New York Review of Books, March 25, 2010, “The passions of Vincent Van Gogh“, Richard Dorment.
Vincent Van Gogh is the archetype of the troubled artist, the insane person whose insanity empowers creativity in his art. Craziness is part of being creative, so it goes. Yet, does it? In Vincent’s case, his art was a compensation, it helped make him sane, and when it was assaulted, his sanity and art were broken.
Vincent Van Gogh was eccentric, and socially very difficult. His social failures haunted his life. Life is a search by the self for effectiveness, a niche, ‘something that works’. People are driven to find a sense of mastery, a feeling that they can accomplish what they need. Vincent was no different. But he failed at teaching, at preaching, at romance, and at friendship. His only enduring connection, his brother, encouraged him to do art.
Once he focused on art, he became an ardent learner and self teacher, and he spent hours drawing, painting, and studying other artists, in circumstances of destitution and despair. And then by chance, he went to Arles. There, with his skills developed, his gifts of concentrated perception could match the rich, visual beauty of sunny southern France. He found artistic flow, and produced great works of intensity and power.
In the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a small side room, with a silent babushka attendant in the corner, one comes upon Landscape with Carriage and Train in the Background, painted the year of his death, 1890. One is drawn to faint brush lines, along side the wagon wheel of the carriage, crude strokes of dark color on the whitish road. One slowly realizes they are shadows. . . on water, and the road is . . .wet! . . . And then, with a jolt, one sees that the green fields are wet, it has just rained and there is the smell of wet grass.
It is no mystery that during his time in Arles, he did many self portraits and portraits of others. He was literally building a personal self. His growing confidence led him to seek artistic and personal connection from other artists.
Unfortunately, it was Gauguin who came to visit. A misanthrope and narcissist, Gauguin had little inclination to feel sympathy or regard for others. He left his wife and family without support, to do what he pleased. Far from engaging Vincent, he relentlessly criticized him, and questioned his methods and his work. He tried to change Vincent’s expressionism, his manner of painting what he saw – the very essence of his art. Gauguin wanted egotistical symbolism, nihilistic sentiment.
After nine weeks with Gauguin, Vincent drew a knife towards him, but then retreated in panic and later cut himself. He cut off his own ear. Gauguin left Arles. Vincent eventually committed suicide.
Did the vain Gauguin need to undermine a superior talent?
In Vincent’s last painting, Wheat Field with Crows, menacing black crows descend on the yellows, reds, and blues of southern France.
In October, 1959, Abraham Lincoln made his way to Milwaukee, on horse back, and gave a remarkable speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society. He went there to respond to charges that northern wage earners were no better off than southern slaves. This was a time when American industrialization was just beginning, when the entire economy was based on small farms. People with land had pretty much what they needed to take care of themselves, but this was beginning to change. Available land was running out.
Something about the southern charges bothered Lincoln. He may have sensed, as perhaps only he could, that something terrible like the Civil War was coming, and the southern charges would need full rebuttal. He likely had read the Communist Manifesto, with its thesis of wage earner slavery, it was published in English in 1850. An industrial worker society was already underway in England. He had been a farmer himself. Was he answering Karl Marx?
He spoke with great prescience. He foresaw the application of scientific knowledge to the problems of farming, and the coming of something like the tractor. He sensed how this would liberate farming from its drudgery and low return and greatly boost its production. But would this be progress? Would farm laborers be victims of their own success? Would they be more and more trapped by the low prices induced by their increased production?
Lincoln rejected what he called the ‘mud sill theory’:
“By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital – that nobody labors, unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow, by the use of that capital, induces him to do it. Having assumed this, they proceed to consider whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, they naturally conclude that all laborers are necessarily either hired laborers or slaves. They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer, is fatally fixed in that condition for life: and thence, again, that his condition is as bad as, or worse than, that of a slave. This is the mud-sill theory”.
Labor creates capital, he reasoned, and in America laborers can own their capital, they can be both laborers and owners. In this way, they can avoid serfdom. In addition to the return from their labor, they can also receive return from their capital, thus avoiding the low wage effects of increased productivity, and maintaining independence from the power of capital.
“Property is the fruit of labor – property is desirable – it is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.” March 21, 1864 Reply to New York Workingman’s Association
People seem unusually polite in coffee houses. Coffee house patrons are often regulars, and social interaction research, launched by the seminal book, The Evolution of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod, 1984, has found that an ‘expectation of future repetitive interaction’ drives cooperative behavior. When people expect to see one another again, they have a stake in getting along, and so they are more civil. What is important it that this civility happens unconsciously. We tend to think that civility and good behavior are learned. Yet, here, a circumstance of human interaction – an expectation of future interaction – evokes civility and good behavior. This is the central idea of communitarianism.
This should have profound implications for our political thinking.
There has always been a folk wisdom that holds that anonymity, living in crowds, fosters crime and uncivil behavior. Think of Kitty Genovese, stabbed to death in New York City, pleading for help while her apartment neighbors did not act. This is the corruption of the city, in contrast to the nobility of small town decency. In The Lord of the Rings, by J. R.R. Tolkien, the moral decency – that literally saves the world – comes from small people form small community life, the shire.
Jane Jacobs, in “Death and Life of Great American Cities” 1961, famously opposed the freeways that would break up New York neighborhoods. She highlighted the communal vitality of small enclaves of interactive, interdependent locations that have ‘eyes on the street’. She saved areas like Greenwich Village from the notorious highway planner Robert Moses. She loved coffee houses.
Physically organizing the architecture of our social interactions such that ‘expectations of future repetitive interaction’ regularly occur would seem to deserve to be an essential element of our political planning. Coffee houses, sidewalks, neighborhood schools, local business, front porches, all may drive civility more effectively than moral education. The social hygiene that is created from the proper scale and pattern of social interaction is likely every bit as fundamental as clean air and water.
If Progressivism increases mass scale in all aspects of our civil life, and breaks up the dynamism and autonomy of small scale communities, and thereby reduces future repetitive social interaction – and Thinkagain believes it may – then Progressivism may be due for an overhaul.
Public schools are no longer neighborhood schools, food is no longer locally produced, health care is slated for national organization. Progressives think of themselves as for small scale autonomy, like Jane Jacobs. Yet, the effects of Progressivism seem more and more to be large scale, and centralized, like Robert Moses.
Commit a communitarian act every day, repetitively interact.
Thinkagain is dedicated to coffee houses and Jane Jacobs.
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“May you live in interesting times.”
There is the power to inform,
And the power to misinform.
We must think. . . . and