Thought— 5 Min Read

The Vincent Syndrome

by Case Greenfield, May 24th, 2021

Thought – 5 Min Read

The Vincent Syndrome

by Case Greenfield

May 24th, 2021

As an artist, should you live the romantic, troublesome and poor artistic lifestyle? Like Vincent Van Gogh. Or should you strive to live the lush artist lifestyle, like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst? Limited handcraft skills, and continuously criticised for ‘not being a true artist’? But very rich.

When I was in high school, there was this boy in my class who was different from everybody else. (I won’t mention his name here out of respect for his privacy.) Intelligent like most of us. But also very artistic, going his own way, like not so many of us. Short before the final exams, he left school. He would definitely have passed the exam with good grades. He just didn’t want to. It didn’t matter to him, nor to his parents, who also were ‘different’, alternative. He was driven by rebellion, fervor, passion, emotion, not by ‘wisdom’, sensibility, prudence, ratio. As a young man, I had a romantic sort of respect and envy for him. Wow!

Last year, I suddenly remembered him. Mind you, this is over forty years later. I looked him up on the internet. It wasn’t easy to find him. He had not left a lot of digital breadcrumbs. But, eventually, I found him. He lives in France, as an artist, a wood sculptor. I have not contacted him. But from the scarce signs I got, it is clear that he lives a very simple life. As in uncomplicated. Hardly any assets or belongings, quite far away from civilisation. Romantic? Probably. Poor? Definitely. Happy? I don’t know. Able to bind a loving wife to his lifestyle? Don’t know. Not unlikely, though.

It made me think.

The logical association is Vincent Van Gogh. Romantic? Definitely. Poor? Legendary. Happy? Probably not, most of the time. No wife. Hardly a woman in his life. Vincent has become sort of a role model for many artists. Passionate, but poor. And I’m still struggling about this role model. Is this the ‘pure’ artist life? For some, it definitely is. I am not so sure. I tend to call it “The Vincent Syndrome“. Is it ‘the big flight forward’ (a fantastic mind model) away from the humbling realisation that you didn’t make it as an artist? For some, yes. But in general? I don’t know. Some use it as an excuse, a license even, for deviant behavior and an exotic dress style. Fine with me. Yet, I tend to think there is more into it. It is a romantic – literally, escaping hic et nunc – lifestyle, I can identify with.

Another, less straightforward example is Alberto Giacometti. He voluntarily remained working and living in the very modest workshop/home that he moved in as a starting artist, even when he could easily afford a fantastic workshop and villa or whatever in Paris, where he lived. He said he did it on purpose, not to be seduced by a lush lifestyle and to focus on his artistic quest, to capture the essence of humanity in a painting or sculpture. Or was it simply, because he was perfectly happy with his life in his cosy rabbit hole with Annette, Caroline and other girlfriends?

And there are many stories like these of other artists. Anyway, it still bugs me. Where does this romantic idea come from? Why, on earth, should an artist be poor? Or lead a sober lifestyle? Why could you not just be rewarded richly for the art you make? Is it, because it is a slippery slope towards commerce? Well, I do see that risk. But then, to completely close yourself off from it … seems drastic, too drastic, in my view. And what amount of money is too much for an artwork? What is the worth of art, anyway? That’s a big question!

And would that mean, I must no advertise my art? Or make it known in any way? Like what I do these days on Twitter and Instagram:

Or, is it better to live a life like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, whose art by some art critics is denounced ‘absurd’ and commercial. ‘Tacky’ commodities. (See also the documentary The Mona Lisa Curse by Robert Hughes RIP) Or as some people claim, “Koons is not an artist. He is an idealistic chief executive officer of a luxurious commodity empire, an eponymous brand of goods manufactured by an anonymous working class, an alienated proletariat of artists reduced to artisans.” You call yourself an artist, but there is always this gnawing awareness, that you are not broadly recognised as an artist, at least not by the art establisment. But, you live a lush life. (Or, what about the young and pretty, bored wives of rich moguls, who call themselves artists … !?)

