During his lifetime Vincent Van Gogh was regulary ignored by the art critics and the buying public. Not only was he difficult on a personal level, his art was unconventional and not easily approachable.
Vincent (as he always signed his paintings) knew this. He was aware of his limitations in terms of technical skill and "painterly" qualities. Even his most carefully drawn works show that he wasn't a master in that sense. But he deliberately worked to make up for it in other ways - he was fascinated by color and how the use of color could communicate something on its own - and he set about creating a style that was unlike any other. In the couple of years prior to his death, he was beginning to find acceptance within a community of artists in and around Paris, but it wasn't until after his death that his reputation among art critics grew. And though his work influenced other artists and art movements, it took many years, perhaps decades, before the general public viewed him as a major figure.
You may wonder why I've placed my own painting of flowers in the same blog post in which I've placed one of Vincent's famous Sunflowers. I wonder about that too.
As I look at Vincent's work, I try to imagine what it might have been like to look at it in 1888, when no one had ever painted anything quite like it before. His bold use of yellow, not only for the flowers, but for the vase as well as the background make the painting practically a study in one color. The thick paint stands off the canvas, creating three-dimensionality while the thick brushstrokes bring a liveliness that a more intricate rendering would have killed. It's not a flaw that the flowers aren't incredibly detailed, the lack of definition adds something vital to the piece. Seeing the painting today, through our eyes which have also seen some of the most incredible visual arts (think of modern films, with their computer generated magic), can we even begin to appreciate what new ground Vincent was breaking more than 125 years ago? Perhaps it was hard for his contemporaries to appreciate it too.
We're tempted to think that it took time for "the people" to catch up with Van Gogh's genius. We want to say he was ahead of his time.
But if you didn't know that the yellow painting was a famous work of art by a recognized genius, a piece worth tens of millions of dollars, would you think it so much better than my little painting of wildflowers on a burgundy background? Is my painting so much less well done than his, do my flowers look so much less alive?
I have to wonder, is Vincent famous because we know that he's supposed to be famous? Do we find his paintings extraordinary simply or mostly because so many others before us have? And what of those before us? They came to see him as a genius, but only after some important art dealers and art collectors saw him that way first. Is art appreciation just a case of "follow the leader"? There's good evidence to show that, yes, Vincent is famous because he is famous and that we find his paintings extraordinary simply because so many others already have done so.
In a series of controlled experiments involving tens of thousands of participants randomly assigned to separate online communities, the physicist and sociologist Duncan J. Watts and his collaborators asked people within each community to rank the same previously unknown creative works. What they found was that the rankings within each group depended most on the knowledge each participant had about how highly each work was already ranked within their group. The works that were ranked highly early on by a few participants continued to gain high rankings while those that were ranked low by a few in the beginning ended up ranked low y many. None of the communities knew anything about the others and, tellingly, the rankings were different across the communities. A work that was ranked at the very top by one community wasn't ranked at the top by any other community while at tha same time it was ranked near the bottom in some communities. Since the communities comprised a random selection of the same sorts of people, and since every community ranked all the same works, if the rankings depended just on the quality of the works themselves, then we'd expect to see more agreement among the rankings. But Watts didn't find that. What he found was that in matters of taste, we very much play follow the leader.
But what about the description of the sunflower painting that I just wrote? Isn't it true that Vincent's use of color was groundbreaking and that his brushwork brings life to his inamimate canvas? Well, yes it's true, and no, it isn't. As a description of a painting, what I've written is true, but as an an explanation of what makes Vincent's Sunflowers a masterpiece, it's not true. After all, the yellow of my flowers is pretty bold, there's a three-dimensional quality to my brushstrokes, and though it may not matter much, my painting looks more real. Still, my painting will never be worth tens of millions of dollars nor will it ever become world-famous. Since we can describe both paintings using similar words - and we wouldn't be wrong to do so. - something else has to explain what makes only one of them a masterpiece.
Vincent Van Gogh created masterpieces because someone once said he did and we've all followed along in agreement. If you doubt me, just take a look at the Contemporary Art that some are calling masterpieces today; it's hard to describe even what they are, never mind explain what makes them great. The masterpiece isn't the thing itself, it's the interpretation of the thing and, moreover, the reputation it gathers.
I'm no Vincent Van Gogh, that much I know. I haven't a "style" as he did nor have have I studied beside other artists and made hundreds of paintings as he did. I'm happy just to make paintings, however anyone may describe them.
Vincent created masterpieces, about that there's almost unviersal agreement. His reputation precedes him.