Why is “normalizing” van Gogh a problem?

Every now and then, I come across something that reminds me how far we’ve come regarding mental illness awareness–and also how far we still have to go.

Case in point: this New York Times article on the van Gogh Museum’s efforts to help people realize that there was more to Vincent than his art and his mental illness. Yes, van Gogh faced serious bouts of isolation and depression. And yes, he cut off his ear, and he committed suicide. But museum curators hope to–pardon the pun–paint a bigger picture of the artist. They want people to understand that when van Gogh was feeling well, he was quite outgoing and productive. In other words, they no longer want to see van Gogh defined by his mental illness. So far, so good.

But then, the article points out that some art historians are critical of this effort–that the museum is trying “too hard to normalize van Gogh.” To which I say: WTF!!! I’ve read a lot about van Gogh. (And, shameless self promotion alert: I’ve blogged about him, too.) It’s well documented that Vincent had A LOT of good days, to go along with the more famous bad ones. Why shouldn’t people know that?

I’m old enough to remember Don McLean’s song “Vincent.” I’ve never really liked the song. I think the melody is too soft. And I don’t think “soft” when I think of van Gogh. But this line always gets me:

But I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

I applaud the van Gogh Museum for this effort to honor Vincent’s entire life–the joy along with the sadness.



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