Van Gogh and Looking Without Finding

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I’m in the middle of reading a collection of some of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters, primarily letters he wrote to his brother Theo over a period of 18 years. It’s a fascinating body of work. Van Gogh wrote so many letters that they end up providing a sort of journalistic account of the artist’s feelings and experiences.

One passage in particular caught my attention in a letter written in May, 1882 (verbiage changes slightly based on different translations). Referring to a conversation with Anton Mauve, an artist Van Gogh admired and a cousin by marriage, Van Gogh wrote:

Mauve takes it amiss that I said, “I’m an artist,” which I won’t take back, because it’s self-evident that what that word implies is looking for something all the time without ever finding it in full. It is the very opposite of saying, “I know all about it, I’ve already found it.” As far as I’m concerned, the word means, “I am looking, I am hunting for it, I am deeply involved.”

What a delightful way of looking at the life of the artist, and, in my mind, creativity in general. We can think of creativity as a journey or a quest. Even as we complete discrete projects – whether it’s a painting, an essay, or an annual marketing plan – the journey is never finished.

Woman in red dress standing on concrete ledge and looking into the distance
Never stop searching – that’s the heart of the creative experience

Maybe that’s why our favorite TV shows run out of steam when a mystery or relationship that sustains the show’s conflict is resolved. Maybe it’s why creative types tend to get bored easily. Maybe it’s why U2 still haven’t found what they’re looking for. Maybe it’s why the best movies are sometimes those that don’t tie up all the loose ends. Many’s the time I’ve finished reading a book and felt disappointed because I enjoyed it so much, I didn’t want it to end. We take nourishment from the search, the mystery, the adventure of actively pursuing something that we’ll never truly find. If we ever did find “it,” what would be left to do with our lives?

I’m only partway through my reading of Van Gogh’s letters and I’m far from an expert on his life or work. But I have to wonder if some of the hopelessness Van Gogh experienced at different times in his life might have been partially triggered by a desire to find what even he admitted could not be found. We sometimes say that the journey is more important than the destination. Maybe the journey IS the destination. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t always reach creative, spiritual, or emotional conclusions. Keep searching, and take some comfort from words Van Gogh wrote later, in a letter dated October, 1882:

Even though one loses out here and there, and even though one sometimes feels a falling off, one must rally and take courage again, even though things should turn out differently from what one originally intended.

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