First things first: There is no right or wrong way of appreciating art. Thinking that other people can’t fully understand what a certain piece of art means reeks of elitism.
In case you missed it, the Van Gogh Alive Experience is coming to Manila and certain people are trying to gatekeep Van Gogh. ‘Van Gogh’ is even trending on Twitter, because apparently, knowing just one Van Gogh painting or not knowing that Van Gogh’s first name is Vincent doesn’t qualify you to appreciate impressionistic art.
As someone who resonates so much with Van Gogh and his work (because I too, have bipolar disorder, and enjoy looking out the window), I am appalled that people — artists, even — have the audacity to be selfish with his art. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” was made when he was trapped in an asylum: a depiction of the night sky that he could see from the small window in his room. It is one of the most well-known paintings in the world, known for its distinct swirls and contrasting blue and yellow hues. His other paintings, while not as prominent as “Starry Night”, are still very much recognized as some of the greatest works in existence: “Irises”, “Sunflowers”, “The Mulberry Tree”. The list goes on and on.
You can look at “Starry Night” and see a simple landscape made by an artist. You can look and marvel at how the striking blues and yellows make for an interesting painting. You can look at it and empathize with Van Gogh’s pain and suffering. Heck, you can look at it and not understand a thing. But whatever it is that you get from looking at this work of art, whether it’s your first time seeing it or if you have every brush stroke memorized — is a win for both you and Van Gogh. You, for getting to see and appreciate a renowned piece of art and history, and Van Gogh, for having made a painting that has transcended generations and generations of audience.
I am neither an artist, nor do I have a degree or background in Fine Arts. I am only someone who enjoys silent walks in the National Museum when the outside world becomes too much. I am only someone who has read and taken to heart Van Gogh’s life and works after I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I am someone whose knowledge of art appreciation only comes from the three-unit Art Studies class I took in college. But this much I know: appreciating art can come in various forms. When an artist decides to put out his work for the world to see, we as an audience can have our own interpretations of what the piece means to us. It doesn’t matter if you take a selfie with it or if you sit and stare at it for hours. You can write an essay about it or cry while looking at it or take an Instagram story, and it would still be okay. To form a set of rules for everyone to follow the “right way” of enjoying art is a futile attempt at making people conform to your own version of appreciation.
Van Gogh was an artist who struggled with money. I have never met him, but by reading about him and by looking up images of his work, I’d like to think that he would love the fact that his paintings, made inside the four walls of an asylum, have become a staple in conversations about art. For all we know, he might’ve even marveled at the fact that his art has reached the other side of the globe, fawned upon by people whose cultures and ages vary greatly from his. So before you try and speak as if looking at art can only be done by people who have years of training in the fine arts, before you hate the idea of Van Gogh going mainstream — whatever the hell that means, because it’s Van Gogh and he’s been mainstream since the 1890s — ask what you’re trying to achieve by gatekeeping.