We come up against the problem of ideal versus reality a lot when it comes to history, our heroes, and how we want to remember things. This is why the commemorative statue of the Roosevelts in Washington has the dog next to the president.(We love our dogs). Furthermore, President Roosevelt is in his wheelchair because we also like to acknowledge the handicapped and that he managed a war on 2 wheels. Eleanor is sculpted these days sans her beloved furs, as we are also supposed to all hate and abhor the wearing of them and the uncaring individuals that still do. This is a perfect example of something that, while not quite revisionist history, is definitely cherry-picking to fit modern sensibilities.
That is not to say it's not a good monument. It's actually quite awesome, and lovely, and there is actually a monument with a DOG as an integral part of the balance and mood of the piece. I am a fan of dogs balancing out and creating mood in pieces, especially federal pieces. No bland white marble to be found on this.
But you get my point.
You also might think I'm about to be seriously bitchy, but that's not quite it either.
What brought this entire thought stream about was a visit paid to the Philadelphia Museum of Art about 2 weeks ago. They had the paintings of Van Gogh there, which I've already blogged a touch about. They were amazing. I cannot stress that enough. AMAZING. It is the only time I have walked up to a piece and actually felt the energy that the artist attempted to imbue in the very oils mashed in to the canvas. If it were to be rendered as a 3-d plaster for the blind to touch, they would have the rare treat of being able to FEEL this energy. It was amazing to see how many people half reached up to the glass. You just knew they were thinking about feeling the peaks and valleys of that dried pigment. I don't blame them, I did the same multiple times.
I've seen people at art shows before. I've never seen people physically react and move towards a piece in wonder like I have. It was amazing. The people watching was just as inspiring as the artworks themselves.
The problem that I have, and that still nags at me, is the manner in which they pussy-footed around the fact that he was mentally ill. It was most obviously and victoriously set up as a celebration of the artistic spirit, the "fire in the head" that strikes artists and drive them to paint all night without rest and collapse in satisfaction long after the sun has risen. Van Gogh had it, and he had it bad. You could tell the zeal with which he applied his paint, his strokes, the combination of colors... all had the feel of a man caught in the moment. Perhaps this is why people reacted so much, because it was a tangible example of what that moment is like. He managed to actually capture such a fleeting thing for us to study and love and recognize.
There was a vast opportunity here to help point out that the mentally ill aren't all just anti-social scab-pickers and mutterers, though. Having a problem such as that is just one facet of a larger story. It can be a beautiful although at times sad story. It could have done so much more good for the understanding of brain chemistry as it relates to creativity and artistic drive, or to mental health in general. They didn't even have to MEAN for these things to be addressed, even. It would have been understood had the message just been presented up front; "Look, Van Gogh struggled with depression all his life. He shot himself. But look what he managed to do before that, guys, is this not amazing?" No politicizing. No humping social issues behind the scenes. Just facts. That's all it needed, those facts.
Instead there was the subtle mention of "hospitals" here and there, the mention of "recurring illness". A passing reference in the audio commentary about a personal doctor and that he suffered from a "mutilation". (Yo, dude was fucking hard core and cut his own ear off. Mention that shit. People love him, they will allow for this fact!)
It was hard to leave the exhibit. The last painting was one of his most unusual, in that it was painted straight up in to the sky, just branches with flowers. They focused on how joyful it was, how it was painted at the news that his brother was now father to a baby boy... an amazing image, made all the more amazing for knowing the back story on it. He painted that when he was possibly at his most happiest.
And that's it. That and a passing comment in the audio about how he died of a gunshot wound. Not that he did it himself (yes, okay, it's not proven, but pretty assuredly assumed), but that he died. And then we filter past that happy blue painting of the sky and out in to the gift shop, and beyond that the marble of the main hall....
....and when that happened I felt cheated. Really, really damned cheated.
I have struggled with the Unholy Ghost my entire life. I have researched it, medicated it, meditated against it, exercised to exorcise it, and done everything I could. It is a more constant companion than my cat of 13 years, or my husband of 2. I know when all else goes, it will be waiting for me in the corner, biding it's time to where it can slip in and caress my cheek, whisper its withering things in my ear and take the life from me. Thankfully its visits are damned short these days. But it is there.
I'm not going to claim a lofty kinship to Van Gogh because of this. I've read enough articles talking about how creativity and depression coincide. Hell, one of my favorite web comic teams is on constant medication against this same crap. It was their comic and the news for that day that actually, for the first time, made it so I could talk with my spouse openly about it. He respected those men and now had an understanding of what such people could do. It wasn't scary. It was just a facet of a personality. Like enjoying jazz. Or having lactose intolerance. Or collecting baseball cards. You get the gist.
I'm not sure why they felt the need to take one of the most celebrated artists in history and sugar coat the hell out of him and his story. This is when making lemonade from lemons is... well, confusing for one thing. I'm wondering how many people left that exhibition thinking the man had TB. I'm wondering why the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the people who put this traveling show together did a much poorer job of addressing Van Gogh's psychological state that Doctor F'ing Who did. This was lemonade made for reasons I just don't grasp, on something that is actually made MORE beautiful for the flaws the man had. There could've been so much more depth added to it. And they didn't touch it. They just skirted around it in passing, made nice-nice, and attached a happily ever after ending on it.
Lemonade is just one small step away from white-washing when you take it that way. It's not the whole story. It's not allowing for the wonders of the mistake, the miracle of the wabi-sabi-ness in existence. And I personally think people would be a lot less stressed if they realized how much of life was born from mistakes and missteps. Perfection never occurs. Lemonade does. We need to allow ourselves these things, these flaws and moments of fail, and we need to be able to laugh at them, or empathize with them, or love them anyway.
You cheated me, PMoA. Your lemonade tastes a bit bitter.