A Van Gogh!

A Van Gogh!
From the artists at ArtWorks945

Monday, July 26, 2010

News and More News

News Flash 1: Did you hear? A seventeen year old just traded from a cell phone to a Porsche.


I must admit – when I first heard about this story, I became quite dispirited. I thought that surely the novelty of trading up will now have worn off and so no one will want to trade with me.

But I now think that my reaction was irrational. This latest trading up might improve my chances. Why? Because the fact that a second person has traded up so spectacularly suggests that red paper clip guy’s trading up wasn’t a fluke. One person doing something very surprising might always be a fluke. Two people doing something surprising, however, suggests that the event wasn’t a fluke. And non-flukes are generally not as hard to reproduce as flukes.

But the latest trading-up story has made me scratch my head a bit. When the red paper clip guy traded, people may have been motivated to participate just for novelty’s sake. But this latest story simply involves a kid bartering over Craigslist for items of increasing value. So novelty doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it. Instead, what seems to be at play is irrationality. Over the course of fourteen trades, the collective group that traded with the kid lost close to a Porsche in value. So somewhere in the whole process some people acted irrationally.

So here's a question: Why would people act so irrationally?

And here's an answer: Because people are predictably irrational.

Indeed, a whole school of economics has sprung up recently that studies predictable irrationality. Dan Ariely, an economist at Duke, wrote a great book about it called Predictably Irrational. I highly recommend it.

All this has made me formulate a thesis, which I shall call the Irrationality Thesis (IT):

IT: Predictably irrational desires provide the fuel for trading up.

If IT is true, I should be feeling quite optimistic right now. Since art is by its very nature irrational, I may be working with jet fuel.

News Flash # 2

My attempt to make another trade fell through. I didn’t even go see the painting.

I was quite dispirited about this fact too. But then it occurred to me – the universe is giving me a sign. It is punishing me for my hubris.

After formulating the Ask Thesis in my last post – if you don’t remember it, the Ask Thesis asserts that asking for something is almost always a better strategy than not asking – I didn’t ask the universe for a trade. I simply assumed that the trade would happen. But the universe, I am now inclined to think, likes to be asked.

So, properly chastened, let me now announce to the universe:

I want to trade my Melanie Bamberg triptych for a really great painting.
I want to trade my Melanie Bamberg triptych for a really great painting.
I want to trade my Melanie Bamberg triptych for a really great painting.

If anyone wants to trade, let me know.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two Theses

It has been a few weeks since I traded for Melanie Bamberg’s Broken City triptych, but I wasn’t having any luck in getting another trade. As I sat around thinking about this fact a few nights ago, two thoughts struck me.

First, it occurred to me that perhaps in the near future someone will make a machine that can create a perfect molecule for molecule replica of Starry Night. There is already a process – it is called Giclee --that produces a painting from a digital picture. It is like a Xerox machine for painting. So I could take a picture of Starry Night and Giclee it. But a Giclee is hardly a molecule for molecule duplicate. What I have in mind would be a process that analyzes a painting at the level of molecules and reproduces it.

Such a machine is a popular one in philosophical thought experiments. One is asked to imagine a machine that could produce an exact replica of a painting and is then asked whether one would prefer the original or the duplicate. Of course, just about everyone would prefer to own the original, which is meant to show that our aesthetic preferences are shaped by factors that are extrinsic to works of art. As a result, philosophers conclude, either factors completely extrinsic to a work of art, factors like its causal origin, alter its aesthetic value or we have irrational aesthetic preferences.

But to my knowledge, no one has speculated that such a machine will in fact exist. And so I have formulated the following thesis, which I shall call the replicator thesis (RT).

RT: Within 100 years there will be a machine that can produce a molecule for molecule replica of Starry Night.

A second thought popped into my head the other night as well. I have yet to declare to the universe that I want someone to trade for my Melanie Bamberg. And that made me think about the extent to which asking for something raises the chances of getting that thing.

It seems to me that asking is almost always a good strategy. If you ask, and the person (or universe) says ‘yes’, then you get what you want. If the person says ‘no’, you are no worse off than if you hadn’t asked. The only problem comes in situations in which asking causes someone who was antecedently planning on giving you what you want not to give. But that type of situation, it seems to me, is fairly rare.

So I formulated a second thesis. I shall call it the Asking Thesis (AT):

AT: Asking for what you want is almost always a better strategy than not asking.

And having formulated that thesis, I was determined to declare to the universe that I want someone to trade for my Melanie Bamberg original triptych. But the very next day, I got lucky. A professional artist who paints in the abstract style saw Melanie’s paintings hanging on my wall and really liked them. She said that she has a painting that she wants to trade for Melanie’s. I am supposed to go see it on Saturday. I can’t wait. So I will save my desire declarations for another time.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Van Gogh the Pauper

I was in NYC this last weekend and while there visited the Museum of Modern Art. And guess what? It has Starry Night. So I spent a considerable amount of time looking at it just to see what makes it so much better than the Dominic original.

I thought that I was close to seeing what it was; but then I happened to wander over to a collection of paintings by Picasso. And when I did, I couldn’t help but think that Dominic’s drawing really might belong in the collection of great artworks.

One thing, however, is certain: Van Gogh’s Starry Night is worth a whole lot more than Dominic’s drawing.

And that got me to thinking about what Van Gogh’s finances were like just after he painted it. And that led me to the following sentences from two of his letters to Theo just after he painted Starry Night. The sentences paint an interesting picture. I shall call it:

The Pauper

These four days I have lived mainly on 23 cups of coffee, with bread which I still have to pay for.

I am almost sure that Bague will like my big studies, the “Starry Sky,” “Furrows,” etc., he will like some in the last batch much less.

