Posted by Cila Warncke
According to the worthy Ziem, man becomes ambitious as soon as he becomes impotent. It’s pretty much all one to me whether I am impotent or not [but] I’m damned if that’s going to drive me to ambition. — Vincent Van Gogh
There are two kinds of ambition. The obvious, socially-approved sort of ambition is the one Van Gogh was at pains to avoid: ambition for money, fame, material success and its attendent fripperies. Not because Van Gogh romanticised the life of the struggling artist as, invariably, only non-struggling artists do. On the contrary, his letters to brother Theo were crammed with references to his constant anxiety about money. He regularly went without food to pay for models, or paint, so his comment about ambition was not a frivolous remark from the lap of luxury. Van Gogh, however, understood the distinction contained in the Gospel admonition that the love of money is the root of all evil. He never wished to and, to his immense credit, though it probably killed him, never succumbed to the temptation to compromise his art for the sake of material comfort.
Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s nuanced understanding of “ambition” is rare these days. Ambition is understood, at least in the Anglo-American social sphere, in terms of money. Anyone not obviously motivated by the desire to make bank is deemed lazy. Real ambition is often directly linked to material “laziness” because, if they’re tough enough, people with great creative talent are indifferent to the siren-call of consumer capitalism. Not everyone is so resiliant, however. Too many fantastically intelligent people are unable to take themselves seriously, and therefore fail to develop their talent, because their gift is meaningless within the social construct they confront. And, distasteful as it is, society’s view matters. Virginia Woolf put it nicely: It is all very well… to say that genius should be above caring what is said of it. Unfortunately, it is precisely the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them.
This makes the careless linking of “ambition” and “money” dangerous for individual artists and detrimental to culture as a whole. It takes a particular tensile strength for a creative person to mine the seam of his or her talent at the expense of financial security, social acceptance and good company. Why do we demand it? Everyone can agree the world would be a dull place without books, music, art, haute couture, jewellery or any of a thousand other poorly regarded, or poorly rewarded creative endevours.
It isn’t just the arts that lose out, either. What about the born nursery workers, gardeners, cooks, carers and cocktail-shakers who abandon their true gift for a life pushing paper somewhere because beige wage slavery pays better than pursuing their passion? It is a ridiculous state of affairs, justified by an ancient, ugly mix of Social Darwinism, laissez faire capitalism and entrenched class prejudice, that conspires to crush what it supposedly promotes: ambition.
The first step towards a solution is to stop making positive examples of people who are merely ambitious for money. We need a better definition of success than six-figure bonuses and penthouse cribs, otherwise we won’t have any direction for our ambition. This means making an effort to seek out people who change the world without making money from it. Historical figures like Van Gogh are relatively easy to come by. It will take a conscious effort to bring modern examples to light — not because they don’t exist, but because we are so used to ignoring them. We need to find the people who echo Van Gogh’s words: “I can very well do without God… but I cannot do without the power to create.”