Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A flight from civilization


"Art is either plagiarism or revolution."

—Paul Gauguin

"Civilization is what makes you sick."

—Paul Gauguin

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune and pleasure of viewing an outstanding exhibit of the work of French artist Paul Gauguin, including an extensive collection of Polynesian art, which, along with its culture and people, was a huge influence on him. His art, as always, is wonderful and worthy of visual and intellectual contemplation and immersion, but the show was a reminder for me of the influence Gauguin the person had on others, not only in the world of art.

Sometime in the early 1960s, a university professor of art I knew opined with a certain demeaning disdain that most of us would love to have a Gauguin hanging on a wall of our home, but none of us would want to invite Gauguin himself to dinner in that home. The implication was that while the artist's work was extraordinary, the person himself was not up to the standards of the civilization that admired, studied, treasured, collected and, in fact, made a high-end commodity out of his work. Whether the professor was correct or not, it stuck in my mind and has appeared many times over the years. It occurred to me at some point that the professor might have also been averse to inviting to dinner those who constructed the wall in his home on which Gauguin's art might have hung, and for much the same reasons.

Dinner with Gauguin might not have been a "civilized" occasion, but, like his art, it undoubtedly would have contributed some essential vitamins and nutrition to the conversation of life that the polite strictures of civilized behavior tend to not dine upon. A person or a civilization neglects the essentials at its peril, and I have always rejected the art professor's take on a dinner with Gauguin. Besides, as an iconic starving artist, he likely would have deeply appreciated a good meal over uncivilized conversation.

As Gauguin pointed out, "Civilization is what makes you sick."

Gauguin, who was born in 1848 and died in 1903, was one of the most worldly and well-traveled people of his time, having lived in Peru as a child and sailing around the world as a member of the French merchant marine and navy starting at age 17. Always known by his friends as "an eternal optimist," he has been described as one who always knew "that if he was dissatisfied with something here, there must be something else out there." That is, he was a seeker, a dreamer, even a romantic, and he was dissatisfied with civilization. It made him sick. Nevertheless, after quitting the seas he had an 11-year encounter with civilization, which included a successful career as a stockbroker in Paris (until the market crashed), a marriage and five children, an attempt at living in his wife's native Denmark (he spoke French and Spanish but not Danish), and supporting his family on his art, he left, looking for that something else out there. He spent most of the rest of his life in Polynesia seeking that something it appears he never found, but he left a body of work of far more value to humanity than, say, a successful career as a stockbroker (until the market crashed).

His art spoke and speaks for itself, and in the 1960s his person and path beckoned to a generation of Americans who were becoming aware that something was amiss in their own culture and civilization, most sickly manifested in the Vietnam War. That "turn-on, tune-in, drop-out" (a phrase about consciousness and healing civilization's sickness, not about getting stoned and shutting down) generation was shunned, marginalized and definitely not invited to dinner with mainstream society of the time, and Gauguin's art and his optimistic search for that something out there both resonated and provided an uncivilized map to unknown cultural terrain. I am not alone in being thankful to and informed by Gauguin's person, not to mention his art.

It is somewhat disheartening and sickening to realize that our civilization learned nothing in the nearly half century since Vietnam and invited (one might say "had") Iraq and Afghanistan for dinner. One could easily lose optimism. But the Gauguin exhibit was packed with people, many of them listening carefully to hand-held audio guides to each of his works and their significance to his life, which was often described as "a flight from civilization." All those people so intently focusing on the work and person of the old French artist inspired optimism and hope that there just might be something else out there besides a civilization that makes you sick. And I'd wager that most of them would have jumped at the chance to invite Gauguin to dinner.

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