Van Gogh as American Myth and the Age of the New Boring



Lust for life is a film I saw when I was young. I remember it quite well for the feeling of energy I had after watching it. I was so pumped for a life of studying drawing and painting that I all but swore to the heavens that I would pursue art as a path in my life. I don’t think 13-year-old-me ever had such a passionate response to a film before, at least not one that struck such a thick and reverberating chord with my soul.


Its essentially the story of Vincent Van Gogh as played by Kirk Douglas, and its a story of Van Gogh that informs so many’s sense of who Van Gogh was as a personality. In perhaps a more generation-ally gentle way it tells a similar story to the more recent film Pollock about Jackson Pollock.


These stories are of course myths. Hollywood concoctions of what it means to be a painter. The lone artist estranged from society and burning out his demons in a bright but short flare of creative genius. Its a seductive vision, and certainly one that sucked a younger me in wholly.



Watching films like Pollock or Lust for Life now, I can’t help but feel how they are part of a larger American mythology. That one man acting alone is always better than the alternative. That whenever multiple minds are involved, the product is inferior and watered down. Only the pure mind, the individual will, acting by will can overcome the idiocy of society.


It follows the same basic narrative of so many stories (Batman, the 2nd Bush presidency, car commercials) – the idea that to be powerful, creative and an effective actor in the world, one must be an asshole and ignore those around them. These films  act as though, artistic integrity comes directly from your ability to treat people horribly – foremost yourself.  They posit that excitement in ideas only comes from this, that art is just as destructive as it is creative.


These stories are for me the new mold of boring.


They are a tired trope of an aged 20th century ideology so far removed from the possibilities of a world that is constantly connected and finding new and better connections at every turn. These stories ignore a central truth of the internet era, that we are more creative, more effective and more capable when linking together and acting together.


Of course I am not suggesting that compromise, capitulation or even adjusting to the norm of accepted society is the right path for an artist (or anyone for that matter). Nor am I suggesting some long march of communist idealism, in fact I would say nothing is more from what I am getting at. My interest is a new story. The artist as agent of gentleness in the internet age.


We seem never to encounter Hollywood films about the various craftsmen who worked in Rubens’ workshop, or the countless individuals that contributed to the work of Michelangelo, Titian, or Tintoretto. And of course why not a film about the simple rustic lives of painters like Cezanne or Renoir? These are  artists that rose and sustained thanks to the relationships they built and maintained – from family to friends and benefactors. Yet Hollywood shies from stories of calm artists quietly effecting everything.


With technology now, we can work with whomever we want and that is a fantastic thing – we can link with who we want, stay linked or let those ties fade away and then return when needed. We are more independent and more individual than we have ever been and yet creators are more tied together with other creators than ever before. This in my mind is a new stage set for new stories.


Putting to rest old ideas of the artist and moving toward a new understanding of the role may be too much to ask of film. But new stories exist and are far more interesting. These might be stories of the individual actor moving in good spirits to see life as it is. Not against the world, or turning from it, but mixing in with it, reflecting, re-envisioning, adding, subtracting and re-mixing. Art and existence in a thousand forms, not dominated by pain but possibility.





2 thoughts on “Van Gogh as American Myth and the Age of the New Boring

  1. We were just watching Care Bears and the big wish and the message was “caring only about yourself isn’t really caring”

    • Man those bears had it right! Always did have a soft spot for the one with the rain clouds on his stomach. Grump?

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