People romanticize Vincent Van Gogh as an archetypal “starving artist,” a genius who suffered from poverty and anonymity, only to secure a seat in the Western canon after his death. It’s a touching story, one invoked by countless artists who think they’re not receiving the level of recognition they deserve.
His work is familiar to us now, and it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t producing popular, “mainstream” faire. He was an avant-garde artist, a man who rejected convention and orthodoxy. His marginalization in his lifetime wasn’t accidental; he knew he was taking risks; he knew he was doing something new and innovative; and he knew people wouldn’t embrace it.
His willingness to sacrifice everything by pursuing a kind of art that flew in the face of convention, his avant-garde approach to painting, his devotion to his vision kept him destitute and alone. He suffered, at least in part, because he refused to conform. He refused to follow convention. He refused to do what everyone else was doing. And, to me, that makes his story more powerful.
Van Gogh’s art was as erratic and idiosyncratic and revolutionary as the man who painted it. In his day, the institutions—the Academy—shunned him, which deepened his despair. Now, the institutions embrace him. He’s part of the Western canon. But they still ridicule his act of lobbing off a chunk of his ear, an act no more deranged or insane than the act of challenging institutions. Artists don’t call the shots. Institutions do. Artists create or diagnose new landscapes or ailments—mental or material—and the institutions choose to accept or negate or ignore them, locking the culture into a state of inertia. Is slicing off a piece of flesh insane when juxtaposed with a handful of people thrusting other humans into desperation or despair, while engaging millions in mind-numbing mediocrity, the kind of mediocrity responsible for sharks in tanks, reality television, and “alternative facts”?
Contemporary art is so vacuous that no one has bothered to name it. It’s produced by hucksters bereft of talent, artists in name only, such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, and marketed by men and women drunk on cash and credit and absorbed in the solipsism of their inflated egos. And it’s easy to understand how their egos ballooned into absurd proportions: by pedaling twaddle to wealthy morons feigning sophistication, these avatars of institution fake the tastes they force feed the masses. Force-feeding this nonsense to the masses, popularizing it, creating and strengthening brands, establishes value in terms of economics. But the value of the “art” itself doesn’t extend beyond the hype and the hyperbole propagated by the tastemakers bent on establishing demand for rubbish no one would want.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.