You don't have to be a suicidal nihilist to make something beautiful.
Collages by Marta Parszeniew
Auvers-sur-Oise, France, the 29th of July 1890 – For the first time in all of his 37 years, everything seemed to be on a roll for Vincent van Gogh. Having spent eight years as a prolific grafter, he was seeing his time arrive. And, just like they eventually did with all the great artists of the second half of the 19th century, having spent so many years dismissing them, the critics were eating him up. Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas... all these began as laughing stocks of the Salon de Paris. Then they broke the mould. Now, van Gogh was about to give it its second wind. But before he could do anything about it, he died, stumbling home one day with what he insisted was a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his chest.
What would drive him to kick his own bucket, though, during a period that on the whole was almost shockingly stolid? There’s no avoiding the bare truth of van Gogh’s manic depression, but why perforate his chest and not his head? Why stage his own end in a bucolic setting that he described only two weeks earlier (in a letter to his brother) as "so healthy and invigorating"? And how did van Gogh, a man acknowledged by the residents of Auvers to be a head case, procure a fucking gun?
From The Sorrows of Young Werther to Fat White Family, people have been playing up to the image of the struggling artist. We prefer to think of our painters as people who dabble their brush with one hand while wiping away their tears with the other; people who deal with adversity in the most striking way possible. But we shouldn't exalt adversity in this way, because art can be manifested in the name of anything under the sun. In fact, I’d dare to say more of it has been created in stupors of bliss than dejection. (For proof, look at any Impressionist painting bar van Gogh’s.) While happiness may write white, it certainly doesn’t paint it.
The fuel that continues to run this myth now is just lousy mimicry – a cosplay for your pretentious Saint Martins student. Suffering has never done anyone any good. And to staple an artist or writer with an anguish or torture tag is an insult to any credibility they may have. It’s to brand them with a prerequisite that only exists as a fascination in the public’s mind, as if pain is the only thing one can grasp from looking at art. It’s as though, if artists weren’t crippled with the anxieties and neuroses that it supposedly takes in order to be a visionary genius, ordinary people wouldn’t be able to admire the art world because it would seem too accessible to them.
Blight doesn’t have to be fundamental to everything a person does in their work. It doesn’t have to be that without which they could not live. The annoying thing is that now – after a good 70 years of Hollywood buying into and feeding us the monotonous allegory of failed screenwriters, homeless virtuosos and troubled artists – the tribal necessity that we shared in being creative has gone to shit. From the modern hetero perspective, making art is something that mostly miserable, gay people do.
You have to recognise that this happens nowhere else in life. I don’t have to be suffering from epilepsy in order to make a good fish finger sandwich. Footballers don’t need to have a strained hamstring to put in a decent shift. When Neymar was kneed in the back against Colombia in this summer's World Cup quarter-final, he didn’t shun the physio, kick the stretcher aside, shrug off his fractured vertebrae and say, "Come to think of it, this near-paralysis state of absolute agony will do wonders for my performance."
So you’ll get only get tosser students of Fine Art who feel the need to muster up anything slightly bad that has happened to them in their past life just so they can feel justified making whatever mediocre shit it is they make. One toke at a house party will become a drug history; seeing your mate get lightly clipped by a car as a kid turns into your Stephen King-sees-friend-run-over-by-train memory; having to have an underscore in your Twitter name is your own personal Holocaust. These people have ruined it. They don’t get it at all. They've turned art into lunacy and appreciation of art into sympathy.
What about the much overlooked obverse end of the Troubled Artist spectrum? Ruebens, Velazquez, Picasso, Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Shakespeare, Dickens, Wodehouse, Raphael, Van Dyck, Matisse, Bach, Tolkien? Even the bloodletting of the Great War didn’t wash him away in an abject sea of self-pity.
This myth has created an incompatibility between great art and money, effectively rendering sell-outs a bad thing. But all artists are in it for the money. They always have been. It’s just that now they can’t admit that fact, because it may become detrimental to their reputation, and so artists are trapped in a paradox of hypocrisy. Michelangelo was drowning in a quagmire of his own lucre by the time he croaked it. In today’s money, he left behind around £35 million. Ruebens was also quite happy in his country manor, and Titian was pretty well-off, too. We’ve long since forgotten the idea of the artist being anything more than a pauper.
The primary source of contempt for Hirst, Emin and the rest of the Young British Artist set that came through in the 1990s seems to be that they managed to coalesce making art with making money, had a laugh, and got pissed up at The Colony Room in Soho every night. And that left critics scratching their heads. If Damien Hirst had an extended, wiry head of hair, lodged himself in a shithole, and met bankruptcy with the same regularity that a shopkeeper does customers, he wouldn’t be as reviled as he is today. His audience feel they can’t relate to him because he’s loaded and they’re not. Because he’s an artist, and artists have to be miserable all day, Damien should live in poverty. This is bullshit.
