Monday, January 04, 2010

Van Gogh's Ear, etc.

From the end of Adam Gopnik's essay on Van Gogh in the January 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker

"The turn toward moral luck puts modern art, however popular, at permanent odds with the society that delights in it. Whether in its benign, wishful form, or in its belligerent "Watch me!" aspect, the pursuit of moral luck remains alien to a liberal civilization that always, and usually intelligently, prefers compromise to courage, and morning meetings to evening dares. Even the shoppers and speculators who wager on the future value of a work of art are engaged at best in a kind of mimicry of the original risk. A society of sure things needs a mythology of long shots. To trust in luck is to be courageous, and courage, the one essential virtue, on which all others depend, is also the one ambiguous virtue, since it is morally neutral: jerks have it as often as gentlemen.

"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."


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