Everybody wants to be interesting, and North America seems to be particularly captivated by the cult of personality. Nikelodeon and Disney have based an entire tabloid empire on “celebrity” where every ounce of a person’s life is dissected, details that could only be interesting to a Twitter addict. What we don’t realize, is that “interesting” comes with a price. Interesting people are usually different and if you wanted to put a fine edge on it, sometimes are simply odd.
But there is a tipping point where odd becomes interesting, and it is not something that most people choose. Until then, odd people may not find their own life very interesting. Being squeezed out of the everyday mix might be the element that drives their own particularities.
I can recall doing a painting of my father-in-law. Now doing any kind of portrait, even with photography can land you in hot water because people are very particular about how they think they look. When I painted my father-in-law, my wife clucked her tongue and pronounced the effort sub-standard. My mother in law agreed. and the painting was consigned to a storage closet for twenty years.
Much later on, we moved, and the painting was unearthed. My wife beamed in pleasure. The painting had gotten a bit beat up. Mould encroached on one corner, and water damage had rumpled the canvas board. No mind. It could be selectively framed to hide the ruined end.
I was intrigued however. There was no change in my effort except that it was suddenly valued, due to the inconvenient circumstance that my father-in-law was now deceased. It’s the old dialectic about the unappreciated painter whose paintings suddenly become valuable upon his death, only in reverse.
Have you ever wondered about that? Our society is infused with many odd-becomes-interesting phenomena. In fact, the world of art is based on this kind of ambitious assumption, that something very off-beat, may actually be wonderful and you did not until now notice it. You may suspect the Emperor has no clothes when you walk into an art exhibit which features a rotten cabbage mounted on an art board with some kind of bafflegab which explains the artistic vision behind it, but someone out there is making money.
There is a whole spectrum of things that may one day have potential as interesting, mainly owing to one guy, whom everyone knows but few have thought about deeply. Vincent Van Gogh. He is the original odd-becomes-interesting, except sadly for him, he could never catch a break in real life. The only paintings he ever sold were to his charitable brother Theo, to whom he owed most of his encouragement and material support.
I saw one of the first comprehensive Van Gogh’s exhibitions in Amsterdam in the spring of 1990. There was plenty of fanfare for Amsterdam’s proud son, and plenty of traffic. Many people don’t know a Titian when they look at it, but virtually everyone knows Van Gogh, he is the go-to painter when people want to think of an artistic persona, and this oddness, rather than the art itself, may account for his fame. he was interesting enough that his painting of a vase of sunflowers set one of the early records in 1987 when it was sold to a Japanese investor for roughly forty million dollars. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t get a break in real life.
Van Gogh’s tortured mind frame might have started with his original vocation, to be a missionary. He declared in a letter to Theo, “I have come to preach the gospel to the poor”. The only problem was that this was no side deal for Vincent, he was so zealous when he was posted to minister to the poverty-stricken coal miners in Belgium, that he gave away all of his earthly possessions and so drew the ire of the Dutch Reform sponsors who revoked his ministry in disapproval. In 1879 Vincent left the church, rejected, poor, and embittered.
You would think that such a rejection might translate into worldly success as the appropriate counter, but that is not what happened. Vincent started to paint, and stuck with his humble subject matter - scenes of the everyman, this in a age where art was viewed through the lens of classical subject matter as a barometer of talent and taste.
One of Vincent’s early attempts at an artistic career was a dark canvas of a peasant family gathered around a humble meal entitled “Potato Eaters”. Van Gogh writes about it to his brother Theo, “As for the Potato Eaters - it is a painting that will do well in gold - of that I am certain.”
However, the official and professional response that he got was withering. One critic was a friend by the name of Van Rappard, who advised Vincent, 'You will agree that such work is not serious. You can do better than this - fortunately!” Potato Eaters was neither exhibited nor sold in Vincent’s lifetime.
Vincent’s private love life was equally untidy. In between painting, he variously loved his cousin, Kee; a prostitute named Sien; an older widow named Margot Bergemann; and Stien de Groot, a seventeen-year-old peasant. Van Gogh also famously lost his ear over matters of love. It was (allegedly) sliced off during vicious fight with fellow artist Paul Gaugin outside a brothel, over the affections of a prostitute named Rita. Van Gogh walked into the brothel and presented his severed ear to Rita, who promptly fainted.
Gauguin was just another of the fellow painters with whom Van Gogh would share a bombastic and volatile relationship. He variously was on the outs with fellow artists Pissaro, Cezanne, and Seurat over matters of artistic vision, issues like whether one should paint from memory, or from real life.
Ever the loner, Van Gogh sequestered himself in mental asylum in Saint-Paul asylum in Arles, France where he dashed off 150 canvasses in the space of a year. He spent the next year between hospital and home, and was “interesting” enough to draw the ire of his neighbors in Arles who petitioned the town to have him ejected from the community. The situation came to a head when Van Gogh’s unusual ways could not escape the attention of the children of the town who gathered under his window and taunted him, calling him “fou-fou”, Crazy man. The besieged Van Gogh countered this abuse by raining the street below with all the furnishings of his apartment, on down to his paintbrushes and even his unfinished canvases which were in process.
Seven months later, Van Gogh shot himself in the middle of a wheat field, and what had never happened in his lifetime, came about by his death. He became famous. People wanted to see the paintings of this offbeat man who had led such an unusual and tortured existence and for the first time… his paintings started to sell.
Because of the interest in the man, tastes shifted to accommodate styles and tastes in art that had hitherto been scorned. People wanted to discover the next genius, and to profit from being patrons of the unorthodox, because suddenly, “interesting” could sell. Vincent was marketable for the first time, perhaps opening the gateways of history for all those who followed who have ever been recognized as “interesting”. Anyone can get their fifteen minute’s worth of fame. You just have to be odd enough.
All of this makes me contemplate the relationship that can exist between odd and interesting. If there is a tipping point, I have not reached it yet. My oddities have gone largely unnoticed only except where society and marriage has vainly tried to iron out the wrinkles. I am for better or worse, simply unorthodox but usually this shows up only in unusual thought bubbles which come to me in the middle of the night between three and five AM. At that time of the night, I am free to think the oddest of things in the safety and privacy of my pallet.
Contemplating the fall and rise of Van Gogh makes me understand the capricious nature of popularity, it can be fleeting and it can come with a price. If my life becomes boring enough that I decide to promote my more “interesting” qualities, you won’t find me “trending” on Twitter. I will be throwing all of my possessions out the window, raining down my talents equally upon the just and the unjust, simply to find the direction of the prevailing wind.
I am not famous. I have not ejected all my earthly possessions from the window - yet. But I don’t rule it out. You just never know when odd may suddenly become interesting.