I know I haven’t posted in a while (though I have actually written drafts of several posts), but I wrote this essay in a spurt of extreme boredom this evening, and thought I may as well post it here where it may or may not be read by anyone. So, here it is:
In his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting. He was not a part of the art world, and was in fact rejected by it. Today, Van Gogh is famous, someone almost everyone thinks of as a great artist. One of my 2016 calendars is just Van Gogh paintings for crying out loud. How did this happen? How did an artist considered by many to be erratic and a mentally unstable become one of the most celebrated artists of the 19th century? More importantly, have things changed since then? Are there artists whom we laugh at today that will be considered geniuses in the near or distant future? In fact, to get to the point of this essay, what makes an artist, and who deserves the title?
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional art critic or anything. I’m just a student who likes to think about things in different ways.
Flash forward to 2016 and Kanye West. What? Yes, Kanye. Some people may stop reading here as I start to compare Kanye to Van Gogh, but I beg you, read on and consider the argument. First of all, if you are against Kanye and what he produces, you aren’t alone. Most notably, there is the Bob Ezrin critique (and ensuing Twitter debacle) in which Ezrin boldly states, “Kanye’s greatest achievements have been in the form of excessive behavior, egomaniacal tantrums and tasteless grandstanding.” According to Ezrin, Kanye’s art is not art because it is not creating public discourse, creating a new art form, or addressing social issues. Except it is.
By Ezrin’s reply he is creating discourse. Discourse that Kanye continues through Twitter, thereby engaging his millions of fans (and haters). True, Kanye may partially live up to the reputation of tantrums and grandstanding (“Ezrin I truly feel sorry for your friends and family that they have had to suffer an idiot like you for so many years”), but from this comes a series of news articles and communication both for and against Kanye’s work and what it means to create art in modern culture. In part of Kanye’s response to Ezrin, “Welcome to pop culture!!!”
Moving beyond the discourse aspect of Kanye’s art, there is the charge of a new art form. For this, I would like to direct readers to his new album The Life of Pablo, which is summed up by Rob Sheffield for Rolling Stone: “Kanye wrestles with his biggest enemy – himself – on a complex, conflicted masterpiece… West just drops broken pieces of his psyche all over the album and challenges you to fit them together.” True, it’s not exactly mainstream, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to make you picture the artist complexly, as he truly is, however frightening that may be for both the listeners and the artist. The album is honest, and as its critics say, ever-changing, like life is. And here is addressed Ezrin’s third accusation – the lack of social issues. But they are all there, shown in Kanye’s fears of not being a good enough husband or son or father or anything else that he supposedly should be. How many other people are confronted by those same worries and, like Kanye, try to hide behind some other persona? Frightening as it may be, don’t we need someone to address the problems that arise from this fear of being weak or, worse, showing that weakness? Artists – be they writers, painters, or musicians – are all given the same challenge. Make us feel things, confront things we may be too afraid to recognize on our own, and challenge us to see the world in a new way. Maybe Kanye is showy and erratic. Maybe his fashion line isn’t something one normally thinks of as high style. But maybe, just maybe, he’s challenging us and forcing us out of our comfort zones.
Who else challenges art and makes everyone uncomfortable? Actually, most artists, or at least the ones who stick around and give us things to think about even today. The great modernist thinkers who were ridiculed and slandered and are now studied in schools. The authors whose sentences make readers cringe, and the painters whose works look like something a preschooler created. On the surface, these guys are the jerks who act dumb or mean and are praised for it (what?). Yeah, they’re the ones who paint rectangles (Rothko) or scribbles (Pollock) and have these paintings sell for millions of dollars. Why? Because, rightfully or not, we attribute meaning to their work. Now, maybe the critics are right, and art like this is a perfect modernist representation of the nothingness of life and selling out to capitalism – making nothing art because that sells. And here’s my argument: If nothing art sells, then nothing art is not nothing. I’m not trying to confuse you with the triple negatives in that sentence either; I’m saying that this art that perchance really has no meaning takes on meaning in its meaninglessness. All right, that was very confusing, but stay with me.
Think of some childhood toy. A Barbie doll or a racecar or a plastic hammer. Something that has no value but sentimental value. If any other person saw that object, it would be meaningless, but to you it isn’t. You took a meaningless object and gave it meaning. Humans have a tendency to do that. we want things to have meaning, so we give it to them, often unconsciously. And even in doing this, we poke fun at ourselves, creating the Anti-Realism movement in which art exists for its own sake – not to have some deep meaning, but just to exist. This fails though because is making the art devoid of meaning, it intrinsically has meaning. The art, once in the public eye, no longer belongs solely to the artist. Each viewer of the piece brings his or her own experiences to the viewing and sees it differently from how every other viewer has seen it. The meaning the art has may not be what the artist intended, and the artist may even be angry by how some people view the art, but that is not the point. The point of art is to challenge us into seeing things differently, finding meaning in things that may or may not have it and growing in our lives from there.
So, who can be an artist? Well, in my opinion, anyone. An artist is a person who has something to say and finds a medium in which to say it. Sure, you’ll face criticism, but in the words of Taylor Swift, who has dealt with her fair share of these, “Haters gonna hate.” Not all artists will be so immortal as others, and perhaps one day, Van Gogh’s art will be forgotten while Rothko’s will be held in high esteem. It’s my belief that, for now, we must consider both Van Gogh and Rothko. There is a reason each of these artists has endured enough to be ridiculed/revered, and to learn from either of them, we must understand them. Their personal histories, their interpretations of their own art, others’ commentary on their art, and finally reflection on our own interpretation. Art is for everyone. Everyone can make it, and everyone should consider it because it really does have something to teach us. You’re not going to understand it all, and part of the discovery of art is that realization. In the words of Miles Davis, “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me!” People are individuals, and that’s what makes us fascinating. Via our different interpretations of one world, we make that world different and better.
Van Gogh knew he was different. He understood that he wasn’t understood, and while this frustrated him, he only hoped for change and acceptance. With time, we, as a society, have become able to appreciate an art style that was once considered strange because one by one, people began to consider Van Gogh seriously and to search for beauty and meaning in his work. Someone gave him a chance. That’s all today’s artists ask for, and if we give it to them, we may find something far better than we ever imagined. Van Gogh once said, “Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And not mind being eccentric.” I agree with that. So, for now, keep courage in the face of hate and ridicule. Be patient and gentle and listen to those around you because you don’t know what you could learn. And finally, recognize that being different is one of the best things to be.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCW3YrYXr-0 (not the exact video I was looking for, but you get the idea)