It happened today - December 23, 2015

On December 23, back in 1888, Vincent van Gogh chopped off his ear. What a loser.

I know, I know. That’s not how it’s normally seen. Instead he was a sensitive, tortured genius, driven to it by the complacent indifference of bourgeois society that wouldn’t know art if it jumped out of a bush and hit them over the head. Which you get the feeling a lot of artists would actually like to do, given the willfully offensive ugliness of their work which they shrilly insist we aren’t allowed to notice, mention or resent.

Perhaps I digress, given that van Gogh’s work is not on the whole ugly. It’s bold and unconventional, at least by the standards of the late 19th century. Today it would probably be considered “unconventional” due to its lack of excrement and rubbish that with surprising frequency leads art exhibits to be thrown out by cleaning staff with more taste than the artists, the connoisseurs or the government funding agencies. Which is another way of saying I like it.

I don’t like him, though. Cutting off your ear is just bad. Self-mutilation, even as a cry for help, is a failure to cope. It’s not a mark of genius, even if you are a genius, any more than being an alcoholic is a sign of genius if you are both, or a sign of superior sensitivity that can’t handle the world’s coarseness. We’re all in the same world. We all have issues. But those of us who don’t slice off bits of our own heads are not lesser beings for it.

As biologist Peter Medawar once noted (it was my August 14 Quotation of the Day), “If a scientist were to cut his ear off, no one would take it as evidence of a heightened sensibility.” Nor if a historian did so, or a journalist, or a construction worker or anyone else. And rightly not.

So thanks for the sunflowers, Vince. But not for the example.

It happened todayJohn Robson