What do we value?

All art is an artist’s attempt to share their consciousness with others...

Is it, though? Or, rather, is that why we consume and value art? This quote is from a brilliant Medium piece I've been thinking about the last few days.

Is the reason we consume art because we value the intention behind it? Put another way, is it about the agency of the creator? Is it about the viewers? Or, once let out into the world, does art take on something separate from either?

Consider how recently European art broke free from dogmatic classicism and realism. And how many such works are still counted among the masterpieces. I think it's a bit problematic to be so definitive about subjective perspective.

From the same piece:

The Mona Lisa has become the Mona Lisa because of the legendary stories that have accumulated around that rather “unremarkable” little portrait. The Mona Lisa cannot be assessed as a painting anymore. It is inextricably linked to value, by the international idolisation of Leonardo Da Vinci to the status of a demigod, by Napoleon’s secretion of the painting into his bedroom, by the infamous thefts which transformed her into an icon of France, by its successful concealment through the resistance from the Nazis during the Second World War, by its transatlantic journey from Paris to New York in an hermetically sealed box...

I don't think I've ever had a conversation about the Mona Lisa that touched on its artistic qualities. Or even the feeling it conjures. Rather, it seems like a binary. An event. A necessary pilgrimage. Have you seen it or not? Rather than whether you love it and why. The painting has taken on so much more than the conscious of its creator. The brushstrokes themselves almost irrelevant.

I'm also reminded of seeing Starry Night a few years ago in MoMA. The room was absolutely packed. People lined up to take selfies with an image they'd seen plastered on bags and postcards. But how many know Vincent van Gogh painted it while in an asylum? That he painted it in between breakdowns, through the bars in the window?

Is it the wonderful exaggerations, the possible product of visions, that we are grasping at? Is it the galaxy or the cypress trees? Or is it all the context that has built up in the intervening years?

Vincent van Gogh seems to be particularly suited to a world where textual analysis rules. The hundreds of surviving letters between the van Gogh brothers and others are a peerless treasure for those wishing to grasp the consciousness of the creator. But how many have read them? I didn't. I haven't.

This all may seem academic, but it would necessarily shape the kind of art being produced even now. Some artists, famously, evolve significantly throughout their careers, picking up new styles and mediums. But if the value of art is something outside the artists then many are likely to be trapped by expectation. Their work only valued if they embrace the context that has surrounded their work.

(My emphasis)

Diving into the van Gogh letters

Vincent van Gogh's letters have been playing on my mind since I finished his biography a few days ago. Steven Naifeh used a close reading to paint a rich portrait, the ups and many downs. But what else can we see?

It's staggering how many have survived. Almost 1000 van Gogh-adjacent letters have been translated and put on a website attached to the Van Gogh Museum. 659 of these are letters from Vincent to Theo. 83 are to Vincent. The rest are a mixture of senders and recipients.

Obviously many letters have been lost, but right there you get a good sense of the relationship. Theo apparently saved hundreds of letters from Vincent. And this was before van Gogh was van Gogh.

Charting the letters across time gives you another clue as to the relationship. Vincent van Gogh only really focused on becoming an artist in the early 1880s, which is roughly when the letters to Theo really takeoff. This is also when Theo began to financially support him.

The sudden dropoff in 1886 and 87 is easily explained - those are two years when Vincent lived with Theo in Paris. There wouldn't have been many letters exchanged (just 19 survive).

You can see a similar trend in the length of the letters. The length picks up as Vincent repeatedly meets failure in his worklife and turns to Theo for support. There's another jump around the time Vincent takes up art in the early 1880s.

The average length is truly amazing when you consider the number of letters being exchanged. It reminded me how often Naifeh describes Vincent as copying out poems and bible verses when in a particular pique and needing to convince.

His exhortations eventually broadened to include love and belonging, melancholy and longing—subjects that clearly haunted him in his deepening alienation. So intense was his passion to persuade that letters alone could not contain it. By early 1875, he had bought an album for Theo and began filling its blank pages with long transcriptions from the works by these and other writers, all in a tiny, neat, error-free script. When he had filled every page of the first album, he bought another one and filled it, too, copying by gaslight late into the night.

But what about the content of the letters? They almost all begin with some version of "my dear Theo" and often end with a "your loving brother". But I'm not sure if that quite captures the relationship.

I ran a simple sentiment analysis algorithm on all the letters to Theo. It analyses the words and outputs "positivity" on a scale from 1 to -1. 1 being positive and -1 being mostly negative.

As you can see, apart from a couple of outliers Vincent's letters are mostly in the middle. Neither overly positive or negative. But also not what I would expect from letters to a close family member.

There's an obvious flaw here in that the letters would have originally been in either French or Dutch, so I'm working with a translation. But this roughly fits with the vibe of Naifeh's biography.

I think that might be all we'll wring out of the letters for now. I was thinking about looking into the distribution of words - find out the major topics. But I suspect there will be a lot of noise. Maybe let the art do the talking.

It takes a village

I finally finished Steven Naifeh's insanely long biography of Vincent van Gogh. I'm now far less taken by the "genius" of Vincent. Rather, I'm enamoured with his brother.

The book is a brilliant illustration of the importance of family. Vincent appears to have been a loner, but defies the lone genius trope.

Theo knew better than anyone the trials of living with his brother: the insecurity and defensiveness, the alternating currents of guileless optimism and abyssal depression, the inner war of grand ambition and easy frustration.

The family were prolific letter writers, and so the story is largely constructed around surviving correspondence. Mainly that between the brothers, but also of their family and contemporaries. Looking through my notes, however, much of it is taken with harangues, tantrums, feuds and demands.

He wrote Theo, too, unapologetically detailing his new life (“I have a real studio of my own, and I am so glad”) and hinting darkly that he might be forced to borrow again from Mauve if Theo did not replenish his empty pockets—or even go to Tersteeg for money. Fearing another family embarrassment, Theo sent the money, but not without blistering his brother for behaving so badly toward their parents. “What the devil made you so childish and so shameless?” he scolded. “One day you will be extremely sorry for having been so callous in this matter.” Vincent exploded at the rebuke, responding to his brother’s accusations in a long and furious rebuttal. “I offer no apology,” he declared. To Theo’s charge that such bickering threatened their aging father’s health, Vincent replied acidly: “The murderer has left the house.” Instead of softening his demands, he complained that Theo had not sent enough money, and insisted that Theo guarantee further payments because “I must know with some certainty what to expect.”

The book charts Vincent's slow spiral, from an upper middle class upbringing, through repeated failures in numerous fields. Vincent appears to have lived with mental illness most of his life, and only really started to gain fame after his suicide.

Along the way Vincent seemed to alienate almost everybody, including his parents, uncles, bosses, co-workers, landlords, art suppliers, fellow students, siblings, and entire towns and villages.

But not his brother. Theo supported him throughout, financially and emotionally. For most of his time as an artist Theo paid his bills. He offered encouragement and advice, and acted as a go-between to important contacts or people Vincent had already antagonised.

For someone who dreamed of family and a place in the world, Theo was it.

That any of us know of Vincent van Gogh is due to Theo and his wife, Johanna. Theo even saved his paintings and letters, stashing them in drawers and under his bed. But he died shortly after Vincent. It was Johanna who organised exhibitions of, and curated, Vincent's work. Johanna was even the first to publish the brothers' correspondence.

Vincent was a genius but he didn't do it alone. It took a village.