Entries in modernity (2)


Van Gogh's children


Last week, the new touring exhibition of Van Gogh's works on nature, "Van Gogh: Up Close", came to the National Gallery of Canada. It is expected to be the absolute blockbuster of the summer, following on the mega crowds it drew over the winter in Philadelphia. 

What is it about Van Gogh that transfixes us? The paintings, for sure. His weirdly compelling life, yes. But there has to be more to it. In a new book, Solar Dance, Modris Eksteins argues that to understand Van Gogh, and our reaction to his work, is to understand the cultural warp and political weft of the 20th century. It is to understand the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich, the birth of the counterculture and the death of communism, and—not least of all—the great flourishing of celebrity culture and our obsession with the who of art, not the what. In sum, Eksteins writes: “Van Gogh is ours. We are Van Gogh.”

I review Eksteins' book in the new issue of the Literary Review of Canada. 

Here is Peter Simpson of the Ottawa Citizen giving his own take on why we remain obsessed with Van Gogh. 

And here is professor Eksteins himself, writing inthe Citizen about Van Gogh's "extraordinary afterlife."



Measles in Massachusetts: The hatred of the present and our medieval future

Megan McArdle picks up on a report of a measles outbreak in Massachusetts. Officials don't know where it came from, though it may have spread from the French consulate: "France reported 10,000 cases — and six deaths — during the first four months of the year, most likely due to low vaccination rates."

This has been in the making for years. British health officials were warning over a decade ago that immunization rates were dropping dangerously low and that the "herd immunity" was going to disappear. It is tempting to blame it all on the criminal Andrew Wakefield, but his sort of panic-mongering only gets traction in a public that is already widely disposed to despise the present, and fear the future. 

Indeed, as McCardle points out, "It's hard to believe, but we're sliding backwards on two of the three public health achievements of the 20th century: vaccination, antibiotics, and clean water." And she doesn't mention that while our water might be clean (well, for most of us anyway, unless you happen to live on a native reserve in Canada), some of our largest cities have decided that another great public health achievement -- control of tooth decay through water fluoridation -- is some black-helicopter plot. 

We are on what is looking like an inexorable slide into magical thinking, turning our backs on the technologies, the medicines, and the markets that are the basis of our civilization. McCardle suggests that we make a guy like Wakefield "spend the rest of his life explaining himself to the parents of children who have died from diseases that could have been prevented through timely vaccination" but that misses the essence of the madness. Wakefield's victims will go to their graves singing his praises. 

(Via Tyler Cowen)