Joni Mitchell said something once in a concert that has always stuck with me. She was performing her music in front of an enthusiastic crowd for an emblematic live album. People were calling out songs they'd like to hear, and she said:
"Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint us Starry Night again, man!' You know?"
In the full, expanded quote she said "You know" three times though.
Perhaps my original strong reaction to this statement was because it was so pungent. There's one of the greatest singer songwriters ever complaining about her job to her enthusiastic fans. But once the quote was seared into my consciousness it became a kind of marker of my perspective. How I felt about her quote seemed to change with me through time, like my response to Catcher in the Rye or to being a library clerk. My response quickly started to say more about me, than her.
Ain't that just the way?
What have some of my reactions been? I have been sympathetic (she's practically a god, just let her do what she wants!). I have been correcting (well, really, Van Gogh paintings go for a hundred million dollars. Of course people would like him to paint Starry Night again!). I have been appalled (they just love some of her songs. Is that some sort of a crime?).
But just recently I found myself with a new response to Joni Mitchell's quote. I thought of poor Vincent Van Gogh, painting some of the greatest works of art in the history of mankind, and no one wants them. He had to be pretty sure they were good, almost positive, you know, but all these people going up to his latest for the ages masterpiece, looking at it for about a second and a half, and saying "No, I like it. My cousin does a bit of painting too on the side, mostly fruit, you know. I think you'd like it. It's a bit like your stuff, maybe a bit tidier. I should show you the drawing he sent me some time.", well, it had to make him feel a bit unsteady. So I'm thinking Van Gogh might have appreciated a little real interest in his painting.
"Hey, Van Gogh, paint us Starry Night again, man! That starry night shit was awesome!"
"Thank you for your interest." Van Gogh says "But that's not really how I work. I paint something new each time."
"That's cool. But still, I love me that Starry Night shit. Starry Night rocks!"
"Well, I mean. If you like it so much you can have it, if you want. I have a lot of paintings."
"Dude, are you serious? I can have Starry Night? I am going to freaking explode. Seriously, I can have this?"
"Sure, yeah, um, why not?"
"Oh My Fucking God! Oh my fucking god. You, sir Van Gogh, you fucking rock! YOU FUCKING ROCK!!!! Starry Night! STARRY NIGHT! WOOOOOOO!"
"Oh wow, did you just, like, give that guy, like, Starry Night?"
"Yes, I think he really liked it."
"I absolutely love Starry Night. I adore Starry Night. I would marry Starry Night and have its babies!"
"Oh, wow. That was awesome that you gave it to him, but, Mr. Van Gogh, you have got to paint Starry Night again. You have got to! Please?"
"Right. Yes, see, as I was just explaining, I don't really do that. I paint a new picture every time."
"Yes, see all these paintings? There are flowers, and people. This is a peach tree. This one is a farmhouse. Here is a drawing of a garden I did, with a little cat and a bucket. The cat looks a bit funny but I'm really pleased with the bucket."
"But I LOVE Starry Night. I loooooovvvve L-O-V-E love Starry Night!"
"Well, that's very nice..."
"Pleeeaasse paint Starry Night again. Pleeease? Pullllleeeeeeeeeaaaaase. Pleez pleez pleez pleez pleez? Please paint Starry Night???"
"Look. Here's this one called Cafe Terrace. It has stars. Look at the stars."
"Oh, this is a nice one."
"And see this one? This is called Starry Night Over the Rhone."
"Wow, these are good. Did you know that you are a really good painter?"
"I bet you could sell some of these. These are really good."
"No, really, I'm serious, you could be a professional painter."
"That's very kind of you to say."
"Hey, are you the guy who's giving out free Starry Nights?"
"I heard there's some guy giving out free Starry Nights over here, and I thought 'Cool, I dig Starry Night. I could totally go for a Starry Night.' So here I am. Can I have my free Starry Night?"
"There are not multiple Starry Nights. I gave Starry Night to someone, but there's just the one. It's a painting you know. One of a kind."
"Oh, well that's cool, but could you paint Starry Night again so I could have one?"
"No! I cannot paint Starry Night again!"
"Well, I mean, respectfully, why not? Obviously you painted it before, so you know how. What's the big deal?"
"It's just, it's not how it works. Ugh! I wish I could just paint something once and everyone could share in having it. I bet no one ever said, like, you know, 'Hey, Joni Mitchell, write us Both Sides Now again, man.'"
"Okay, dude, chill. I get it. Hey, can I have this Sunflower picture?"
Hmm, that didn't go where I was planning. I'm pretty sure there's a point in here somewhere. I hope you'll feel welcome to work out whichever one you want.
But don't make me do all this again.