This morning, I heard on the radio that many of Van Gogh’s paintings are fading away. Not only does the chromium yellow turn to brown, over time, but the red pigment he used, based as it was on lead, is turning to white. Some of the most glorious celebrations of the bold use of colour are losing their true colours. This is beyond tragic and very probably irreversible. Over time, we will progressively be denied the pleasure of viewing these works as the painter intended.
During his lifetime, Van Gogh was the archetypical starving artist, barely able to sustain himself and earning practically nothing from the paintings he created. He painted for the sheer love of painting, because as a painter, he was shunned. Were it not for the financial support of his loving brother, he couldn’t have even done that. Society, at the time, was so arranged as to make him an unwanted outsider. He was denied a monetary reward for his work and rejected wholly, by polite society. The reason he used that particular red pigment is that he was too impecunious to use a more expensive, less fugitive one. It was a cost cutting measure, so that he could continue to paint at all.
For those that think the attitudes of society, their prejudices and set ideas, as well as the vicissitudes of the economic and monetary system, are an irrelevance to art and culture, which we can easily ignore, as if they play no part in shaping it, I submit this very example. Because Van Gogh was a starving artist and nothing in society militated against his impoverished condition, he had to use cheap paint and as a consequence, we are now progressively losing works of his prodigious genius. We only have our collective ideas to blame.
Even today, we maintain many of these biases against the geniuses that walk amongst us. Some of the prejudices against artists are arguably worse now than they have ever been, with growing inequality in the economy and artists being priced out of virtually everything. Artists still starve. We believe it doesn’t matter. The demand for studios far exceeds supply and the ability of artists to pay, but we are insouciant about it. We tolerate internships, where highly creative people are expected to work for free, supporting themselves heaven knows how. As a society, we still uphold and permit the denigration and impoverishment of myriad artists, without standing up against it, or eliminating it. How many artists, today, are using cheap, fugitive paint pigments, or worse still, not producing their art at all?
I think the joke is on all of us. Because we persist with our traditional ideas about money, work, the value of art, our attitudes to original geniuses, property speculation, debt and how we view those that owe, we force artists into conditions where the beauty they are capable of creating never gets made, or else is made, but crumbles and fades before our very eyes, like the reflection of Dorian Grey. It’s as if the cosmos is showing us what we could have had, if we had stood up for better ideas, but is whipping it away from us, just beyond our grasp, because we did nothing.
It didn’t have to be this way. Wealthier artists of the day were able to purchase more stable colours. The crime of the centuries was that a genius, Van Gogh, was not among their number. It doesn’t have to be this way today, either. We could, as a society, provide a nurturing environment for our best artists to provide us and our succeeding generations with long lasting beauty. We could empower and ennoble artists to shape our culture and give us insights and visions we don’t have. We could, but we don’t. We’re too busy with the accountancy and obsessed with efficiency.
I wonder if anybody ever stopped to work out the return on investment, on that cheap tube of fugitive, red paint that Van Gogh bought. Would the return have been materially different, had he bought a more expensive one? Yes. The paintings would have remained bright and vibrant for very many more decades, rather than fading away, as they are today. Their value and earning power derives from their vibrancy and a Van Gogh painting that fades loses millions in value. What difference would the additional price of the more expensive paint have made, to the true cost of production? We don’t even get the accountancy right, do we?
We don’t get the accountancy right today, either. While we believe that houses, land and premises appreciate for no other reason than their scarcity or to suit the speculators that earn from churn, we distort our value system, leaving works of priceless beauty and longevity, languishing in the dust. For as long as we lionise and reward financial services providers for their bravado, when gambling other people’s money, but leave remarkable artists starving and unable to sustain themselves, we shape the culture in a way that denudes it of long-lasting, beautiful, insightful, emotionally affecting works.
Each and every one of us has the ability to make a stand against this state of affairs and stand up for the values in the culture we would really like to see, right now. This minute. So few do, though. We’d rather remain positive, happy, distracted, self-involved, entertained and detached, filling our Instagram accounts with pictures of our breakfasts and shoes, while desperately hoping the bigger problems will leave us alone for just one more day. Meanwhile, another day elapses when great art is never made, or made so cheaply, that it will degrade and vanish, very quickly.
Van Gogh’s fading paintings remind us, painfully, that we never have raised a finger to materially redress the circumstances of our starving artists. Ultimately, though, the big, cosmic joke is on all of us. We all lose, in the end.