „trial and error“ biography may not be uncommon for uncommon people and for geniuses, Vincent van Gogh had failed in every aspect of life, be it professional or interpersonal or as a student (and the feelings of guilt and shame aggravated his depressions). In some ways, his failures actually had glorious and triumphant aspects, aspects of failure due to being „too high to function“, but, at the other end of the tail, they carried morbidity. The most heartbreaking story in his biography before he decided to become an artist was him wanting to become a preacher among mineworkers in Zundert who had to live in extremely miserable conditions, notorious not only in the whole country but even beyond its borders. The suffering of the proletarians in Zundert affected Vincent greatly and he went to measures of extreme self-sacrifice in order to help them personally: he spent his time with them, gave away practically all his money and things and, after a huge explosion had happened that left many dead and even more wounded, medically cared for the wounded to the extend of exhaustion. Unfortunately, his grotesque self-humiliation finally began to bear less resemblance to that of a strong-minded and highly rational saint, but more to religious mania and the behaviour of a fanatic and it became uncanny not only to his superiors but also to many of the mineworkers of Zundert. That, and his inability to take into consideration any advice from others finally led to his expulsion and another tragic failure in his life (the official reason for his dismissial however had been that, despite the eloquence that would become apparent in his letters, he could not actually preach and talk in front of crowds). Vincent was a man who lived in extremes, both in divine ways as well as in clearly unhealthy fashions. Self-sacrificial and saint-like to an extreme degree during his time as a preacher, he would ask his brother for more money with some sense of entitlement a while later (while, later again, feelings of guilt about stressing his brother´s financial resources ever further may have been, then, a motive for the (apparent) suicide). Despite his permanent condition of dire straits, he never learned how to live economically. During his lifetime, his appearance would range from dandy to bum, alienating the people around him. As a truly transcendent and saint-like individual, Vincent had high hopes concerning other people and he easily developed enormous passion and compassion for them, which, however, often were out of touch with reality, and he was specifically prone to idealise the misfortunate among human creatures (like the people of Zundert). Sien, a moody prostitute with whom he tried to establish a family for a while, he considered to be „an angel“, and in the eye of newborn children he would see „the infinite“ (one of the infants in whose eyes he had seen the infinite would later become associated with the fascists). With Gaugin at least he wanted to live his ideal of establishing an (everlasting) fraternic community of artists, of intellectual and emotional bonds unable to get broken, while alienating him with his argumentativeness. When Gaugin wanted to leave him to move to new territories, Vincent became so afraid that, in a dissociative state aggravated by alcohol abuse, he cut off his ear, in an apparent attempt to make a „sacrifice“ to Gaugin to make him stay (and, likely, as a mutilation due to self-loathing; like in the final hours of his life, deadly wounded, Vincent did not elaborate much about the natures of the incidents). Whether his death was the result of a sucide attempt or whether Vincent was (unintentionally) shot by rascals that used to follow and harrass the eccentric painter is something we do not know though: There are good reasons to take the former as well as the latter possibility into account. The dominant narrative of the suicide – that may, however, erode because of the reasoning about his death in the more recent monumental biography about Vincent van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith as well as in the film about van Gogh by Julian Schnabel – is at least the more meaningfully tragic one and carries more gravitas. A tragic tale of his life may „benefit“ a genius as it increases his personal sex appeal after his death and make his biography appear more meaningful. Vincent´s ascent to the heavens may be that, in its comprehensive, genuine as well as elusive and mysterious tragedy it is very well-rounded. After his death he became an archetype, an icon, a symbolic figure, seemingly a good spirit/angelic creature, watching over us.

