microessays / Musings

Why I didn’t choose the van Gogh wallpaper for my dining room wall.

Paisley floral on duck egg blue and silver stripes, flocked accents in chocolate. This is the wallpaper I bought instead of the willows and blossoms I wanted, the one I liked for its muted tones, the creams and blues and occasional gold, though I’m almost certain the original didn’t feature that same metal because, depending on who you believe, Vincent van Gogh couldn’t afford such expensive pigments.

I bought this wallpaper because I couldn’t afford the van Gogh. Even reproductions are horrendously priced, if they’re good, and the price tag is hard to justify when I have a five-year old who paints in similar lines. Still, I knew this paper would perfectly suit the wall of the room we have designated for dining, where we do most of our living.

The pattern of the wallpaper I bought instead is a simple design in an offset loop. A parquetted mural. I wonder if van Gogh painted murals. I know he painted large canvases — and tiny ones, like the old boots I love — but murals? He would have been good at murals, I think. But not inside. Not on a dining room wall. No, he would have painted outside walls where his textured use of a single colour would change the image depending on the light.

I bought our wallpaper online. When I found the van Gogh wallpaper, I almost added that to my cart in spite of the price. The online store featured kitschy bits and pieces along with the wallpaper, and weightier items such as the artist’s letters. If you don’t want the six-volume set, you can always buy his “best” letters, apparently. You can even purchase a selection of his letters on a silk scarf. I wonder if the letters chosen for cravatted display are some of his best, or if this is a way to give his lesser correspondence a run.

I don’t think I would feel too great about the mass production of my letters, let alone having them judged for which is “best” or “essential”.

If Vincent van Gogh could know about any of this, would he care?

Would he care that more than one of his masterpieces has been bulk-reproduced for sticking on walls in tessellated tiles? How would he feel about the Starry Night coasters, the 3D Irises fridge magnets, the Sunflowers saddlebags I’m thinking about getting for my bike? They’re selling a cubist version of his Potato Eaters on a t-shirt.

Maybe he would care, maybe he wouldn’t, or maybe this is just the sort of thing that Theo might have talked him into. He’s not here to say. Does that even matter? He once was here, and he painted some pretty things while he was here, but he isn’t here anymore and his pretty things are. Does it matter how they’re being used and sold?

I’m sure that, along with the proceeds of the 10,000 per day tourist-and-pilgrim traffic to the museum named after him, and also featuring works by other contemporaneous artists, there is good reason to offer up reproductions of the famous artist for a price. It costs money to pay curators, to restore and transport the paintings, to publicise and show the works, to keep the collection secure and dry.

During an artist’s lifetime, bought art is both identified with and distinguished from the artist. The art comes into its own, a distinct object with a separate meaning, a separate material destiny that depends on the curatorial savvy of its owner and their ancestors. And, in death, the artist is spiritless, corporeal, rendered utterly material by virtue of their inability to self-control the fate of their physical works and the previously ephemeral remnants that continue to exist once life is gone: their body; their legacy; their mythology. Thus, after the passing of the artist, it seems to me that both art and artist become material commodities.

Would the commoditisation of his name and his art possibly matter to Vincent van Gogh? Maybe. Maybe not. He has moved on.

Moved on. If he lived today, his art would not be commoditised: his art would probably not be in fashion. He would not be painting stylised paisley swirls and roses on duck egg blue, with or without the silver stripe and flocked detail. He would be bleeding the edge of the next avant-garde movement from the confines of a mental institution.

In many respects, this is a more arts-hostile world than the one Vincent van Gogh was borne into. Maybe he was fortunate to have his time, with its John Peter Russells and Henk Bremmers. Without these early promoters, would his work be recognised today? Without a sponsor of some kind, would anyone’s? Lack of recognition in their lifetime does not stop an artist from creating, and it did not stop our Vincent. He kept on with his landscapes and ladies and miners and shoes — a nobody artist caught on a loop of his own simulacra, hoping to catch others in that same loop.

Vincent must have cared about his works, painstakingly created; colours, meticulously selected. This, truly, is why I can not bring myself to buy the wallpaper, why I will not have his letters on a scarf, why I will not own the Sunflowers saddlebags.

But.

Such care is temporary: in the end, works are sold, pigments fade, materials rot, works are lost.

Who really owns a work of art?

Human inspiration is a fleeting loan, and one that is constantly superseded by the next creative spark. No one can own an idea. But it’s what you do with it, how you give it texture and colour through the filters of your own life, that gives it perceived value and longevity.

I think an artist channels ideas, adds interpretation and application. A unique voice — that’s the art! Otherwise it’s just blobs of paint, just lines, just a murmur in the willows and blossoms not pasted on your dining room wall.

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