There are many ways a piece of artwork may exude its beauty: an inviting stretch of sand glistening with wild colors seen only in dreams, a frozen moment in an ethereal Victorian ballet, a petal so real a child cannot help reaching out her small hand to feel it. There are many ways dramas may hold viewers spellbound: a peck on the lips that makes one want to fall in love all over again, a sweet ballad that chases away the summer heat, a heart-pounding flight over dizzying cliffs, bottomless oceans and into the clouds of possibilities. Yet one of the most beautiful and emotional aspects of the arts is often invisible and soundless in the final products.
It is no secret that the arts offer some of the most precarious career paths around. More than quantitative and analytical disciplines, understanding consumer preferences can be pivotal to an arts practitioner’s career success. Yet such preferences are frequently fuzzy and erratic. A case in point is Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, which, as acclaimed as they are today, were largely ignored by critics and buyers during his lifetime. Moreover, an arts practitioner often finds himself working on a freelance basis, where he has to be on a constant lookout for work opportunities and jostle with flocks of talented individuals for auditions and pitches. Needless to say, wages in the creative arts sector are often below the national median and the metaphor of the starving artist is widely paraded around to warn students against careers in the arts. Although high earners do exist, they frequently make up outliers in their line of work. Such bleak financial prospects prevail even in the so-called golden age of an art and in glamorous professions like screen acting.
Against the backdrop of this cruel reality, though, a sublime phenomenon has been quietly taking place. South Korea’s top variety host Yu Jae-seok has been revealed to give peers in the entertainment industry allowances when they were out of work. Over in the literary world, celebrated poet Allen Ginsberg similarly supported fellow poets like Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke for years, passing over royalties from his book sales to Corso. This spirit of generosity even crosses professional lines at times, with painter Francis Bacon financing avant garde poet Jeremy Reed out of admiration for the latter’s work. Notably, unlike commercial and royal patrons of the arts, these benefactors did not seek to expand their own artistic collections or raise their social status.
van Gogh himself was a beneficiary of such altruism. A well-known fact among lovers of Western art history, van Gogh’s art dealer brother, Theo, encouraged him to pursue painting and provided emotional and financial support throughout the former’s artistic career. This display of brotherly affection was certainly an anomaly in their family, which had mostly become estranged from the artist due to his controversial relationship choices and differences in religious opinions. While Theo was hardly comfortable in his brother’s company and, in fact, critical of him on occasions, the love he offered was unwavering.
Appreciative of Theo, van Gogh waxed lyrical about his assistance in their correspondence: “At present I don’t yet find my paintings good enough for the benefits I’ve had from you. But once they’re good enough, I assure you that you will have created them just as much as I, and the fact is that we make them together.” He even made a philosophical reflection, “You’re kind to painters and […] the more I think about it the more I feel that there’s nothing more genuinely artistic than to love people.” In other words, even as van Gogh was creating canvas after canvas of works that would be revered around the world, he apparently felt that the supporters of the arts were the ones who, without lifting a brush, would surely make the greatest art. And he made sure that he signed off many of his letters to his steadfast sibling, friend and guardian angel with a handshake: “Good handshake,” “I shake your hand most heartily,” “Adieu, with a firm handshake,” “Another vigorous handshake,” “a warm handshake in thought.”
Granted, van Gogh was keen, and sometimes desperate, to keep this sole source of income flowing. His glowing praises of his brother can therefore be seen as calculated and manipulative. Moreover, this paper exchange of handshakes took place with more distant acquaintances as well, so much so that his sign-off could be read as a customary letter ending within his circle (albeit with some literary flair on his side) rather than an authentic indication of his thoughts.
Nonetheless, his ideology of loving people was also evident in his discussion of personal ambitions and the future of art. In one letter describing his plan to produce more figure paintings, van Gogh exclaimed, “Altogether it is the only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul, and which makes me feel the infinite more than anything else.” In another, he dismissed the notion of himself being a landscape painter, even though the genre eventually won him worldwide fame, and expressed his intention to incorporate people, or at least references to them, in even his landscape paintings. While he conceded that landscapes could be a lasting art, he was thrilled with the ever-emerging possibilities in portraits, including the study of a hospital chief orderly he considered “a man of the people.” In all, van Gogh thought you could find “in your love for people the wherewithal not only to work but the wherewithal to console you and restore you when one needs it.” It appears that even if van Gogh had other motivations to get into Theo’s good books, the sentiments he conveyed were sincere. As the protagonist in Flower Boys Next Door reflected, he did want to reach out to his brother’s hand using the hand he painted with.
It is said that a picture paints a thousand words. Yet a picture captures only what the lensman trains his camera on. Some words remain unspoken or, at most, as soft utterances exchanged behind the scenes. van Gogh’s letters, in particular, were not supposed to be part of his repertoire, which means that his feelings of gratitude, along with the full extent of Theo’s contribution to his accomplishments, might have been unknown to art admirers if not for the efforts Theo’s wife spent in compiling them after the brothers’ deaths. Likewise, we can imagine that many acts of kindness experienced by other arts practitioners have been acknowledged only privately, receiving publicity sporadically, if at all. Even for art forms like book writing and film production, where credits are traditionally incorporated into the final works, words of thanks serve only as afternotes, which viewers happily skip over, rather than as part of the main body.
This phenomenon is at once a relief and a lament. If the gratitude were the central focus of a work for sale, it would risk being commoditized or employed as a tool for the practitioner’s personal advancement, ruining the sanctity of the altruism experienced and the beneficiary’s heartfelt emotions. Yu’s beneficiaries, for instance, could be seen as milking fame from their relationships with him and his positive traits if they had drawn up infotainment programs centered on his history of financial support to fellow entertainers, instead of bringing up the topic as a sideline like they currently do. On the other hand, the arts are the poorer for it when the rich, humanistic qualities buoying such spirit of altruism do not get the attention they deserve, depriving artistic practices of chances to inspire these qualities in the human community and draw greater support for creative endeavors.
Still, it is possible to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting positions. Although the arts are sometimes developed for purely monetary or recreational ends (a charge often directed at popular culture), they can serve nobler missions as well, chief of which include the distillation of beauty and wisdom and enrichment of social discourse. The expression of gratitude fulfills the latter purposes. As long as practitioners stay true to these honorable ideals, they should not let their appreciation of benefactors be relegated to a dusty corner of the studio, or worse, locked up in their hearts. The message must get out there.