I have a lot of expenses, and it worries me a good deal sometimes when I realize more and more that painting is a profession carried on most likely by exceedingly poor men, and it costs so much money.

So Van Gogh, having painted what would become considered one of the greatest paintings of all time, was forced to live on coffee and bread, was worried whether some collector would like his paintings, and was dismayed by the fact that painting cost so much. And what did he have in his possession at that time? A future treasure, as is shown by another sentence from the same letters.

That's 5 canvases I have in progress this week, that brings the number of these size 30 canvases for the decoration to 15, I think.
2 canvases of sunflowers
3 “ the poet's garden
2 “ the other garden
1 “ the night cafĂ©
1 “ the Trinquetaille bridge
1 “ the railway bridge
1 “ the house
1 “ Tarascon diligence
1 “ the starry night
1 “ the furrows
1 “ the vineyard

Van Gogh was 35 when he wrote these letters and hence had less than two years to live.

The universe is a funny thing. Perhaps Van Gogh didn’t ask enough of it. Or perhaps he asked too much.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Van Gogh at 30

Van Gogh painted himself. His self-portraits are some of his best-known works.

Interestingly enough, Van Gogh also painted himself in written form. His letters to Theo, his brother, paint a fascinating picture of Van Gogh throughout his life.

Those letters can be accessed in unabridged form here:


Of course, all pictures misrepresent. And today, we are presented with pictures within pictures within pictures. It is enough to drive one mad.

But at the risk of driving someone to madness, here is a picture of Van Gogh composed from four sentences taken from a letter he wrote to Theo February 8, 1883 at the age of thirty.

I will call the picture:

Van Gogh at Thirty.

Sometimes I cannot believe that I am only thirty years old, I feel so much older.

I feel older only when I think that most people who know me consider me a failure, and how it really might be so, if some things do not change for the better; and when I think it might be so, I feel it so vividly that it quite depresses me and makes me as downhearted as if it were really so.

I sometimes think I will make an experiment, and try to work in quite a different way, that is, to dare more and to risk more,

What a mystery life is, and love is a mystery within a mystery. It certainly never remains the same in a literal sense, but the changes are like the ebb and flow of the tide and leave the sea unchanged.

At 30, Van Gogh considered himself a failure, as did most everyone else; he resolved to take more risks; and he was, it would seem, a romantic.

At 36, Van Gogh was unable to find love, unable to consider himself a success.

At 37, Van Gogh was dead.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Melanie's Paintings

First things first – Melanie’s paintings should be displayed vertically, not in a triangle, like I had them before today. When hung vertically, they form an obvious progression from the heat of the day to the cool of a moonlit night.

So what do I like about Melanie’s paintings?

This may sound like criticism, but it is far from it – I like Melanie’s paintings because they are childlike. Not childish. Childlike. If you were to try to paint the dream of a child, these are what you would paint. The buildings are distended, as if alive. The windows, especially in the middle painting, look like eyes. The sun in the top and bottom paintings looks almost as if it has been spit up from the street. And the street itself looks as if it is standing straight up and down.

Melanie, it seems to me, has captured brilliantly a recurrent dream image of a child. And that is no insignificant feat.

It seems to me that capturing is perhaps one of the fundamental artistic metaphors.

Great artists somehow capture something.

Maybe the fact that capturing is so important to art is part of the reason that photography changed art so much. Photographs capture rather well the world just as it is. So with the advent of photography artists had to figure out not just how to capture something but also what to capture. And that doubles the difficulty.

This is pure speculation, but perhaps what makes contemporary art so difficult, both to produce and to appreciate, is the fact that artists must now figure out both what to capture and how to capture it. Picasso’s cubist attempts to capture the three dimensionality of a person on a two dimensional plane is a case in point. It took a genius to think that such a phenomenon could and should be captured and then to figure out how to do it. And it takes a certain aesthetic leap to appreciate Picasso’s cubist paintings. Neither capturing what is not part of the world nor appreciating what is captured are easy feats.

And this in part is what I like so much about Melanie’s paintings. She has captured a child’s dream. Indeed, when I look at Melanie’s paintings I feel a bit like a child who has been winked at by someone who knows about his dreams.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Three For One

I made another trade. But I didn’t just get one painting. No, I got three.

Last night I drove to Melanie Bamberg's place to see her collection of art. But as I did, Kelly's first question kept bouncing around in my head: How will I know if I trade up?

In fact, I was almost driven to distraction by that question.

But then Melanie solved the dilemma for me. After she showed me her very interesting collection of art, she offered me three paintings for one. And in strictly numerical terms, getting three for one is a trade up.

Indeed, as I thought about trading with Melanie, I couldn’t help but consider an interesting possibility. If I got three paintings in this trade, maybe in my next trade I can get eight paintings; and in the next, seventeen. Who knows? In ten trades I may have eight thousand paintings; and I bet I could trade eight thousand paintings for a Van Gogh.

Of course, I still want to trade for good paintings, even if I am getting more of them.

But in the case of Melanie’s paintings I couldn’t be more pleased.

When I looked at Melanie’s facebook gallery of paintings a few days before visiting her, I immediately noticed the three that I eventually traded for. But when I saw them online, I thought: surely, Melanie won’t give even one of those paintings away. They are all so cool. I really dug those paintings. Still do.

But then Melanie offered to give me all three. I was flabbergasted. Still am.

In my next post, I will tell you what I think is so cool about Melanie’s paintings.

But before doing so, let me first thank Melanie for giving me three such awesome paintings.

And before leaving for the day, let me add: if anyone wants to trade for my three totally cool Melanie Bamberg paintings, let me know.