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An Interview with the Ghost
of Vincent van Gogh
by Miles Mathis
I was doing some automatic writing last night (you know, just like everyone else) when suddenly the ghost of van Gogh took over my pen and began telling me things. It was great. You should try it. If you do, here is one way you might start.
You : Hi Vincent.
VG : Goedendag en bonjour enzovoort.
You : Let's see, I don't know what to ask. Have you kept up with art history? Can I ask you about that?
VG : Of course. We all have you in mind.
You : All?
VG : The artists. Leo, Micky, Auguste. Benvenuto. We watch, we whisper, we place bets.
You : Oh. That's nice.... Let's just jump right in then. Is art dead?
VG : Yes. I thought the galleries I worked for in London or Paris were bad. I thought art was in a bad place in the 1880's. I never imagined this. I would have jumped for joy every morning, had I known how lucky I was to have predated this era.
You : So am I to understand you don't like 20th century art? Not even Warhol? Or Duchamp?
VG : Picasso's Blue Period was the end of art history. Nothing has been done since that I would call art. Warhol and Duchamp were not artists. The Romans would have thrown them both from the Tarpeian Rock. And we would have shown up to watch.
You : Hm. But you are considered so progressive now. I didn't expect such intolerance.
VG : Art has nothing to do with tolerance. Your philosophies are alien to us. Art is a skill. All skills are exclusive. They exclude the unskilled. Duchamp and Warhol had no artistic skills.
You : But they must have had some skills. They have impressed a lot of people.
VG : Yes. They were skilled at impressing other people with no artistic skills or sensibilities.
You : Wow. That's harsh.
VG : Not as harsh as living without art. I would not trade you for your philosophy -- your philosophy that is not so "harsh."
You : Why do you think art is dead?
VG : Art is dead because there are no artists. It is very simple.
You : Yes. But why? Why should there be no artists now, when there were always artists before?
VG : There are no artists for the same reason there are no cobblers or farriers or musketeers. They are extinct. Your culture apparently does not need art, any more than it needs professional sword fighters.
You : What about all the art in New York City? Or, if you do not like that, what about Santa Fe?
VG : Politics and decoration. Your culture still needs these things. It also still needs the glamour of the term "art." So it attaches it to both these things, neither of which is like the other, and neither of which resembles art, except very distantly.
You : People are creating things all over the place. None of this is art?
VG : You could say that you "created" the salad for dinner. Are you thereby an artist?
You : Some might say.
VG : Precisely.
You : We have read that you were difficult. But you aren't even likeable.
VG : It's not a personality contest.
You : It is now.
VG : Precisely.
You : OK. But you said our culture needed art then, but does not need it now. Where did this need go?
VG : I suppose it is buried. Or atrophied. Or maybe it fell off, like the vestigial tail. You have spent a century flexing your reason, your science, your bulging neocortex. Meanwhile your limbic system has shrivelled, your dreams have dried up, you have suffocated your past. No wonder you can't sleep. You are in flight from all your inner self, be it devil or angel, because it is unquantifiable, uncontrollable, uninsurable. Even Christianity was a cornucopia of passion and imaginative freedom, compared to the psychic constraints you now exist under. The question is not why artists don't flourish; the question is how do any of you make it through the day? My contemporary Nietzsche predicted you would be the "lastman," blinking contentedly through the centuries like a cow in the sun. But it is worse even than that. You are immobile like the cow, but not because you are content. You do not move because your pen is so small, and you will not even allow yourself to remember how high the sky is.
You : I don't know what you mean. We are the free-est people in history. Democracy, civil rights, universal suffrage, equality, freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Sexual freedom.
VG : Don't be absurd. True freedom would imply diversity. You all just want to be like the people on TV or in the movies. Your worship is a sham, even in the rare case that it exists. The only people who even pretend to be religious are the fundamentalists, who are not striving toward something, but fleeing something. And who is saying anything but commonplaces and absurdities? If anyone is actually saying anything anywhere, you can bet he is not being published. Who would be his audience? I have read your "brave" novelists, seen the full spectrum of your politics. What happens when every sexual oddity has been catalogued and publicized? Will your "art" and "politics" be at an end? Will every fascinating thing then have been accomplished?
You : You make us sound so hopeless and small.
VG : You are the most vulgar people in history. Even the Huns and Mongols had an upper end to their culture. Even the Bushmen have art and a living religion. Even the Aztecs had a conception of beauty and meaning. Future peoples will look at your art in utter disbelief. And hopefully in terror. For they will realize how close man can come to the abyss, and still revel in his elevation.
You : What about Leonardo? Is he there? Isn't he impressed by our technology, at least?
VG : He says Yes, he would like to ride in one of your airplanes. He says that if he lived now he would be a pilot maybe, then he could look at the clouds all day.
You : He would not be an artist?
VG : What would he do? Paint a fresco in the Walmart of the current cast of Survivor?
You : Brutal.
VG : You asked.
You : We do have museums.
VG : Yes. We call them asylums.
You : OK. Next question. Is there anything that can be done? I mean, if we stopped and said OK Vincent, you are in charge. What is the first step?
VG : Are you sure you want to do that?
You : Let's say yes.
VG : All right. First, set up a Tarpeian Rock. Or any high place will do, preferably next to the sea, where there are some really sharp rocks. You know. Then, line up everyone who is currently "in the arts." Curators, critics, "artists," magazine editors, book publishers, art administators. Everyone. And march them over.
