What was it like for Vincent Can Gogh?
The public hated his paintings. Critics abused him, gallery owners threw him out in the street.
At age 37 he killed himself. Today his paintings go for $100 million.
He’s only the most famous example of a common phenomenon, the unrecognized genius – and now, his story has become too easy for us. We pigeonhole him as a tragic figure and tell ourselves he just lived before his time, as if that’s all we need to know.
What we never say is, “If I’d seen his work back then, I’d have hated it too. He was crazy, the poor sot. No one cared when he died. I didn’t either.”
We’re as guilty of rejecting excellence now as people were back then.
Have you noticed that, when the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grants come out, you’ve never heard of any of them? Or do you have Benjamin Warf, Nancy Rabalais and David Finkel on your Friends’ list?
I don’t either. Nor Terry Plank, Junot Diaz or Claire Chase. Wouldn’t know them if they showed up on TV, which they don’t.
It’s a mystery how the MacArthur Foundation finds out about these folks. But I figure they employ specialists to scour the world looking for geniuses.
They’ve sure never knocked on my door, nor of anyone else I know. My friends do tend to excel, though; maybe not geniuses, but they’re all pretty darn good.
Clearly there’s a big gap between doing great work and being well-known. That’s surely true in every field of endeavor.
This guy is suddenly well-known:
This guy isn’t much known, but should be:
I’m sure you can come up with your own examples – a favorite actor or singer who never quite made it, an unknown writer whose sentences take your breath away, a social critic who’s so accurate that no one can hear her, the rabbi who liberated Buchenwald but got shunned in Jerusalem.
Some people are good at the publicity machine and some people aren’t. If Theo Van Gogh had had the internet, Vincent would have died rich at 92.
Mr. Bogle’s a good example; he’s a titan of the mutual fund industry, but Wall Street billionaires won’t even make eye contact with him. He’s onto their game. Fame doesn’t interest him, but investor education does.
For a rich guy, he doesn’t orient his life around greed, but around ethics. Which makes him a worthy subject for the Gay Spirit Diary.
He was interviewed recently for Frontline, the PBS documentary series. Turns out he doesn’t think money is God.
Here’s what prompts my musings: A little while ago I posted tomorrow’s Morning Prayer on my Daily Office site for the Eastern Hemisphere. It’s a fairly ordinary post, the kind of thing I do every day – but it’s great, if I do say so.
Sometimes a person excels quietly, just doing what they do every day, whether people notice or not. There’s a lot to be said for consistency.
This post, if you haven’t seen it yet, celebrates the Saint of the Day, a poet named Christina Rossetti; notices the death of former Congressman Bob Edgar, a Methodist minister and social action leader; features a Song of Creation written by my friend Maria L. Evans, praising God for the landscape and critters of northeast Missouri; asks for prayers for the Diocese of Nevada by showing a photo of a country church on the edge of Lake Tahoe; and ends with a hymn by Charles Wesley, sung at the Anglican cathedral of Portsmouth, which isn’t one of the prestigious cities in England.
All in all, the post is kind of ordinary and kind of brilliant. For those who get into that sort of thing, it will satisfy the soul.
I like doing that. I am happy with my life. And I’m good enough at it that my prayer sites have had 2 million visitors; I have almost a thousand members on Facebook.
These things make me a “success” on some level. They don’t make me a MacArthur genius, but I’m doing pretty good. I will die content.
Part of me knows that Vincent Van Gogh didn’t give a solitary crap whether anyone liked his stuff or not. And part of me knows that he really did.
I feel the same way, both sides of that duality. I care, and I don’t. After all, you’re reading this; thank you!
I don’t need anyone to read it but you.
On the other hand, the more the merrier, and I sure would like a few more donations from the people who are getting my fabulous prayers online. Money’s the only thing I worry about – and then I shrug, because you have to; it isn’t God.
This happened to me recently: I found out that someone read my new book, understood it and liked it. Five stars on Amazon – to go with my previous one-star review.
I’d quit looking, frankly; I don’t market my books, I just write them. I don’t know who this woman is, or how she found my book. I do know that she understood it, and that’s very gratifying. “Vincent sold a painting! Yay!”
Of course I don’t compare to him; I only compare to me, though every publisher will tell you that all writers compare to everyone else in their “genre.” Amazon keeps track of these comparisons, it’s all numerical. I’m probably # 2,000,000 today; oh well.
Encouraged, I decided to check if any of my other books have reviews I hadn’t seen. Murder at Willow Slough, my first book which sold the best of the three, has 27 reviews – but look at this list of the headlines on them:
• Thoroughly unreadable
• Beautiful Gay Man meets Straight Cop
• Josh Is THE MAN
• A thrilling read
• Interesting plot, poor writing
• Great Thriller!
• Interesting plot, but could have been better
• Contemporary classic for the Hoosier State
Keep in mind, Mark Twain gets mixed reviews on Amazon, and Shakespeare’s often called “overrated.” No one gets universal acclaim, and if they start to, there will be a backlash. I spent enough time in the newspaper business to know that the media builds you up one day, only to tear you down the next. Reporters have space to fill; that’s their job. And the public is fickle and mostly apathetic.
So I’ve learned not to expect much, though it does seem odd that I’m so polarizing to people. I get lots of love and a fair amount of hate. For every “thoroughly unreadable,” there will be an “OMG, this writing is perfect.” This is why I go months without reading reviews.
The worst, of course, is no reviews at all. If you want reviews, you have to work the publicity machine. And that takes a value set I just don’t have. (Mindset –> value set).
I look more like John Bogle than Al Gala! Though 30 years ago I was kinda cute. Didn’t take advantage of it; didn’t believe in it.
Recognition is important; it keeps an artist like Vincent alive. But at some point a real artist has to say, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.” Do what you do, keep at it, and maybe you’ll get recognized, and maybe you won’t.
Don’t kill yourself if you don’t.
IN CONCLUSION… I don’t really have a conclusion, except to take your comforts where you can. Be thankful for what you have, not regretful for what you don’t. However bad you’ve got it, somebody’s got it much worse; and similar clichés that are completely true. You have to be self-motivated; someday Al Gala will be admitted to Saudi Arabia without a second thought. What goes up must come down.
Make sure that what goes down, you bring back up.++