Sociability • Confidence
Van Gogh’s Neglected Genius
In mid-September 1888, a penniless Dutchman, who would in a few months be committed to an asylum and be dead within two years, sat down in the eastern corner of the Place du Forum in Arles and set to work on one of the most astonishing and beloved paintings ever made. Café Terrace at Night juxtaposes our snug night time rituals under our defiant man-made lamps with the ultimate mysteries and sublimity of the cosmos.
And yet, as we know, Van Gogh found no buyers for his masterpiece; no museum came begging, no gallery gave a damn. His work appeared wholly worthless to his entire era. He could barely afford lunch or a new pair of shoes. The local children mocked him. Rarely has a more despised or marginal figure walked the earth.
The story is so familiar that we are apt to lose sight of its ongoing relevance and universal import: people miss things. On a very large scale. They did so then – and, by implication, they must continue to do so now. The reasons are not very complicated and don’t belong to any sort of conspiracy; essentially, humans are herd animals. They show immense loyalty to group-think and resolute opposition to independent analysis. They follow what is fashionable. They are appalled where they are told to be appalled – and admiring where they are told to admire. They will bow to Van Gogh when instructed to and stamp on Van Gogh when no one tells them not to.
Without making any claims for our genius, we should take inspiration. If there are ways in which we are presently neglected and criticised, we should be wholly unsurprised and, more importantly, unfrightened. This is the way things have always, and will always, be.
An alternative to hating and undermining ourselves is to be, at points, a lot more acerbic about the sort of people we live among.