You : That sounds a little extreme.
VG : You did not think it was so extreme when they killed us off.
You : Well, it was not exactly a pogrom. They didn't just shoot all the artists.
VG : No, they let us do that ourselves. You're splitting hairs, my friend, I assure you. Besides, is it more "humanitarian" to step on a bug, or to redefine "bugness" and then watch the poor thing run in circles for years? My illustration may have just been a bit of satire, but these people have to be "marched off" in some sense. Their influence must be stopped. The Tarpeian Rock is their power, and they have to be thrown from it. Not killed, ignored.
You : Why not just pass a law or something, you know, against clueless criticism?
VG : You should know, as a capitalist, that a legal system runs on laws; an economy, however, runs on profit. As long as there exist people who know how to profit by calling non-art art, there will be a proliferation of non-art.
You : Isn't an economy determined by demand? Shouldn't you be worried about the buyers of non-art?
VG : You are getting ahead of me. That is the next step.
You: Marching all the buyers off the cliff?
VG : No. Although that is also appealing. Demand is created by education. We will take the four or five real artists (that we held back from the Rock) and put them in control of art. One we will install at the Pennsylvania Academy, with dictatorial powers and a budget of 100 million. One will head the NEA. Another will found a public arts project. Another will oversee curriculum changes at all state universities. And so on. Art will again be an elective at all grade levels, and will be taught as a skill, not as equal-time recreation, or as a tool of socialization. Talented students will be selected for enrollment at ateliers. Non-artists will be taught how to appreciate art, not analyze it. They will be encouraged to feel emotion, not develop critical distance. They will be taught to listen to the artist, to defer to his judgment; not to use art as a tool for their own projects. They will be taught to see art as a dream, not as a text. Art will not be subservient to literature or politics, it will be its own category. Magazines and books will arise, written by students of this new art, and they will understand it, and encourage it in the next generation. That is how a tradition begins.
You : What if people don't want a new tradition. "Tradition" has a bad taste for people now. They don't want to go back to the past.
VG : I am not talking about going back to the past. I am talking about honoring quality. I am Vincent. I am not arguing against the new. I am arguing against the bad. Your art is not awful because it is new. It is awful because it is awful. But your salesmen have convinced you that everything new should look awful. It is a great theory for them. It is a great theory for all people who cannot produce beauty or depth.
You : You realize, of course, that we cannot just march people into the sea.
VG : You have killed thousands for oil, and for "democracy." If you do not fight for things, you lose them.
You : Couldn't we just start the education process peacefully?
VG : You could. But you won't. The non-artists care more about profitting from their entitlement programs than you and yours care about saving art. That is why their galleries and magazines and universities and foundations are thriving, and why art is dead. You know that quote about "good people doing nothing"? Good people have done nothing for so long that quality itself is endangered. The very word "quality" is a dirty word. Like "talent." The "Q" word. The "T" word. You know, in hushed tones. Such words are "elitist." They imply distinctions. And distinctions imply inequality. And inequality implies unfairness. This is a slippery argument, from talent to unfairness, but it takes an exceptional person to see that slipperiness. That is to say, that falseness. Logic is not yet a universal skill. But to say that logic is not a universal skill is also elitist. To actually say anything is now to be a snob.
You : You wouldn't be allowed to teach in public schools.
VG : Precisely. The only ones allowed to speak are those with nothing to say. That is your freedom of speech.
You : So you do not believe in democracy?
VG: Like Thoreau, I believe in an unobtrusive government. I believe government exists for the people. I believe in equal opportunity. I do not believe that all people are equal. I do not believe that the majority is always right. I would say, as a general principle, it is closer to the truth that the majority is always wrong. Anyone who has read history would tell you that. In the case of art, the majority knows less than nothing. In your country, at this time, that majority approaches 100%. That does not exactly lend itself to a "democratic" solution. Art will not be revived by a plebiscite. Your only hope is a genius. Maybe five or six geniuses, and an asteroid over New York City.
You : You said a minute ago that our modern museums were like asylums. Don't you deserve some blame for that? You did die in an asylum.
VG : Try to keep up, Confrere. Think back. What was I painting? Landscapes, for God's sake. And women at the piano and fruit trees and chairs. I was doing my best to find meaning, not compete for the Crazyman Hall of Fame. Your era is absolutely incapable of drawing distinctions. Of seeing how things differ. Your contemporary artists are people devoid of depth or subtlety desperately trying to convince the world they are interesting. They do this mostly by feigning pathology, by copying me in the only way they can -- by acting like they have had too much absinthe. You cannot see the difference between sad misdirected acting and genius. That is the hallmark of your civilization.
You : Sor-ry.
VG : You must think I am up here grinning, watching my paintings sell for millions, feeling validated. Nothing of the sort. None of you know why a painting is great, mine least of all. Delete my biography and Starry Night would be meaningless to you. You cannot see: you exist entirely upon cues. A signature, a price tag, a story, a movie, a song. I would rather my painting hang in the bedroom of some poor peasant, who actually felt something when he looked at it, than have it hang in your mighty museum in a gaudy frame, passed by a line of yawning phonies with their cameras and their audio guides -- being told what to think from a central tape.
You : I think I am going to stop writing now. This is not fun anymore.
VG : Sorry I couldn't be more entertaining. I'll get caps and a facelift and we'll try again. And you can tell me what art means to you. I wouldn't want to be....
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