Before the moment that van Gogh severed his ear, modernism in the popular imagination was a sophisticated recreation; afterward, it was a substitute religion, writes ADAM GOPNIK
Some stories in history we want to have neatly finished; some we like to have always in play. We accept without too much trouble the ambiguity of the old and new stories because they add up to something similar in the end. Van Gogh’s ear makes its claim on the world’s attention because it reminds us that on the outer edge of art there is madness to pity, meanness to deplore, and courage to admire, and we can’t ever quite keep them from each other. Gauguin was a miserable moral gambler, and a maker of modernism; van Gogh was a self-mutilating madman, and a poet of all the visions. We accept an ambiguity in the story of van Gogh’s ear because the act is itself ambiguous.
It’s true that the moral luck dramatized by modern art involves an uncomfortable element of ethical exhibitionism. We gawk and stare as the painters slice off their ears and down the booze and act like clowns. But we rely on them to make up for our own timidity, on their courage to dignify our caution. We are spectators in the casino, placing bets; that’s the nature of the collaboration that brings us together, and we can sometimes convince ourselves that having looked is the same as having made, and that the stakes are the same for the ironic spectator and the would-be saint. But they’re not. We all make our wagers, and the cumulative lottery builds museums and lecture halls and revisionist biographies. But the artist does more. He bets his life.
Image: Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, Arles, 1889 (Credit)