“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and â that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours â civilized people.”
This is Vincent Van Gogh talking about his painting The Potato Eaters. The quote makes me crazy! On the one hand, it’s so earnest and well-meaning, he’s trying to understand the way others live, and he’s recognizing the value of their work. On the other hand, it’s so condescending and anthropological, (which I’ve just read as defined as “human zoology”!) it seems he’s saying that the potato eaters are as dull and insignificant as the potatoes they eat, as low and as covered in dirt. I’m impatient with this view of the artist as a rarefied, superior being, a view that I trace back to the late nineteenth century. (Somebody correct me if I’m wrong!) I can’t read Thomas Hardy, with his supersensitive characters disturbed by the base animal instincts of the common man (or woman)…
But with the self-combating proclivity of the supersensitive, an answer thereto arose in Clare’s own mind, and he almost feared it. It was based on her exceptional physical nature; and she might have used it promisingly. … Some might risk the odd paradox that with more animalism he would have been the nobler man. We do not say it. Yet Clare’s love was doubtless ethereal to a fault, imaginative to impracticability.,
…and DH Lawrence, who congratulates himself on understanding people, but really has no idea.
It makes me uncomfortable that certain people are set apart – set above – in this way; separated by class, or race, or artistic temperament, and that their emotions are seen as more legitimate and more valuable. Surely everybody has their own sensitivities – maybe they swoon at a beautiful sunset, or can tell the difference between two malbecs, or tremble with the new green leaves in spring. (Personally, I can’t wear scratchy wool clothes close to my skin!). Maybe they don’t have the talent to paint what they see, or the means to buy spices to flavor their food, but this doesn’t make their appreciation less important. I suppose this is like the great-grandfather of indie snobbery, which is a trait I’m guilty of myself. When I was younger I only liked alternative, eccentric music, and I remember teasing a friend because he liked “top 40” artists. “Why do you like something just because everyone else does?” I asked. And he replied, “Maybe everybody likes it because it’s good!” Harumph!! And now we have a sort of reverse snobbery, from why-does-anybody-care-what-she-says Palin and her ilk – if you’re educated or care the least bit about anything that might matter to a human being, you’re weak, you’re an intellectual elitist. It’s hard to keep up with this judgmental roller coaster, isn’t it?
And, honestly, potatoes aren’t dull or stodgy at all! Yes, they grow in dirt, but they’re magnificently variable and infinitely adaptable. You can make anything you want with them! you can make them as flavorful as you like, or you can relish their simplicity, and take time to appreciate their own subtle flavor. In this case I sliced them thin and roasted them with curry spices. Simple, but delicious.
Here’s Bob Marley with Judge Not.
4 or 5 potatoes, scrubbed
2 – 3 T olive oil
1 t cumin
1/2 t ground coriander
1/4 t each fenugreek, turmeric and cardamom
salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 425.
Cut each potato in half, and the cut each half into 1/4 inch slices. Put them into a medium sized bowl, and toss with the oil and spices. Add enough oil to lightly coat each piece – it will depend on the size of your potatoes. Mix well, so that you don’t have any clumps of one particular spice.
Spread in a single layer on a large baking sheet, and pour any extra oil from the bowl over the chips.
Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, turning occasionally, until the potatoes are puffed, crispy and fragrant. You can crisp them further by leaving them in the oven 5 or 10 minutes once it’s been turned off.
I have the same problem with Thomas Hardy. Also, his characters are forever making wrong decisions. I had to give up reading him because I kept yelling “NO! Don’t do that you stupid person!” over and over again and it made me over-excited.
I like his poetry though. My favourite is Drummer Hodge:
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
Even so, I suppose his use of the word ‘homely’ means he’s dissing poor Hodge…
yes, well, i don’t think van gogh assumed the potatoes went into the pot dirty, and dirty hands among the poor is not unusual – soaps, etc, are expensive!! i also don’t approve of the overly fastidious artist/writer either, but i don’t think van gogh is in that category.
the miners of belgium lived in scandalous poverty – my mother who was belgian often remarked on it. extreme poverty goes beyond class. van gogh who was sent as a minister to tend to them for the church was then thrown out of the church for sympathizing too much with them.
i see the painting more as an exercise in empathy – maybe romantic, but not really condesending. each member of the family is looking anxiously at someone else, serving someone else, not jumping on the food to satisfy his own probably extreme hunger.
the potatoes would not have had spices, not even roasted or fried with oil, and sometimes the poor had only the peels thrown out by the richer to eat. again, without wanting to malign the potato, having only potatoes to eat was in belgium equivilent to our having only a crust of old bread. you can’t put them in the same category as yours, i don’t think.
I like your reading of the painting – I hadn’t noticed the way they’re looking at each other, and I hadn’t drawn the conclusions that you draw, that they’re serving each other.
I understand that Van Gogh was sympathizing with the subjects of the painting, and obviously I’m not criticizing them for being dirty! I think what I object to, and what makes the quote sound patronizing, to me, is the fact that he draws a distinction between the potato eaters and himself and his friends and the world he lives in – the civilized people. The word “civilized” is a very complicated one, isn’t it? My dictionary describes it as a state of being culturally, socially or morally more advanced. Obviously, I can’t tell how Van Gogh defined it, but to me, with my understanding of the word, it does make the statement sound a bit condescending.
Perhaps it was unfair of me to clump Van Gogh in with these other writers, and I’m no expert on Van Gogh. I was just reacting to this quote that I’d read, and to the painting (which I like, by the way!)
I’m interested in the idea of defining people by what they eat – I took a picture of David making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (which he does almost every day) and I like to call it “The peanut butter and jelly eater.”