Artist vs. creation: Who do we judge?

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, as depicted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A few blog posts ago, I rhapsodized over a set of Goethe quotes I discovered and one of my fellow bloggers, Servetus, brought up a good point in her comment about what Goethe was like as a human being.

It made me think. Although I waxed lyrical over good ol’ Johann, would I actually have liked him if I’d met him in person? (Assuming, of course, that I could travel through time and he understood my German.) Would we have smiled or laughed together over a joke, or would he have merely nodded at me and gone on with his life?

It’s an interesting point to ponder. Would I have enjoyed meeting my literary heroes — Austen, Shakespeare, Dumas (peré) and the Brontë family, for example? I guess that would depend upon how approachable they were.

There are a huge number of famous, talented people all over the world, but I tend to like them more if they show some graciousness and humility in addition to that talent. If you’re famous, you have to grow a thick skin by necessity, in order to deal with those who would take advantage of your fame. Some people are going to push the limits of courtesy, or even the law, no matter what.

But I’ve noticed that for some famous people — including writers — the beauty of what they create is somewhat marred when you know their unpleasant back history and how they treated their family and friends. Perhaps all that beauty went into their work and nothing was left over for personal relationships? Sad if that happened to be true.

Does knowing the back history of composers, writers and other creative people ruin my enjoyment of the marvelous work they’ve created? A little bit but not much, because I’m able to separate the two.

In some cases, knowing who someone was even evokes my pity and admiration. Beethoven lost his hearing but still produced incredible work; he also had courage and a sense of humor.

Vincent van Gogh struggled with mental problems but produced a host of genius paintings that are still well-known to this day.

I’ve always liked the “Dr. Who” episode where the Doctor and Amy Pond use the TARDIS to show Vincent van Gogh how much his work is admired in the future. And wouldn’t that be a marvelous thing if we could go back and do that for writers, composers and artists whose work didn’t get the recognition it deserved during their lives? (Video credit: Jess K. on YouTube)

Blog readers, your thoughts?


Filed under Writing

25 responses to “Artist vs. creation: Who do we judge?

  1. I’ve “virtually” met quite a few authors at this point. Some are real jerks, full of themselves and thoroughly unpleasant people. Most are delightful, charming, helpful, friendly, and often very funny. Maybe it’s a matter of their own experiences with fans. I’ve also met other celebrities and most of them have been more than gracious. And the thing is, there’s no direct correlation to degree of fame or talent — or the kind of art they produce. They are not the characters they write — or at least most of them aren’t.

  2. I have to wonder if those artists who produce thew most stunning pieces of soul-searing art, whether poetry, story-writing, visual art or movies are those who are channeling their own pain onto the page. Or did they just work harder to produce a truly stunning creation through effort and attention to detail and sheer effort? Also – does it matter if the people who create the art are themselves likable, approachable, kind and loving humans? If their art inspires us why should they also need to inspire us? Fans and sycophants can be like crowds of needy gulls always crying out, “I loved your book/painting/poem it changed my life – acknowledge me! Give me more, give me some of the essence of yourself.” It is, in my opinion, selfish and perhaps even churlish, to demand of creators that they give us even more than they already have.

  3. Servetus

    It doesn’t ruin it, but it affects it — it’s a piece of the picture like anything else. I think with fiction it doesn’t bother me that much, but with moral philosophy, it bugs me. Like, the fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau forced his common law wife to abandon all of their children will always leave me unreconciled with Emile, for instance.

  4. Sometimes I waver at researching the background of a creative person, writer, singer, inventor, actor, artist–no matter the talent. Sometimes I’m enlightened, other times appalled. It gives pause for thought how our lives are on display, the good, bad, and ugly for all to see.

  5. I’ve read several books about Van Gogh and took several courses on the artist and learned that he developed mental issues because he sucked on his brush which held a chemical dye. Apparently the chemical poisoned him. At least that’s the theory. Petroleum based dyes replaced the old organic dyes in the late eighteenth century when V. lived and worked.

    I would enjoy a conversation with V. before he went mad. Otherwise it would be like talking to a drunk or someone chemically altered.
    Goerthe…I don’t speak German.

    • A source of mine says he was a regular drinker of absinthe, which is an anise-flavored drink and a hallucinogen. It’s banned now.

      • There is no scientific evidence that absinthe caused hallucinations. None of its ingredients are psychotropic or hallucinogenic. It had a higher alcohol level than most liquors of the time and may have been responsible for increased alcoholism and the onset of DTs (delirium tremens) and its associated phantasms. It is no longer banned. You can buy Absinthe today, I have a bottle! It is truly a hideous tasting beverage, that’s why they diluted it and poured it over sugar cubes. Most manufacturers today leave out the oil of Wormwood as it is a known poison.

      • OK, that teaches me to double-check and triple-check my sources! I did some more investigating and you have the right of it.

        I honestly believed that my comment was correct when I wrote it, but it turns out that the laws on absinthe are not as strict as they once were. Thanks for keeping me accurate, Ray!

      • Didn’t mean to sound jerky or pretentious. It is just that I knew something about absinthe from personal experience. Although I cannot remember the experience! 😉

      • I didn’t take it that way at all. I like to ensure that what I say is as accurate as I can possibly make it. 🙂

  6. Maybe we should compose a list for Dr Who and the Tardis? It would be interesting to see their reactions.

  7. If the play Amadeus is to be believed then Mozart is a huge conundrum, a creator of amazing original music and personally a childish jerk. It doesn’t affect my view of his art but it can give pause for thought.

  8. I think it would be wonderful to do a ‘Dr Who’ on many of the greats – but I’d hate someone from the future to come back and show me how I was completely forgotten in the future! how demoralising…

  9. in reply to ray 4115: it sounds like the absinthe experience is like some rock concerts – “if you can remember, you weren’t there”


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