nanette: an art history critique

Nanette is a cross cultural examination wrapped in a blanket of jokes. At it’s very core the stand-up comedy is in fact a traumatic confession, an existential confrontation, a rant on mental illness, comedic concealment of trauma and internalised homophobia. But most importantly, it is an extensive interrogation of art history academia, and artists. And the fact that Gadsby is autistic only deepens our respect for her work.

“People believe that Van Gogh was just this misunderstood genius, born ahead of his time. What a load of shit. Nobody is born ahead of their time! It’s impossible. Artists don’t invent zeitgeists, they respond to it…”

Gadsby deconstructs the premise that artists need to suffer in order to produce good art: they don’t. Romanticizing the suffering of mentally unstable artists, and positing it as a given prerequisite for artistic brilliance, is bullshit. She recounts her conversation with a man who suggested she not take antidepressants, since it would prevent her from unleashing her true artistic genius - a claim she goes on to brilliantly dismantle.

Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet

Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet

We idolize Vincent for creating beautiful art despite his mental torment, but somewhere along the way, we start celebrating his suffering too. We reduce him to a ‘rags to riches’ story because it’s an appealing narrative, isn’t it? 

We learn from the part of the story we focuses on.

The hollow archetype of the starving, depressed, and tortured genius is not something to aspire to.

We like to say that Van Gogh was born in the wrong era; that if he were born now, we’d understand how he suffered for his sanity, and we’d recognize his genius for it’s worth. We’d buy his paintings. But that comes from a place of hindsight, of years of museums and historians marveling about his brilliance. The truth is, there are thousands of Van Goghs out there right now. We tell them to get a real job. We tell them to grow up. We tell them to stop playing the victim. We mock mental health care, and art therapy, and people just trying to feel okay.

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“Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world. And that is the focus of the story we need – connection.”


The truth is, we like our inspiration to be dead, so we can martyr its art.

How many Vincents have you met? How many eras must they live through to get to the right one?

Screengrab from the movie  Loving Vincent

Screengrab from the movie Loving Vincent