Given the exhibition’s modest title, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms at The Art Institute of Chicago made for a considerable cultural experience before it closed this past week. Curators devised a show winding its way from a giant wall-sized map detailing all 37 of the Dutch artist’s chronicled residences to a serpentine timeline of his life wrapping its way into rooms replete with exotic pieces that influenced him, carefully positioned portraits and drawings, and even a life-sized imitation of the Yellow House’s bedroom itself. The whole thing culminated in the three Arles paintings arranged alongside one another in chronological order. For an exhibit about an alarmingly cramped bedroom, you got your money’s worth.
You had to, really – maybe it’s heartening to see from a cultural studies perspective but, as a sane patron, waiting in line for 90 minutes (or more during peak weekend hours) can turn from enriching to scut work, even if it is art’s most famous sleeping quarters.
Which got me thinking during a recent visit: How many people in line at the Art Institute even knew what they were looking at? Van Gogh is an artist who’s endured the whims of taste and tumult for more than a century to take his place among other instantly recognizable names– Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Warhol – and yet, for all that posthumous success, what would the person you know who cares the least about art be able to say about him? At best, an opinion on his influence of everyone who came after; at worst, “Starry Night” and a missing ear.
The Art Institute’s giant, mutated loop of an exhibit was supposed to illuminate the person behind the paint. It did that in a very familiar way – you could marvel at his color palette up close but, without an MFA or headphones and a guide explaining every placard and elaborating on the mysteries of each stroke, it all amounted to some very nice, framed stuff from the 19th century. Why do we care about “Starry Night”? What is it about his self-portraits that we continue to examine, to analyze, to so easily recall?
I’d wager most people waiting in line for 90 minutes didn’t really know. They still don’t. They don’t know where it comes from, why it happens. They just know they don’t want to miss it.
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A few days after seeing Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, I happened upon “The Radiant Child,” Rene Ricard’s famous 1981 Artforum article on Jean-Michel Basquiat. For anyone interested in late 20th century art, it’s an essential read for explaining how the art market moved in a time before the Internet. Ricard breaks down, with plenty of impassioned “I was there” interjections, how graffiti transitioned from the subways to the galleries and how Basquiat’s techniques stood apart for all the reasons he’s known for now – the savvy street slogans, the furious, chaotic delivery, the vivid historical interpretations.
Lodged in among Ricard’s enthusiastic ramble is a stretch about Vincent Van Gogh that stuck out to me:
“Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh Boat. There is no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it … looking at art history we see that these other guys were pros. They started when they were kids. They sold their work. They worked on commission. There is no great artist in all art history who was as ignored as Van Gogh, yet people are still afraid of missing the Van Gogh Boat.”
I must have re-read the full version of this paragraph a half-dozen times, soaking it in. Everybody knows Van Gogh is great. Everybody wants to get on the boat.
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Akin to many weekends of my adult life in the time of online video, I made every effort to find and watch the Moto3 race from Le Mans, France last weekend when I couldn’t wake myself up in time to catch it live in the middle of my night.
As part of the MotoGP World Championship circus, Moto3 exists at a practically unknowable distance on the far end of the paddock, away from the more prominent classes of Moto2 and MotoGP. Filled with zealous teenagers and early twentysomethings with everything to prove and almost no way to pay for it, Moto3 is a delightful demonstration of what happens when you put a bunch of ragged riders on underpowered bikes and let them work out the constantly shifting idea of racecraft.
I’ve attended enough races in the flesh to know that Moto3 is like a lot of other undercard sports events – there may be a dedicated lot on hand to ensure they get their money’s worth but the big crowds don’t really start filtering in until closer to the main event. Their loss. Moto3 isn’t racing in its purest form – nothing at an international level is pure – but it’s the closest you can get to seeing a rider work out what their race will look like at the same time they do. Because they’re generally younger, more inexperienced, and less thoughtful (for the time being), they’re also more transparent – you can almost keep up with them as they calculate tire wear, slipstreaming techniques, setup challenges. The whole glorious mess of motorcycle racing made palpable.
Maybe the big crowds aren’t there bright and early on a Sunday morning because they don’t know who’s who, even though it’s the same year after year – a handful of favorites funded by Red Bull or Mahindra or Valentino Rossi’s high-profile Sky talent development program, a few riders placed in the name of national interests, an endless litany of Italians and Spaniards.
But you know who watches these with interest? Team managers further up the paddock hierarchy wanting to snap up the unrecognized genius (Stoner), the hard-working rider slaving away in a garret (Simoncelli, Kent), the origin story for a whole new pipeline entirely (Pawi), the foundation of the sport’s future (Pedrosa, Marquez). Ex-riders looking to maintain a presence in the paddock. Sponsors dreaming of a smiling face to fulfill their marketing needs. Journalists and TV presenters obliged to speculate on the sport’s future in the service of airtime and deadlines. And me.
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Endless mutated loops illuminating who’s behind the helmet. So-and-so will have the advantage on faster circuits, this rider does better in the rain, that one always runs better in front of his home crowd. Yadda yadda yadda.
Of course, as a fan, you end up right back where you started. Fueled by party line PR, you can’t help but be directed toward bigger, more marketable names – the ones at the pinnacle of the sport, the ones who had everything break the right ways at the right times by way of the right people. It’s human nature to fall in line, to choose this path of least resistance. MotoGP is a way to feel part of something bigger.
But human nature also suggests that we’re all on a journey, that we’re all in search of something – more money, more power, our true selves, the perfect sound forever, year after year, endless mutated loops, an ideal. For the Art Institute crowds, Van Gogh is an established fact, self-evident, readily proven, the journey complete. Rene Ricard’s Artforum story, on the other hand, is interested in the perspective of the journey at its outset via the collector, the dealer, the gallery owner.
And so, at last, the ties that bind Van Gogh’s boat to Basquiat to Brad Binder (who won at Le Mans, by the way): We watch Moto3 because we want to be both Ricard the insider and part of the Art Institute masses simultaneously.
If that sounds demanding, consider the reward. We’ll never ride a bike as fast as these young Van Goghs, these Basquiats. But we want to say we saw the future when it was right in front of us, just like everyone else, and noticed it first. We want to see motorcycling moraines ascended, journeys begun, endless loops at their outset. We want to get on the boat. We want to see riders who don’t know what they’re doing because we don’t either. Maybe, if we’re especially compassionate, we want to watch because we don’t want to see fallen angels.
Whatever it is and whatever we are, we may not know where the next great success will come from, why it will happen. We just know we don’t want to miss it.