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Van Gogh and the 'value' of art

It is unfashionable to emphasise the social and political underside of art these days, but the highly-charged and meteoric career of Vincent Van Gogh cries out for this approach, especially as a superb new display of his work at the Royal Academy will surely draw massive crowds.

The Real Van Gogh offers a chance to reassess and enjoy the work of this great artist. By placing a selection of 35 fragile documents out of his 900 letters side by side with his drawings and paintings, you can get a deeper insight into the sources of his inspiration, life and thoughts.

Driving his prodigious output was the need to communicate, and provide spiritual solace to his fellow human beings in every possible way. When his ambition to become a preacher to the underprivileged (which he began in England) failed, he channelled his energies into his letters and paintings.

There is a political aspect to his anguished story which is kept largely in the shadows. While it is well known that he was never able to become self-sufficient and depended on the generosity of his brother Theo all his life, Van Gogh hoped to resolve this by joining with other avant-garde artists in a collective way.

Van Gogh only ever sold one painting in his lifetime, although his work now fetches the highest prices in the global art market. This lack of recognition and his highly constrained circumstances were a constant source of anxiety, as his letters reveal again and again.

Van Gogh had long sought to form an artists’ colony or commune, so that creative people could support each other, thereby defying the lack of commercial recognition so many, including of course the Impressionists, were suffering. He was incredibly excited when Gauguin came to visit him in Arles in 1888. In a letter written in August that year, he writes: “The painting I do will perhaps never have any value…. we must work at getting a roof over our heads; the essentials, in short, to endure the siege by failure that will last the whole of our life….”

He hoped that Gauguin, whom he admired greatly, would take part in this. When the friendship ended badly, Van Gogh suffered his first mental breakdown. Four days before his suicide in July 1890, he mulled over the problems that unrecognised painters continued to face: “What seems to me on my return – is that the painters themselves are increasingly at bay.”

Van Gogh
Still-life around a Plate of Onions, Early January 1889, Oil on canvas 49.6 x 64.4 cm
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

In his last letter he writes of the tensions that result from the artist having to produce commodities for the marketplace:

For this is what we have got to, and this is all or at least the main thing I can have to tell you at a moment of comparative crisis. At a moment when things are very strained between dealers in pictures of dead artists, and living artists. Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered because of it - that's all right - but you are not among the dealers in men as far as I know, and you can still choose your side, I think, acting with humanity, but que veux-tu?

In the end, the issues are not so complex after all. Van Gogh wanted a world in which the prerogatives of capital did not rule over people’s lives. Making all his letters available online for the first time, as the Van Gogh museum has done, is a great thing. Solving the deeper economic challenges that can suffocate and kill remains the outstanding challenge.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
25 January 2010

Peter says:

An excellent article - Van Gogh's painting was aesthetic, but his attitude toward making is political. How to measure "value"? I once heard someone say "I don't deal in painting, I deal in money". It could be said the art market knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Maybe in these days of ecological & financial crisis we will learn from Van Gogh, to change our "values" from the "right is might" approach of capital, toward a greater awareness that we all exist together, to discover meaning-of-life from that!

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