Indeed, not long after his death, Vincent van Gogh became to be seen as archetypical modern painter and as a saint of art. He bears maximum charisma as he is actually a metaphysical figure. The multiple threads that concern art, and all human endeavour and all human quest seem to meet in his art and in his biography. He is a superknot of threads. It has been noted that van Gogh had ruminated more about art and also about the relation between art and world, also as concerns the practical aspects, than any other modern painter (and, for instance, his idea about the artist communities was not only an emotionally motivated utopia, but, first and foremost, a practical idea about how the socially brutally excluded painters of his time could create means and a practical way of living and become more independent from the cynical art market). There is a lot of confusion about what art could actually be or what it would mean to be nowadays (and, due to this confusion that goes over people´s heads, unfortunately also a profound indifference towards answers to such questions); conservative philosopher Roger Scruton fortunately says that the truth of art is spiritual truth. Spiritual truth means a deep connectedness to the world and usually has to be gained via suffering. Van Gogh is the epitome of  „suffering for art“. Vincent´s quest was one of extreme integrity and for authenticity, and humanity needs such stories in order to ensure the authenticity of itself, of the human condition and of the human experience. The genius in someone deeply introspective into the subjects of his investigative quests and therefore is able to unveil „hidden secrets“ of matter. Art is a quest for metaphysical localisation of man and finding modes of expression for that. Vincent van Gogh was extremely introspective into art, in a way that he fell through the metaphysical abyss of art. Because of this, you finally have the totality within his art, the plethora and overabundance of the things portrayed and that extreme degree of presence death to false metal (reminder: could Derrida´s notion about the impossibility of presence be countered via van Gogh? To be investigated!); as you have the ultimate explosiveness within a White Hole due to matter that is falling through a Black Hole and is channeled through a Wormhole – that´s how such a system works.  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari say that a true work of art stands (erect) for itself. Even more than that, in the art of van Gogh you have the Absolute. The art of van Gogh (as well as the tragic conciseness of his biography) cannot be transgressed. The Absolute is an instance that is indifferent to all human relativity and therefore indifferent to all human opinion and to all human thinking. You may say, it is the sphere of absolute values. Van Gogh´s Starry Night or his Church of Auvers, or Beethoven´s Ninth or the General Theory of Relativity exercise a power over me that is infinitely higher than mine. They´re the Absolute. Talent´s quest may be for, respectively reaches its fulfillment in perfection. The genius finds its full realisation in reaching the Absolute. The strangeness of the Absolute is that it is the most universal of statements and that it is very immediate and intelligible as well as it is very different from anything else and not very intelligible, and the establishment of the Absolute is very different from any other endeavour, it´s (naturally) very different realms of being; in the terminology of Wittgenstein (another monad that was working on the Absolute), the language of the Absolute is a different language game from the language games that happen in time and in space. The people of the Absolute are radically different and distinguished from anyone else; they not only belong to groups radically different from the general run of people (the groups of artists, philosophers, druids et al), but are also radically different monads within those groups. And so, apparently, the circle closes. Vincent van Gogh had a passionate desire for brothership and community. He wanted to establish not only a true community of artists but, via art, a brotherly community within mankind. Therein, one may remember Gilles Deleuze´s essay on American literature and Herman Melville, Bartleby, Or, The Formula, in which he outlines that American literature is a call for brotherly unity and America is a utopia of brotherly unity, with this ideal of brotherly unity and authentic community nevertheless being contaminated and corrupted in and by reality. With reference to Melville, Deleuze touches on the problem of the „true originals“, truly original people, who, in a heroic, in a funny and/or in a tragic way stand outside of society and, due to their autonomy and originality, cannot be influenced or consumed (and also not corrupted) by society. They are outsiders of humanity as well as they are an embodiment of humanity and of the human individual in a metaphysical sense. They embody the struggle between the individual and society in a search for meaning and mutual pacification. The reconciliation between the original and society/humanity is the problem for establishing fraternity and authentic community within men, so Deleuze/Melville. Often, the reconciliation between the original and humanity will happen only after the original´s death, when the biographical original individual and the ouevre of the original has entered the autonomous sphere of true ideals (or, above that, of the Absolute) that help to give meaning to humanity. With the reconciliation between the original and humanity, fraternity and authenticity is, then, truly achieved – in an ideal and metaphysical but therein highly tangible sense. And so, the circle and the cycle closes, the dead original can truly rest in peace, as the circle and the cycle opens up for another original again, later in history.

P.S.: Goethe (?) says, only a genius is able to truly recognise a(nother) genius. A tragedy associated with van Gogh is that Albert Aurier, who recognised van Gogh so profoundly and wrote so flamboyantly about him (therein likely mirroring his own flamboyant, explosive mind) at a young age, at the beginning of his twenties, died soon thereafter. I guess Aurier´s early demise is a tragic loss for humanity.