Shortly after we finished high school, my friend Bill invited me to his mom’s cottage in Erieau, Ontario. He and I laid side-by-side on the beach for hours. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life. There were millions, billions of them. A bright pinpoint went zooming across the sky, and I gasped when I realized the air was so clear, the beach so dark, that I was looking at an actual satellite in orbit. For the first time in my life I could see the Milky Way, a gauzy stream of light behind the constellations. This was no peaceful starscape. It was thrilling. I wished the sun would never come up. I wanted to stay there forever.
I think of that beach whenever I see Starry Night. This is no tranquil night scene. Above the placid village, the sky writhes. It explodes. It seethes.
So. Right. Let’s start by breaking the image down to its component parts. There’s a tranquil, orderly village with quiet little lights in its windows. Does anyone ever actually notice the village? I had probably looked at this painting a hundred times before I saw anything but the sky. A church steeple juts up from the valley, echoing the tangled, mysterious black form in the foreground. This dark, flamelike shape draws the viewer’s eye up, where the haloed moon and stars cartwheel around each other. The contrast between the peaceful village below and the pulsing delirium above is hypnotic. Van Gogh paints a vast, exploding universe, and the villagers huddle beneath it.
Art historians consider van Gogh a Post-Impressionist. This is kind of a weird and loose term, and not easy to pin down since it includes so many disparate philosophies, but I’ll do my best. So, everyone knows about the Impressionists, yes? Monet and Renoir? Capturing momentary sensations and fleeting images on their canvases with light and color? Good.
Anyway, by the 1880s Impressionism was kind of tapped out. Cutting-edge artists began changing the rules of representation, using their painting to systematically examine the expressive qualities of line, form, and color. Van Gogh in particular was interested in the ways he could use distorted forms and unnatural colors to illustrate his emotions and communicate his experiences with nature. He wrote to Theo, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly.” To balance his expressive use of color, he developed an equally expressive style of paint application. If you’ve ever seen a van Gogh in person you know that the paint is so thick, the brush strokes so forceful that each one has its own shape and dimension. The painting’s surface is itself a rough, tactile thing, standing in relief on top of the canvas and intensifying the work’s colors. Fun fact, this technique called impasto, and paintings in this style are impasted.
There’s a kind of outsider artist romanticism about van Gogh. He was deeply troubled. For whole years at a time, when he wasn’t trying to drink his turpentine, he lived on not much more than bread, coffee, cigarettes, and absinthe. Everyone knows he cut off his ear. And yeah, he really did that (though later he told Theo it was just half of his one earlobe, like that makes it any better), handed it to a prostitute, ran home, and passed out. Gauguin found him in a pool of blood, dropped him off at the hospital, and promptly left town. The two of them really didn’t get along, and Gauguin told Theo he was worried the sight of him would probably kill Vincent all together.
Eventually, Theo found van Gogh space at a psychiatric asylum called Saint Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, France. He set it up so that Vincent had two rooms, one to sleep in and one for a studio. He painted over 150 paintings during the year he was in treatment, images mostly drawn from things he could see in the hospital and outside his window, or from memories he had before his hospitalization. He painted Starry Night there, but didn’t really think it was that great. He wrote to Theo that he thought the lines were kind of messy, not enough feeling or attention in them. He thought this one was much better:
Art historians consider Olive Trees a daylight counterpart to Starry Night, two halves of the same essential project. They both portray outdoor scenes with a powerful, swirling energy. Van Gogh was especially pleased with the way he was able to have the lines come out looking like old woodcuts, rough, handmade things. The strong lines are intensely rhythmic, and I just love the cloud. Do you agree with van Gogh that this painting is superior to Starry Night? I bet you don’t, and I’d be interested to hear why not.
Go ahead, think about it, and then come back and keep reading.
Got your answer? Want to hear my theory? I think people prefer Starry Night for the same reason that, when you go to see this painting at MoMA, there are throngs of people in front of Starry Night while Olive Trees, an equally superb painting hanging in the very same room, goes practically ignored. Even if you’ve never actually stood in front of the original Starry Night, you’ve seen it a thousand times. And that’s what I’d like to talk about next.
