Van Gogh's Ear--Playing Dirty

"Do you know the real reason Van Gogh cut off his ear?” Esteban Vicente asked John Canaday, former art critic for the New York Times.

“No, why?” Canaday said.

“Because he couldn’t stand listening to critics anymore.”

This exchange is repeated in Audrey Flack’s book Art & Soul. It is preceded by this conversation between Flack and Jimmy Ernst:

“Jimmy: I’m doing bad work…there’s hope.”

“Audrey: I did bad work for a year when I began doing watercolors again after a break of over twenty years.

“Jimmy: There was a time when it was not held against artists to show bad work. It was expected in terms of their development. There was no sudden death in art then. There is now. Art was a friend. You didn’t drop a friend because she or he made a mistake.”

I have not been doing “bad work” nor have I had cause lately to want to cut off my ear. The sad reality is that I haven’t been doing any work. Nothing. I have a notebook of ideas on top of my desk. A few months ago those ideas were niggling, calling, singing at me to write, write, write them.

Over the past years I have developed a “sneak attack” method to approaching new story idea. When a story idea sang to me, instead of trying to write it out, I ignore it. Usually, the idea keeps calling—louder, Louder, LOUDER until finally I have to write it.

But this time, for some reason, while I was waiting, thinking I was so smart to give my subconscious time, that monster critic who sits on my shoulder nattering and badgering me about how lousy my work is--how it’s not good enough, not funny enough, not fresh--took control.

And now I am not writing because I am scared to do “bad work.”

I used to do bad work all the time. It didn’t faze me—maybe because I didn’t know it was bad. I hadn’t learned the “bad art” lesson yet. Like most kids, I slapped and splashed, scribbled and scrawled joyously. Our kid-art was wonderful because we created it.

But now, like many supposed adults, I’m scared to do badly. And not just at writing, either. If I don’t think I can dance well, I don’t dance. I don’t ice skate because I might fall or look silly. I don’t try cooking anything I don’t already sort of know how to cook. I quit art class because I was lousy at drawing—and because I was lousy, I didn’t let myself enjoy it. And now, now that I’m a “published” author, with editors who want to read my work, I’m not writing because I am scared to write. I am so worried about what the critics might say that I have forsaken my friend.

Damn the Monster Critic!

Somehow I, we—all of us who have creation anxiety, all of us with a Monster Critic sitting on our shoulder, judging our every move before we even make it— have got to pull a Van Gosh. Cut off our critic-tuned ears.

Whatever it takes: dancing him dizzy or turning up the music, drugging him, or dazzling him with disco light, somehow we have got to kick the Monster Critic to the curb. Destroy him, or at very least distract him for a while so the kid in us can come out and play.

Come on! Let’s get dirty. Let’s do some bad work!