One doesn’t expect out of life what one has already learned that it cannot give
— Vincent Van Gogh
Every once in a while I read a sentence, or a few, that makes my eyes roll back in awe. It’s been happening regularly since I began High Lonesome by the late, great Barry Hannah. His sentences are like Muhammad Ali right-hooks: works of art that knock your breath out. Not only stylistically; they are tooth-jarringly true. Take this from ‘Repulsed:
There’s never really time to develop one’s ambitions. They just throw you out there and you grab on to something handy like an amateur, in terror. Hardly time to hide your cheap scotch and prepare a face. Pa, for instance, had chosen wrongly, rushed to life insurance when he wanted to be a cowboy…
Is a better, sadder, funnier, more powerful indictment of cowardice imaginable? I’ve read Thoreau, Greer, McCarthy, Van Gogh, and Fitzgerald express the same sentiment and Hannah might just trump the lot of them.
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.”
Posted by Cila Warncke
The view from the sixth-floor members’ lounge of the Tate Modern is spectacular. A cool sweep across Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge and the sludge-grey curve of the Thames. After that, walking through the ‘Pop Life’ exhibition is like touring a crypt: lifeless, rigid, ostentatious, dull.
There are scenes of a sexually explicit nature (in the demure phrase of the small black-and-white signs dotted around the rooms) but the only shocking thing about them is their banality. Jeff Koons aggrandising pornographic (self) portraits are faintly amusing only for the contrast between the unremarkable dimensions of his penis (photographed) compared to its heroic amplification in the accompanying sculptures. Around me, students scribble on notepads. Hopefully they’re writing: Jeff Koons = outsized cock.
Warhol, as ever in these tributes to shit-for-brains interpretations of post-modernism, has pride of place. One whole wall devoted to tiresome screen prints of his warped, ugly little face. I feel like Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde calf. By contrast, when I walked out of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the sky itself seemed higher.
Take the self-portraits. Jeff Koons creates himself as a comic-book character with a giant phallus; Warhol wallows in profitable narcissism. Van Gogh looked at himself unsparingly and responded with an honesty that still speaks in every rusty brushstroke. It isn’t that Van Gogh was too unsophisticated to be commercial. He worried frantically about money and his letters to brother-patron Theo are riddled with anxious survival schemes. Yet immerse yourself in his wheat-fields or sunflowers and your mind unfurls. ‘Money’ is a tiny notion, reduced to its proper place by his swirling French skies.
It is fashionable to say that technique is unimportant, but how can anyone claim to be an artist if they don’t respect their art enough to study it? Van Gogh spent his living allowance paying models in order to hone his craft. Warhol found the easiest, most repetitive, least-demanding mediums imaginable (and was too lazy to even use them inventively). In another section of the Tate an artist whose name mercifully escapes me destroyed a bunch of his paintings in some kind of ‘performance’. How original. How irritating. How insincere. If you really believe what you’re doing is art then it must have value, must have something of yourself in it. How can you just destroy it? The corollary is if you can casually wreck something then you must not feel it truly represents you; it’s not your art. In which case, go back and try harder. Van Gogh bled for his art. He worked while confined to a sanatorium, he lived in raw poverty, he wrestled with demons. The fragmentary calm in his paintings is heart-rending because it evokes peace in the midst of passionate struggle. Koons, Hirst, et al, I warrant, never fought for anything more meaningful than a parking space.