I just came back from my art history tutorial. Though I think I flunked my in-class test on Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, that doesn’t leave a blot on my feelings of exhilaration now. In class today, we watched Simon Schama’s Power of Art on Van Gogh’s life and his paintings.
In this BBC documentary on the real-life account of Van Gogh’s manic-depressive life, we see a different side of Vincent Van Gogh. Through his letters to his ever-loyal brother, Theodore, we get to know Van Gogh. We learn about his positive and sincere intent to show people the beauty of life no matter how distorted his actions may have turned out (his cutting part of his ear off and mailing it to a prostitute, or his fixation to eat chrome yellow paint). His paintings and his struggle to get appreciated and to open the world’s eyes just fill me with a sense of awe for someone who sees life so differently from most of us. Life… what is life? To him, it is heaven, it is hell, it is difficult to express verbally or written, and thus, his paintings offers his interpretation of life by using vibrant complementary and opposing colours, and violent aggressive brush strokes.
Did you know? Don McLean sang, “Starry, Starry Night’ that is dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh. It is a very beautiful song sung by such a beautiful voice dedicated to a beautiful and very under-appreciated human being during his living years.
Learning art history is so fulfilling. I know I’ve said this many times before, but, really, taking this module is the best thing I did this semester. No, that’s an understatement. Undeniably, irrevocably, unerringly, it is one of the best decisions I have made in my life, thus far.
In my life, I have always whined that visual arts and myself are two divergent roads that will never converge. When I was young, I joined a drawing competition. The memory of that time is very fuzzy, but I remember my feelings very vividly. I remember that my enthusiasm and that I did my best to win. But, although I wanted it so badly, I lost. I remember the despair and I remember the furious envy when my friend won instead. Angry and frustrated, I gave up on art. My mom has always told me that she regretted allowing me to give up so easily as it later became a well-worn excuse for me to dismiss dance, art, and music classes. And, even in trying or learning something new. I simply said they are things that I can never do no matter how hard I tried and so, I simply didn’t try. A shame, really.
As an on-looker standing at the peripheries of the art world, outside, I admonished it but inside, I continued observing and pining for something that I can never have. I retreated from that love, retreated from ever knowing it, and retreated to the safe sanctity of science. Ah, science, a world that I can easily comprehend due to its hard logic and yet, there was a beautiful aspect to it. Look at the life in the flora and fauna around us, look at the balanced ecosystem, look at the minute but powerful microbes. For a moment, I was absorbed by it but arts was never forgotten.
But, these few years, that longing has resurfaced. With my rising frustrations on engineering, to release my tension, I found that my eyes are usually drawn to books on art and music appreciation. Sometimes, spontaneously, I visit art and music museums or events to console myself. But, it took a long time for me to start venturing more adventurously into this world. My heart keeps pining but my intellectual mind keeps fighting the urge. “It is too late to learn, it is far too late. You don’t have the talent for this, anyway. It’s too difficult. A different world altogether. Why do you want to read or learn about this when you know it is a futile exercise that will only serve to demoralise you further?”, is something I’ve often say to myself. And, thus, I remain still and motionless at the borders. Once again, an outsider just looking in.
I know I’ve often said that being in this country, it was like being in a sterile world. Everything you see, everything you hear, the places you go to, the activities and entertainment you go to are all manufactured to please and inform you in a certain pre-determined way. But, though it’s stifling to be infused in such a materialistic and unfriendly (not to mention, unhealthy) culture, ironically, it’s liberating. The more I’m forced to stand down, the more I stand up to learn and do something new. Here, I picked up the pen and started writing. Here, I explored museums and my love for nature and the arts started blossoming again. Here, I became more daring and assertive to get what I want (although I still have much to learn in this aspect). Here, I was given the chance to go to Europe, a place I’ve fervently wished to go to. Especially, to Italy and London. Finally, I’ve seen the cities that boast some of the best art and history museums in the world. Yes, this place does chain me up a little, but it also gave me wings.
This semester is the second brave attempt to test my skills and break the ideological restriction I imposed on myself that engineering students can only do well in science and technical fields, and that we are not trained to think like art and social sciences scholars. I wanted to prove that wrong as I did last semester. This time, I took up something more challenging than medical history and infinitely more fulfilling: History of visual arts.
It is tough, no doubt about that. I wished that my discipline had given us the chance to hone our writing prowess, but it didn’t. The new terminologies like ‘Orientalism’, ‘realism’, and ‘Impressionism’ as well as words familiar to humanities scholars but not engineering ones like ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘despotism’; and not to mention the long-winded passages in journal articles made me realise how much more I have to learn. Both linguistically and artistically.
But, I love it. I feel that I am a better, more holistic human being because of it. With a better understanding of how to look at art, how to listen to music, and how others perceive them, I can appreciate the world a little better. Life portrayed in all its beauty and its ugliness, and how it brings us happiness or suffering. Life is not logical. Life is not rational. Life is unpredictable. Life is a choice and we choose to live it the way we want. Life is hard but must we make it harder for ourselves? Life is something that we create for ourselves and not let others write it for us.
I don’t know why but only the arts can make me gloriously happy like this. Try as I might, engineering studies never did get me involved. I stuck with it for four (soon, five) years, consoling myself every day that though I dislike it now, I’ll probably like it tomorrow. If not tomorrow, soon, it’ll be soon that I’ll fall in love with engineering. It never did, and coming to the next juncture of my life, it’s time to choose again.
Come to think of it, similar to what I did for my love for the arts, this severe control of my passions dictated how I have led my life thus far. I have always and always used my brain to lead my life, not my heart. Now, I don’t know yet what I will choose once I graduate. I don’t even know whether my love for art and humanity studies is my vocation. All I know is that this time I will do what my heart tells me to and not fall into the mistake of taking the well-trodden but unwanted path for the sake of the possible future happiness obtained through wealth and power.
An impossible ideal, maybe (considering that my friends keep telling me that we need to be practical as jobs in the market are not fun). But there’s no harm dreaming for the ideal, right? A job that is not a job where I can be creative in a competitive but happy working environment and every day I work, it is self-fulfilling and meaningful to both myself and society, at large.
For a while, let me dream the impossible dream.
To end off, another dedication to Van Gogh, this time by Josh Groban. I love Josh Groban, so I can’t help adding this as well: “But, I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”