Treading Toward Sanctity

Musings and meditations on close to a century's worth of discussions occasioned by Van Gogh's series of paintings of worn shoes. Was the artist's statement primarily aesthetic, or political, or was it religious?

Admiel Kosman
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Admiel Kosman

From 1881 to 1888, two years before his suicide, Vincent van Gogh completed eight paintings of shoes. One of them, on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, eventually became the talk of the postmodern salon. The keystone of this complex debate, which draws in (literally) the entire world, was provided by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who visited the museum in 1930. Heidegger used the painting to demonstrate his thesis about the essence of art. To him, art has a role that is antithetical to that of technology, which enslaves man in a race to control the world while objectifying whatever lies in his path.

Art, by contrast, enables man to grasp for a minute the meaning of "being" here in the world. It allows him to see things not only as objects intended for his use. Of these shoes, which Heidegger for some reason decided belong to a peasant woman, he wrote: "From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes, the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth." In this spirit and in poetic language, he describes the world of the peasant woman and her surroundings opening up before the reader. In the "stiffly rugged heaviness" of the shoes, he sees the tenacity of an innocent woman walking in the fields. He senses that the leather is touched by the dampness of the earth, and the soles tell him of "the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls."

Through this estrangement and rediscovery of the existing wonder, we are brought back to Heidegger's foremost question about "being": Why does anything exist at all? Amsterdam is once again indirectly tied to the story. Renowned psychopathologist Kurt Goldstein fled through Amsterdam to the United States two years before Heidegger gave a series of lectures that were published in 1935-36 as "The Origin of the Work of Art," and which include the discussion about Van Gogh's painting. At Columbia University Goldstein brought Heidegger's words to the attention of art historian Meyer Schapiro. Schapiro considered them and challenged Heidegger by claiming that the shoes belonged neither to a woman nor to a peasant; rather, they were Van Gogh's own shoes (some date the painting to 1886, when the artist was staying with his brother Theo in Paris). Thus Schapiro rejects the Heideggerian description, with its strong air of the countryside. Schapiro's argument rests partly on a casual description of Van Gogh's shoes that appears in the memoirs of Paul Gauguin. Through these shoes the scholar sees Van Gogh's own shabby, wrinkled life.

This strange German-Jewish turn of events brought Schapiro together with Jacques Derrida in a joint seminar they gave in 1977, in which they both explored the "truth" of the artistic act. Derrida would later address the subject at length in his book "The Truth in Painting," in which he presented, among other things, a series of questions raised by the Schapiro-Heidegger dispute. In this case, says Derrida, we bombard the painting with intentions, while, he claims, in an aside, there are more urgent and necessary things in the background, such as the numerous pairs of lost shoes lying in a pile somewhere. Derrida for a moment identifies the frivolity of the Heideggerian discussion, which engages in idle talk while a bit later the shoes of the Holocaust victims pile up (in February 1943, for example, Himmler received a report of 22,000 children's shoes collected at Birkenau).

Another voice that later joined the debate was that of literary critic Fredric Jameson, of Duke University, who, writing from a Marxist perspective, stressed the misery that cries out from the shoes of the poor. To him, the shoes represent "the whole rudimentary human world of backbreaking peasant toil, a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state," as he wrote in "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism"). Jameson speaks more generally of Van Gogh's rural paintings, seeing even the trees in the fields, with their wealth of color, as "exhausted sticks coming out of poor soil."

Indeed, this observation requires him to explain the incongruous richness of the color; to him, it is nothing but a "Utopian gesture," that is, "an act of compensation which ends up producing a whole new Utopian realm of the senses ... which it now reconstitutes for us as a semiautonomous space in its own right, a part of some new division of labor in the body of capital."

In the spirit of these words, and not in contradiction to them, one might offer another reading. It is well known that Van Gogh was a deeply religious man. Already as a child he identified with his father, the Protestant minister; and although he began to work in the art trade at age 16, he was fired in 1876 when he became preoccupied with religious matters, identified with the churchgoers and neglected his work duties. In 1877 he studied theology in Amsterdam, and although he did not complete his training, he started a year later to work as a missionary in the Belgian coal-mining region of Borinage. There, too, he clearly felt a deep identification with the poverty of the local miners. He was fired from this job, too, but continued to preach.

In other words, what Jameson forgot is that poverty, in its ideal form, has a measure of religious seriousness and profundity that were very significant to Van Gogh. It was no accident that he went to the peasants; at that time in his life he was searching for the simplicity that (as his letters attest) he could not find in Paris. Van Gogh spent his whole life in brushes with the religious establishment, driven by his view of himself as a religious man who was not part of the establishment, close in spirit to Jesus.

Therefore, the motif of the shoes should be understood as expressing not only darkness, as scholars of Van Gogh's work have claimed; it is also an optimistic religious expression, a declaration that these poor regions are exactly where salvation and revelation will come from (and that, perhaps, also explains the mystery of the rich color). These shoes do reflect abject poverty and a difficult life, but unlike Jameson, I believe that Van Gogh is not protesting against "capital" here. Van Gogh walks in these shoes much farther than that, and he writes, in the language of the painting, the divine declaration to Moses: "Take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5).

Van Gogh presents, using the visible shoes, that which the viewer cannot see because he is "out of bounds" - that is, out of the bounds of the holy (so that now it no longer matters whose shoes these were). The painting prepares the viewer waiting outside for the religious occurrence located in the innermost place of the person who has shed his shoes and walked into the Holy. In this Van Gogh reflects the belief that it is the poor, those wrinkled by life, who are granted the supreme experience of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

St. Ambrose of Milan learns from words of God to Moses in Exodus: "How careful we must be to free the feet of our souls from the shackles of the body, and to clean our footsteps of any connection to this world (on our way to sanctity)!" This motif of taking off one's shoes before entering holiness is found, incidentally, in different religions around the world.

A typical Jewish response to the Christian ascetic lifestyle proposed here can be found in the words of Meir Simcha HaKohen (of Dvinsk), the Lithuanian rabbi whose work "Meshekh Hokhma" ("The Price of Wisdom") is considered to be one of the deepest commentaries on the Torah. Meir Simcha initially agrees with the idea suggested here - namely, that the shoes represent the corporeality of Moses - and indeed, "what has matter to do on holy soil?" However, he claims that the spiritual condition involved here was a lowly one, since it happened before the giving of the Torah, and he believes that, "It was not so after the giving of the Torah, [when Moses] ascended Mount Sinai with his materiality [that is, Moses ascended to meet God with his shoes on, since there is no mention of his needing to take them off]."

Another interesting homiletic can be found in the kabbalistic text Zohar Chadash, and may have crossed over the invisible inter-religious bridge of medieval Spain: "Take your sandals off your feet - for does footwear cleanse the place or pollute the place? So said Rabbi Abba: It shows that he [Moses] was told to remain pure of all contact with his wife."



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