Back when I was just a wee college freshman, I filled out a form at a card table during orientation and one week later I had my very own credit card. Starry Night was the picture on the card, and I loved it. I thought it was terribly cool and sophisticated to have a work of art on my credit card. God, this is so embarrassing, I can’t even believe I’m admitting it to a bunch of strangers. But there you go. This painting is everywhere. A simple google search turned up reproductions for sale on everything from mugs and tote bags to, well…
What does it mean when a work of art is reproduced so widely? What are the cultural ramifications? Is it a good thing that people can buy purse dog mousepads with a Starry Night background? Why would anyone ever want this? Well, I have no idea why anyone wants the mousepad. Or the dress. Or the cake. They’re horrible. But the mugs? The totebags? The t-shirts?
When it came to the art world, van Gogh could probably best be described as an anticapitalist. He tried working in a gallery for a little while, but he had to quit because the commoditization of art made his skin crawl. What would he say if he knew people were slapping his masterpiece on credit cards? And why do people do it?
In 1936, social critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Show me an art history graduate who’s never read this essay and I’ll show you someone who didn’t do her homework. It was hugely influential at the time, and still is. It’s pretty dense. Check it out if you want to, but I’ll distill the relevant parts for you.
Art has always been reproducible, of course. People made extra versions of their paintings all the time. Art students learned by sitting in front of masterpieces and making painstaking copies. But these copies were still handmade, and even despite that, didn’t have the value of the original. In his essay, Benjamin poses that the value of an original work of art comes from its “aura” of authenticity. Starry Night was made by the master’s own hand, in his specific life circumstances, and is a real object with a place in history. He writes that “even the most perfect reproduction of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Before widespread commodification of this painting was possible, the only people who knew what it looked like were people who had travelled to see it in person. You had to be able to stand in front of it. Look for a long time. Take that image home with you in your mind’s eye. If you weren’t one of the lucky few who had personal access to Starry Night, you had no idea what it looked like.
Benjamin argues that, with mechanical reproduction (he’s talking about photography, but this can just as easily apply to mousepads and light switch covers) people’s relationship with art changed. Works of art stopped being valued by the masses because they’re unique and brilliant. Now, he writes, famous works are valued because they’re the originals of the zillions of reproductions we’ve been steeped in our whole lives.
At MoMA, people walk right past Olive Trees and flock around Starry Night because Starry Night is famous. It’s the one they know. They’ve seen it on day planners and scarves and coffee mugs their whole lives, and now they’re excited to be standing in front of the real thing. It’s telling that, the first time I saw this painting in person, I wasn’t particularly floored or enraptured or moved or any of the things I’d expected to be. My first thought was, “Yup, that’s what it looks like.”
I’m not judging this value shift, but I do think it’s important to talk about. Reproductions are vital to disseminating art. Most people might not be able to ever visit MoMA, but they can recognize Starry Night, and I’m not saying that’s negative. But what have these reproductions (and I am talking about the dresses and mousepads and other tchotchkes here) done to the overall role of the work? How does it change the cultural value of the piece – the relationship between the work and our society – if most of the people who see it do so because it’s been reproduced on thousands of products, and they’re there because they want to look at the original of their copies?
Every time this image is reproduced, it’s resized, copied, printed on canvas or cotton or (shudder) frosting. By definition, people engage with the copies differently from how they would relate to the original. They don’t stand in front of the image and look carefully, see how the paint was applied, the colors, the way the lights in the village dull compared to the halos around the stars, think about what it means that the graveyard tree, echoing the steeple in the background, is the eye’s bridge between the comfortable domesticity of village life and the writhing energy of the stars. How do they interact with their reproductions? They write their appointments in them, wear them, drink out of them, eat them. This necessarily alters the meaning and experience of looking.
With that in mind, how does reproduction change the ways we perceive or value a work of art? What does it mean when viewers relate to the original in light of the reproductions, rather than on its own merits? Or does the painting, the object itself, maintain an intrinsic worth, however the culture may interact with it? If this is the case, why do people blow right past Olive Trees when it’s just as good, and the artist himself thought it was better? Where does this worth come from, and who decides?