At some point in high school, when my appreciation of fine art began to transcend X-Men comic books, I became enamored of the work of Vincent van Gogh. The more I think about his life and work these days, I think he’s worthy of consideration in this great Church Communication Heroes series.
Of course, the danger in presenting van Gogh as a hero is that he wasn’t anything of the sort, at least in the traditional sense. Vincent was not Jesus, obviously, or Mother Theresa or Superman—he didn’t save anyone from mortal peril while radiating virtue. Maybe Vincent’s heroism looks more like Will Smith’s Hancock than George Reeves’ Man of Steel. After all, Vincent was a temperamental and enigmatic artist who at times disavowed the church, once cut off his own ear, and may have killed himself at the age of 37. (Great choice, Scott!)
Why then would we look to van Gogh for inspiration? Well, here’s what I like about the guy:
He was a mess, but at least he never faked it.
There are a lot of us in the modern church—myself included—who are well-versed in perception management. The fact is that when you work in church communications, your paycheck and your career can be tied to other people’s standards for how you should look, act, speak, think and believe. As a result, it’s tempting to project the image of a confident, competent Christian when we’re nothing more than paper tigers. Vincent, on the hand, didn’t hide the fact that he was a little unhinged.
He fought through rejection.
Van Gogh’s first two commissions were for his uncle, who was unabashedly disappointed by both. As a result, Vincent ended up spending the next several years finding his voice. His style/technique developed over the course of years, which is evident if you survey his body of work. If this kind of dedication is what it took for Vincent, why should we be any different? For me, knowing that the great Vincent van Gogh wasn’t an instant success means that greatness is a byproduct, not a gift.
He honed his craft.
Obviously, this is an extension of the previous thought, but it bears mentioning. Vincent spent years studying and practicing and submitting himself to criticism in order to develop his ability. The timetable involved years, not weeks or months, and that ought to supply us all with a little determination.
He was prolific.
I’ll allow Wikipedia, that vaunted repository of academic treasures, do the talking on this one: “He produced more than 2,100 artworks, consisting of 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings, sketches and prints.” Dang. And keep in mind, that was in a relatively short career. For Vincent, art was work. We ought to be inspired by Vincent’s resolution to create, to make, day in and day out. Punch the clock, chop the wood, and produce something.
He didn’t get his due.
Vincent died young, as I mentioned, so he didn’t live to see the height of his fame. He didn’t get to see his paintings sell for millions. He didn’t get to see crowds gather at the world’s most prestigious museums in order to see his work. He never got to purchase a Starry Night mouse pad. And you know what? I think Vincent would be okay with that. Yes, he wanted respect—we all do. But he wasn’t chasing fame; he was chasing beauty. Church communicators who don’t deliver sermons on Sunday are often unsung heroes—are you okay with that?
He understood what art and creativity are really about.
In The Divine Commodity, Skye Jethani explains Vincent’s high standard for art and artists: “Van Gogh had little respect for photography. He considered it a lifeless and abhorrent art form. He said the same of painting that sought to precisely mimic what the eye saw.” Jethani goes on to say, “Vincent believed art should do more than present reality; it should represent reality by uncovering the truth that is not apparent to the naked eye.” If the obvious is obvious, don’t waste your time with it—show people that which is true but not apparent.
He was, in a manner of speaking, a prophet.
Vincent used what would become his most famous work to preach and prophesy. He wanted to depict the nearness of God in the world around him, as well as challenge the church he felt failed to embody that nearness. Here’s Jethani again: “… Starry Night depicts the vistas of van Gogh’s soul more than the countryside surrounding Saint-Rèmy, France. The deep indigo of the sky was used by Vincent to represent the infinite presence of God, and the heavenly bodies are yellow—van Gogh’s color for sacred love. The divine light of the stars is repeated in the village below, every home illuminated with the same yellow warmth. For Vincent, God’s loving presence in the heavens was no less real on the earth.” And here’s where that critique comes in: “But there is one building in van Gogh’s imaginary village with no light, no divine presence—the church.”
Vincent van Gogh was wild and messy and obsessive and passionate. He was troubled and at times self-destructive. And yet with all that said, I still believe there’s enough in his life to merit him Church Communication Hero status.
Rest in peace, Vincent.