I had a migraine this week when I first heard about the Van Gogh Museum's forthcoming collaboration with Pokémon. I saw a Sunflora grinning beneath corduroy skies - this wasn't part of the migraine - and I thought: really? The Sunflora looked delighted. I wondered: wasn't van Gogh amongst the unhappiest people to ever hold a brush? Is that match-up particularly harmonious? Something something crass? Art and commerce! Then I grumped off for a lie-down.
That was my first thought. Luckily I had others later on. I am increasingly wary of gatekeeping, particularly when I find myself settling into it. I am sure all of what follows is obvious for you, but it helped me, at least, to pick my way through it.
My next thoughts, anyway: actually, might Pokémon and van Gogh make for an interesting combination? And haven't art and commerce lived close together for most of their separate histories? More important, is there such a thing as a bad way of connecting with art?
I think about the last question quite a lot. My mum did an art history degree when I was very young, and I have loads of memories of being dragged around art galleries with my sister. I was very much the child who sees a room labeled "Raphael's Cartoons" and emerges moments later confused and disappointed. At the time, I don't think much of the art I saw was going in, but looking back what I got from mum and her art obsession was her particular fierceness about the things she loved. When it came to art and artists she was wildly partisan. She loved Constable, for example, and absolutely hated Turner. (We once went into the Clore and, faced with the studious calm and a rippling selection of Turner seascapes, she couldn't help herself yelling out, "Well, this is a load of SHIT," before turning and walking out again. Good times, ma.)
(She has actually been more embarrassing in an art gallery than this. Years later, at Edward Hopper, she tried to huffily move away from whoever's mobile phone was going off piercingly loudly, only to discover it was her phone.)
At the time I was confused by this, but now I sort of love it. If you're going to be into art, cleave to it. Love the things you love and love them ferociously. A few years passed, and when I read Ellen Raskin novels that namechecked people like Piero della Fransceca and Malevich - two artists who do not often end up shuffled together - I found I was ready for them. I was ready to have thoughts, to be partisan in my own way. Days of being bored in the National Gallery while my mum argued with curators had given way to something else. Now, thirty years later, I take my own kid to the National Gallery!
Speaking of which, my daughter often seems as bored as I was, but for different reasons. She's frustrated rather than bored. Raised on slime videos and loom bands, my daughter is part of a generation where sensation and squish factor counts for a lot. She explained to me, patiently, once as we came back from The Wallace Collection, that the frustration she felt around art was simply that she wanted to touch it, and she knew that wasn't allowed.
Because of this - and because, at the Wallace, I had just seen The Swing by Fragonard, and in real life it seemed such an unexpectedly candied confection of a thing I half wanted to touch it myself - a few months later I took her to see Van Gogh Alive in Brighton. Van Gogh Alive gathers together a load of paintings by van Gogh and projects them onto the walls, the ceilings, the floor. You sit and watch as they strobe past, arranged into narratives and set to booming music. It's a blockbuster, it's an "experience", and it's the kind of thing a lot of art people get pretty sniffy about.
My daughter, though, was absolutely rapt. She sat on the floor for an hour, long enough for everything to start repeating, and just moved around, enjoying the images projected onto her and underneath her, reaching out and trying to grab van Gogh's thick lines and loops of paint, even though for that day at least they were made from nothing but light. There's no bad way into art, I think. But the thing I want to get across here isn't that she was won over, but that I was too.
I had never really engaged with van Gogh much before. Aside from the things about him that everybody knows, I didn't truly know very much about him at all. And what I got from Van Gogh Alive were simple but powerful things.
Firstly, I got a sense of how much he painted. I am used to painters like Velazquez or Breugel who painted very little - around 120 canvases for Velazquez, less than 50 for Breugel. You can get to know every painting, and work your way deep into each of them and enjoy that feeling as each one delivers its own specific kind of mania. But van Gogh painted a lot. I mean a real load of stuff. Over 900 canvases, going by some of the people who have tried to keep count. And these paintings seem to work a little like the endless stories of someone like Philip K. Dick. They are relentless in their churning repetition, with slight variation, with their effortful working out of personal fascinations.
That was the first thing. The other thing was much simpler and purer. At Van Gogh Alive I saw a bunch of van Goghs I had never seen before. I knew the Starry Nights and the Sunflowers. But here were urban spaces, and, best of all, plants and petals and still-lives that went far beyond the sunflowers in their delicacy, in their sheer force of observation. Wild roses. Almond blossom. Irises. My mum was not with us, but in her honour I dutifully murmured "Japanese influence," to absolutely nobody.
I could probably stop at this point and construct a quick argument about how van Gogh and Pokémon are natural siblings. They're both about getting out in nature, and paying attention. They're both about standing in the long grass for long periods and hoping to be astonished by something. I think this is true, but I also think the match-up - van Gogh and Pokémon - is more interesting if you put any kind of deeper harmony aside, just for a second.
Two things here. Actually, maybe more than two things. Let's see. The first is that for all I know, van Gogh was amongst the unhappiest people to ever handle a brush, but that's a very stupid way of looking at things. Even if that was true, it's never all that's true, and it's never simple anyway, so why am I so reductive?
Secondly, to return to an earlier half-conceived worry about art and commerce I had: good luck untangling those two. Actually, I don't wish you luck because as well as being impossible it's also sort of self-defeating. It does nobody any favours to pretend that art is separate from commerce, not least because the question of how to earn a living is central to billions of people's experience of life on this planet. Art has overwhelmingly been linked to commerce throughout history, whether that's the church, patronage, the cost of certain paints, the old line about van Gogh only selling a single painting in his lifetime. Commerce is often a new window onto art and the circumstances of its creation. A lot of great art becomes even greater yet when I realise it survived commerce and is great despite its pressures.
What damages an artist isn't commercial concerns, I suspect, because again, those have been shaping art since the days the first paintings changed hands. What really damages an artist is a lack of engagement with their work, or the reduction of their work to a few images and a rote way of thinking about them. If Van Gogh Alive leaves my daughter with her formative memories of Van Gogh, that's great. It's great if Pokémon does the same for someone else, I think. And in Pokémon's case it works both ways, because which is art and which is commerce here? Imagine loving van Gogh and coming away with a nascent understanding of pocket monsters!
I guess what I'm realising by writing this is that there are no bad routes into art because art can always handle itself. It doesn't matter, I suspect, whether you're discovering the oddly intergalactic still life fruit and vegetables of Adriaen Coorte in Laura Cumming's latest book (it's a banger) or spotting the Arnolfini Portrait in the opening credits of Desperate Housewives and deciding you want to know a bit more about it. What matters is that you get the chance to make the connection in the first place. If that's because of Snorlax and Sunflora, well trust me when I say that it can't be more suboptimal than being dragged around the National Gallery by someone who's decided Turner is shit - and that turned out fine in the end anyway.