The important thing to realise is that a painting, novel or even film can be made counteractively to whatever personal torment the designer might be going through. Like I said, van Gogh was absolutely bonkers and a nightmare to deal with. He had no sense of self at all and drank like a fish. By the time he’d reached Paris, he was already brimming with syphilis, and in Belgium, where he had just ousted himself from art school, his teeth had rotted so badly that he had to have ten of them ripped out in one sitting. He also lived with epilepsy, acute intermittent porphyria and lead poisoning. So you can excuse him for feeling a bit fucked off from time to time. And no doubt he would be, but that wasn’t responsible for the work he produced. Van Gogh didn’t create what he did through all the unspeakable things that were happening to him; he did it in spite of them. It was van Gogh’s job to do what he did and he fucking got on with it.
(Image of Hirst via)
We shouldn’t have teenagers leaving school as fucking philistines purely because they’ve been taught all this wank about story-writing and picture-making tying in with human frailty. Teach them about Picasso. I’m not saying he lived a tearless bonk-fest of a life, but he had a long, steadily successful and rich inventive living as an artist. Show them examples of how it can be a good thing. Lecture lads about Caravaggio – they’ll love him.
We’re going back 300 years before van Gogh: the time of the counter-reformation. Caravaggio, born in Milan, flees to Rome after beating up a police officer. He’s 21. The Church is in a mess; it’s desperate for art. Hundreds of budding artists are flocking to the city and Caravaggio is arguably the best. His paintings catch the eye of Cardinal del Monte, who snaps up a bunch of his work from the dealer’s shop across the road and invites the artist to live in the Palazzo with a room, board, studio, a source of patronage; the company of poets, philosophers and musicians. All this surrounding him, and he creates his best work.
In the meantime, he fancies himself as whatever counter-reformation-era Italy's version of a lad was. He scraps with anyone: prostitutes, soldiers, Roman guards, his landlord and even other painters. In one court record, he’s described as having smashed a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter for serving them with butter instead of olive oil. For this type of lark, he’s constantly in and out of jail. How does he get out? His friends in high places. And by painting: the thing he loves. The only thing he’s good at.
In 1606, it all goes tits up. Arguing with a man called Ranuccio Tommassoni over the score of a tennis match, he unbinds his sword from its sheath and stabs him in the dick, killing him. Horrified, he legs it to Naples and lives with a friend for a year – does a few paintings – before ending up in Malta, of all places. He enjoys life as a Knight of the Order, until he shoots someone in the leg and is slung in jail again.
Does he serve his time? No, he’s Caravaggio. He escapes from his cell, scales down a 200ft precipice, swims around, gets on a boat and arrives at Sicily. Back in Rome, Cardinal Scipione Borghese issues a death warrant: bring me the body of Caravaggio. (But if not, the head will do.) Caravaggio’s shitting himself every day. On one occasion, he’s beaten up by some thugs and left for dead outside a tavern. But he’s still got this enormous talent for painting, and so he gets out the brushes and comes up with a picture called "David with the Head of Goliath". In this image, Caravaggio paints himself not as the hero, David, but as the scythed head of Goliath. He’s saying, "Here you are, here’s my head, am I forgiven?" He rolls the canvas up and ships it to Rome, where Pope Paul V decides to pardon his sentence.
As the boat to Rome sets sail, Caravaggio does not. He misses it, and goes after it by foot along the beaches, before dying, aged 38, probably of a fever due to a lousy immune system.
But look at that. Caravaggio didn’t purge any episode from his childhood for inspiration. He didn’t need it. A vicious plague wiped out his grandfather and father in the same day when he was five years old, but it played no role in his work. He used the vagrants of Rome as his models and never flattered anyone. He painted for the people. Now, art’s viewed as almost the opposite. As though it’s an elitist society, not worthy of interpretation by the common man.
I don’t want you to think that the universe is going on for your sake, nor do I want you to think it’s doing everything in itself to make you feel insignificant. Nothing creative has or can be executed negatively. Nabakov was right – anyone who has or pretends to have a nihilistic view of human life is just ridiculously unobservant. The world is jumping up and down like a dog longing to romp with you. There are still people chiselling away at bona fide talents in the hope of it doing wonders for this planet. So stop pretending you're a fucking pariah because you smoke roll-ups rather than company cigs, shave off that late-Edwardian beard, and get to work creating something other than separatism in a society that could use a bit of decent art right now.
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