‘I am not an artist’

Zola says, ‘Moi artiste, je veux vivre tout haut – veux vivre’ [I, as an artist, want to live as vigorously as possible — (I) want to live], without mental reservation – naive as a child, no, not as a child, as an artist – with good will, however life presents itself, I shall find something in it, I will try my best on it. Now look at all those studied little mannerisms, all that convention, how exceedingly conceited it really is, how absurd, a man thinking he knows everything and that things go according to his idea, as if there were not in all things of life a ‘je ne sais quoi’ of great goodness, and also an element of evil, which we feel to be infinitely above us, infinitely greater, infinitely mightier than we are.
    How fundamentally wrong is the man who doesn’t feel himself small, who doesn’t realize he is but an atom.
    Is it a loss to drop some notions, impressed on us in childhood, that maintaining a certain rank or certain conventions is the most important thing? I myself do not even think about whether I lose by it or not. I know only by experience that those conventions and ideas do not hold true, and often are hopelessly, fatally wrong. I come to the conclusion that I do not know anything, but at the same time that this life is such a mystery that the system of ‘conventionality’ is certainly too narrow. So that it has lost its credit with me.
    What shall I do now? The common phrase is, ‘What is your aim, what are your aspirations?’ Oh, I shall do as I think best – how? I can’t say that beforehand – you who ask me that pretentious question, do you know what your aim is, what your intentions are?
    Now they tell me, ‘You are unprincipled when you have no aim, no aspirations.’
    My answer is, I didn’t tell you I had no aim, no aspirations, I said it is the height of conceit to try to force one to define what is indefinable. These are my thoughts about certain vital questions. All that arguing about it is one of the things of which I say ‘embêtera.’
    I am not an artist – how coarse it sounds – even to think so of oneself – oughtn’t one to have patience, oughtn’t one to learn patience from nature, learn patience from seeing the corn slowly ripen, seeing things grow – should one think oneself so absolutely dead as to imagine that one would not grow any more? Should one thwart one’s own development on purpose? I say this to explain why I think it so foolish to speak about natural gifts and no natural gifts.

— van Gogh, Letters

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