“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 — that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours — 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.