And, is there something in between? Or even better, can you have both? I guess, it’s a thin blue line, or a big grey area. Well, maybe you can. Pablo Picasso comes to mind. He did have a romantic – often chaotic – artist lifestyle with lots of money to spend, lots of women (though troubled, often; “goddesses and doormats”; Gertrude Stein, Fernande Olivier, Marcelle Humbert (‘Eva’), Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Françoise Gilot, Jacqueline Roque, and probably many other) and great homes first in Paris, and later in the Mediterranean south of France (villa La Californie, close to Cannes; and Château de Vauvenargues, and villa Notre-Dame-de-Vie, Mougins.)

So, what will it be? Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, or Koons/Hirst? Or just the blank slate Case Greenfield? I don’t know. You probably know by now how I think about the blank slate in art. It still is part of my quest for an artistic voice. A lot of this discussion comes down to this question: Who do you make art for, for yourself or for your audience … or ‘for the gods’ (humanity at large, art history, up to infinity)? If for yourself, then don’t expect someone to pay one bloody penny for it. If for your audience (or customers, even), then expect to be subject to their dreadful taste and merciless judgement. If for the gods … then, good luck to you, and the art critics.

An interesting litmus test for those romantic artist style preaching ‘Vincent’s’ would be this. If someone would pay, let’s say, ten million US dollar for one of your artworks, would you accept it, or not? I bet, many would accept, happily. Is the fanatic, orthodox plea for the Vincent lifestyle a secret cover-up for plain envy?

I don’t know. I am confused now. Robert Rauschenberg was right, when he felt ripped-off by the sale of his work by Robert Scull for a multiple of what Scull had paid Rauschenberg. And that, of course, is a problem. The artists should be paid well for a good artwork, not just the art dealers, the art flippers. To a degree it is ok, tolerable, unavoidable. As long as it isn’t mainstream, dominant. But the real problem, as Robert Hughes saw it, is when artisticly worthless art works are turned into monetarily very worthy assets. Shit art for millions. Why? Because it will be the end of art. At least of art how Hughes wanted it to be. One day, someone will find that the emperor will have no clothes on.

I agree with Hughes. “Good art is dense with meaning, [Although, a problem with that, is that meaning is different for different people, the beholder’s share, you know, CG] not some empty exercise in picture making meant to sustain the buoyance of Sotheby’s or Christie’s for the big price. (…) [And what will NFT’s bring, in this respect, moving from the Sotheby’s to the wild west of purely speculative capital gains driven bitcoin-like markets, CG] Art should make us feel more clearly and more intelligent. It should give us coherent sensations we would otherwise not have had.” So, I add, good art is extremely valuable, for mankind, like The Mona Lisa is valuable. And I have no problem whatsoever if that translates in a high price, moneywise. I do have a problem with inflated prices for shit art. (Which raises the question, whether art prices are predictable, at all.) Hence, making my point once more about the Vincent Syndrome. I see no reason why the creator of good art should live a difficult and poor life.

I’m even more confused now. Maybe Robert Hughes was just an old nagging man, like Stettler and Waldorf of the Muppet Show, a relic from an era in art, that once was, but never will come back. I don’t know.


So far, I have none of these three artist styles. I definitely do not live the free artistic lifestyle of Vincent or my former classmate. And I definitely do not make money out of my art. And Picasso’s lifestyle? Nope.

But, I have dreams. (Talking about mind models.) It would be nice to make broadly respected art, that I like myself, that I can make a good living of and that will have a tiny role in art history; all this, with a glimpse of the lifestyle of Picasso. Haha, we’ll see, we’ll see.

Makes me think of this quote from Elon Musk: “One of the biggest mistakes people make, is wishful thinking.

But wishful thinking is one of the most interesting mind models, that we have. It gives hope, energy, and faith, often! Vincent, hoping that one day he will make a living from his art. And Koons and Hirst, for instance, hoping that one day they will be broadly accepted as true artists. A sort of “Inverted Vincent Syndrome”.

By the way, I would not be surprised, if my former classmate is perfectly happy with his artist lifestyle. A happy Vincent. Just a hunch, not sure, but still.

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