Art is not a commodity in the sense that pens, wheat, computers and cars are a commodity. It is not a necessity or even useful in the sense that commodities are. It is not mass produced, so that millions of units can be sent over from China, and the price of each unit held down. It doesn’t have an expiration date or planned obsolescence. But great art, at least the kind that I aspire to, does have great value. I know this from a lifetime of looking at great art and studying it and looking at it in relation to history and culture. I know this from having grown up with original paintings and sculptures, each of those pieces from family collections being seared into my mind and heart. I know this from talking to other people who value art, even people from other countries who admire art from cultures other than their own and will travel great distances to see it. I know this from being part of conversations on art, on Van Gogh, for instance, and the effect his work might have on someone from Iran or Japan. I know this from a lifetime of making art and trying to conform to the highest standards. I know this from teaching many students how to make art, watching the things that it does for them. I know this from watching lots of children spontaneously make art with little or no prodding.
Each work of art is something unique, a statement about his or her personality. But it is also a product of the culture and times that they’re in, and the demands of their patrons. At its best it reflects the culture, the patron and the unique individuality of the artist, a partnership of sorts. And as such we can learn so much about the culture and its worldview. Often in ancient history the art is the only record we have.
Each artist, in the best circumstances is continually in the research and development stage with his product. He is always searching, always stretching, always restless. In this way he may bring something fresh to the conversation, exposing his heart but also exposing the heart of his fellow man. In this way art is extremely needful and valuable and prized in every culture.
What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person- somebody who has no position in society and never will 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.
Vincent’s letter to Theo Van Gogh, July 21, 1889