In a letter from March 11, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “Occasionally, in times of worry, I’ve longed to be stylish, but on second thought I say no – just let me be myself – and express rough, yet true things with rough workmanship.” How agonizingly painful must it have been for Van Gogh to watch as the paintings of other artists, many lesser than himself, were selling there works, having their paintings hung in galleries and were receiving praise for them; all the while, he was neglected and overlooked. It could have been very easy for him to change his style to match that of current fashion and made himself more marketable, but he didn’t. Instead, he chose the far more difficult path of staying true to himself, to his own voice, no matter what the cost.
In our culture where people are constantly checking their analytic data to see how many pageviews their blog has gotten, how many shares and re-posts or comments its received, how many likes a post to social media has or re-Tweets or how many followers they have gotten, it becomes very easy to lose one’s true self in order to cultivate a public self that gains acceptance. Success becomes gauged solely by numbers and one’s worth rises and falls by those statistics. Unlike Van Gogh, people crave acceptance over art, which can be a difficult and lonely task. Consider the poet Emily Dickinson. During her short life, Dickinson wrote over 1,800 poems but only published 12 while living.
Emily Dickinson composed her poems at a small table that her niece later described as “18-inches square, with a drawer deep enough to take in her ink bottle, paper, and pen.” Most of her writing was done by candlelight at night, though she was known to jot down lines on scraps of paper as she went about her daily chores, such as gardening, and she would stick them in her pockets. She circulated her poems among family and friends only. The few poems that she did publish in newspapers were without her authorization and were published anonymously.
Helen Hunt Jackson, a well-known author, chided Dickinson for not publishing. “You are a great poet,” she wrote, “and it is wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud.” When Thomas Niles approached her about publishing a collection of her poetry, Emily avoided giving him an answer. Why would she write and chose not to publish? There is speculation that she did not want to become a literary celebrity, which was something new in the United States at the time with authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow going around giving lectures and receiving notoriety. How many in this day and age, where people clamor to gain even a moment’s fame (whether it be on a reality show or on YouTube where they long for their videos to go viral)?
One can get a glimpse of her disdain for fame in her poem “Success Counted Sweetest”:
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory!
As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
Such a notion seems counterintuitive in the age of social media and YouTube sensations.
Both Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson were artists who stayed true to their own sensibilities. They valued the voice of individuality that came through in their unique visions and distinctive styles.
They were both what James Baldwin termed of the artist as being “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian.” Both Van Gogh and Dickinson’s rich inner life came through in their work.
“What am I in the eyes of most people?”Van Gogh wrote to his brother,”A nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”
While it tormented Van Gogh that his artwork was constantly being rejected, Emily Dickinson appeared to revel in her anonymity, writing:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Yet both remained focused on their craft, whether or not anyone else appreciated what they painted or wrote. The strength of character and moral fortitude for one’s art was what drove both of them to create, even when the outside world did not see their genius for what it was. “Your profession,” Van Gogh wrote, “is not what brings home your weekly paycheck, your profession is what you’re put here on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes a spiritual calling.”
Both he and Emily Dickinson followed their passions with such intensity that it is now obvious to all who encounter their work that it was, indeed, a “spiritual calling” for both of them. But how many of us are willing to work in such obscurity but with such passion? How many of us will stay true to ourselves whether or not we ever receive wider acclaim or a bigger platform or a larger audience?