Van Gogh's suicide and Fintan's reaction
Yesterday, Fintan learnt of the life story of Vincent Van Gogh. He was very interested to hear about how this famous painter had lived. He rather liked the art, too.
When his mother told him about Van Gogh cutting off his ear, he was stunned and appalled that anyone could do such a thing. His reaction was distinctly emotional – as are most things with Fintan. Yet, that is nothing compared to how he reacted when he learnt that Vincent Van Gogh had eventually given up on his life and shot himself. This time he was greatly puzzled.
“Why wasn’t it enough for him to know that his paintings were nice?”, he asked, completely unable to accept Van Gogh’s act as a reasonable one.
Why, not, indeed? One day, no doubt, Fintan will understand how a life of non-acceptance and of “failure”, could wear a man down. Evidently, Van Gogh’s own view of his work was not enough to sustain him against all that negative weight. Perhaps, in fact, he may have imbibed some of what other people thought of his work and no longer been able to see how great it was. If everyone fails to appreciate one’s work, perhaps, in time, it is quite easy to start to lose an appreciation of one’s own work. Then again, even if one knows one’s own work to be wonderful, but NO-ONE IN THE WORLD thinks so, too, that must be too hard to bear, after a while.
Van Gogh did not kill himself. The society in which he lived and failed to appreciate him, did. Had his immediate environment appreciated him and his work, he would, most probably have lived out a full life and painted a lot more than the 900 works I read once, that he had painted in his life. So, ironically enough, the world lost thousands of paintings, because it didn’t appreciate him, whilst he lived. We all, therefore, lost because of this – not just Van Gogh, who lost many years of life.
There is a lesson in this, of course. We should not be too quick to dismiss the works of any creator for their novelty or strangeness, or difference from current perceptions. Anyone whose work is new is trying to show us all a new way of seeing the world. One day, that view will be better appreciated than it is at first, once people have had time to become accustomed to it. Thus, it is, we should habitually forestall negative comment and just observe carefully the new works – and should encourage the creator with judicious words meant to support them in their struggles to bring their inner world, into the outer one. One should never do what was done to Van Gogh: scorn his works, ignore them, underestimate them, for the lack of understanding them.
In fact, it should be that all who might have genius, should be supported in their endeavours by the world around them. It is too costly to us all, not to do so. For if a true genius is not supported, is scorned and spurned, discouraged and ignored, much as Van Gogh was, then it is altogether likely that they might cease to produce their works, or, end much in the same way as Van Gogh. A genius might, thereby, lose their life, but we all lose a world that shall never be fully known: the one within the mind and heart of the genius who could no longer bear life.
There are quite a few examples of geniuses, or at least highly creative people who taken their own lives, whilst still relatively young – often for just the same type of reason as Van Gogh presumably did: despair at the reception to their work. John Kennedy O’Toole, for instance, killed himself shortly after the rejection of his famous work, “The Confederacy of Dunces”. He was just 31. How much more would he have written had he lived a full life? Had he not been rejected, he probably would have done so.
Gatekeepers to “publication”, or the equivalent in each creative world, whether they be publishers, agents, movie producers, or art galleries, should be kinder to creators, more encouraging, more accepting and more open-minded. They should make an effort to see value in the new, quality in the different – and not impose too narrow an aesthetic point of view. The loss can be too great, if they are blunt in their criticism or harsh in their assessment. In the creative worlds, narrow-mindedness kills and short-sightedness is deadly.
What is forgotten by gatekeepers, is that the artist, of whatever kind, will have invested much of themselves in their work. Thus a rejection of the work, is a rejection of the core of the artist: their inner depths are being spurned. The pain of such rejection is enough to kill many artists. They should not suffer in this way. Creative work must be assessed with greater gentleness, insight, compassion and humanity. Though, it must be observed that these qualities are often lacking in gatekeepers, who themselves lack creative ability and, perhaps, lack a true understanding of what artists go through.
Do you want to know who killed John Kennedy O’Toole? Not O’Toole himself. Robert Gottlieb of Simon and Schuster provided the motivational trigger, by rejecting The Confederacy of Dunces, on the basis that it needed extensive revision and was “pointless”. Eventually, Dunces was published essentially unaltered by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. It went on to sell 1.5 million copies and O’Toole received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in 1981. It would seem that Robert Gottlieb didn’t really know what he was talking about. However, his erroneous views killed a great writer.
Sadly, it was O’Toole’s mother, Thelma’s, constant efforts to publish his work after his death, that got it published. She saw it as a means to prove her son’s talent. She was right. Simon and Schuster were wrong.
So, when faced with the work of a new writer, artist, musician, film-maker, poet, scientist or the like, don’t be a killer critic…be a kind-hearted supportive opener of the way – and do what you can to bring new work to the world, instead of doing your best to persuade artists and other creators that life is not worth living.
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