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August 21, 2017


Vincent's Empathy & Activism


VincentI get choked up when thinking about Vincent van Gogh. A Post-Impressionist artist who painted a huge body of work. Surprisingly, he painted for only 10 years ... his last 10 years of his life. And it is through the act of painting that he finally felt that he had found a way to do something good for humankind. Previous to his painting life, he had been kicked out of the clergy for being overly empathetic to the poor. That he cared too much for them.

Though many of his works are of landscapes and flowers and even scenes of the bourgeoisie, his work also encompasses paintings of poor laborers and families working in the fields.

I get choked up because he didn't have to go out of his way to find subjects like poor field workers with dark skin. It would have been more convenient (and perhaps more lucrative) for him to depict just the convenient. But by taking the time to paint the poor working class, he was making a statement. He was championing humanism ... to make the case to the world with his strokes and pigments that all humans, even the marginalized, have value. We look at his body of work today and think what a genius he was but in his lifetime, he didn't enjoy the applause nor the sales of the viewing audience. I think he sold only one painting during his life.

Ironically, within the Post-Impressionist period, there is a movement called Art Nouveau that emerged in Belgium, where everything was about making everything pretty, in an effort to champion decorative arts. Certainly not a movement that would make room for paintings of poor people working in the fields.

Truthfully, I like seeing it all. The pretty, the troubling, the realistic, the decorative, the abstract. I feel for van Gogh who was so tortured by his unusual degree of empathy that ultimately became debilitating ... and I admire him for painting and being the activist that he was, regardless of the lack of acclaim or sales.

Perhaps the person who recently wrote me and asked that I keep politics out of my art might not realize that when she is looking at a van Gogh, she IS looking at politics. And she IS looking at his activism.

Sometimes it might feel that activism looks and feels a certain way. Loud. Shocking. Bubbling with outrage. What van Gogh teaches me is that at other times, activism feels different ... a kind of feeling that perplexes some because the work isn't super pretty or decorative ... just quietly reflective of a reality that is beyond the convenient yet steeped in the outrage just the same.

(PS: I also think loud and shocking activist art has value. I'll talk about that in another post)

#artandactivismlog

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