Van Gogh painted two versions of the good doctor. One hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The other has had a rather tumultuous career, including four years hiding in a back room of the Städel in Frankfurt before being seized as an example of outlawed entartete Kunst by the Nazis. It found an unlikely rescuer in the shape of Hermann Göring who off-loaded it to an Amsterdam dealer. The last time it came up for public auction it fetched eighty-two and a half million dollars which was, in 1990, a record.
If we have a look at most of the record breaking paintings the striking thing is how crude, unfinished and, frankly, ugly they are. It seems that the more disturbing the picture, the more it upsets us and makes us feel uncomfortable the more valuable – at least in dollar terms – it is. Certainly we know that van Gogh had an unhappy life. No doubt his pictures would be a useful testimony to his state of mind and valuable to a psycho-historian. But as something to hang on the wall, admire and enjoy? Hardly. Why then, the ridiculous price tag? Isn’t there something obscene about it?
If, on the other hand, we look at the work of William Bouguereau we are entranced. He was not disturbed. He loved his work and spent every minute of daylight at his easel. The enchanting thing about his work is the detail and accuracy – they are photorealistic. But they are much more than a photo could be. There is a wonderful charm and delight that keeps us in their spell. That is the nub of fine art. It is the fineness – the detail, the precision, the care.
Bouguereau is out of favour now. His work is too naïve. There is no anxt in it. Nothing to analyse. No message except love and beauty and care. And those are commonplace. Not worth an astronomical price.
These are works of the mind, as much as the written word or the music score. Fortunately now, with high resolution digital photography and the Internet we can all share and reproduce their delights with high fidelity.
It seems, by and large, right that the progenitors of works of the mind should be able to enjoy the fruits of their endeavours during their lifetimes and for their estates to benefit for a reasonable period thereafter. But ultimately they are the common heritage of our species. Manuscripts and original scores and canvasses should not be treated any differently – they too should be the common heritage of us all. Undoubtedly the original media have great value to scholarship and they should, as of right, be in the hands of museums or universities in trust to us all.
It is theft and usurpation for these valuable documents to be the plaything of the wealthy and the means of profit for dealers. It is a great waste of national resources for museums to have to bid huge sums to secure for the people what is theirs by moral right anyway.