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In the article relaying the details of my visit to MoMA, I mentioned that The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh is one of my favorite paintings. A comment this praiseworthy deserves more elaboration. Why has this painting resonated as much as it has, not only in my own experience but in the lives of so many other people? This week, in light of national discussions on the mental health system of the United States, I feel compelled to look into a work of art crafted by a mentally ill man, in the hopes that I can expand your insight into a relevant political issue, as well as a timeless masterpiece of captivating proportions.

Background: The Current Discussion of Mental Health in the United States

On my personal Facebook page I shared a video segment from the television program Last Week Tonight which briefly investigated the current state of the U.S. mental health system:

As some of you may recall from my first Journal article, I am a psychology major studying to be a clinical psychologist. The subject of the mental health system in the United States is one which I am deeply passionate about, and misconceptions about mental health abound in regular discourse. And while this segment is a great introduction to the topic, there is an additional point that wasn’t covered in Last Week‘s exposé.

John Oliver correctly pointed out that the vast majority of mentally ill people do not commit the majority of violent crime in this country, and that the mentally ill are far likelier to be victims of violent crimes. (The epidemiological studies that were cited by Last Week Tonight, as an aside, are scientifically robust, to those of you interested in their quality). But just because the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by non-mentally ill offenders does not entail that the mental health system cannot help reduce the incidence of violent crime.

Gary Slutkins is an MD who founded one of the Top 10 NGOs (as rated by the Global Journal in 2013) known as Cure Violence in 1999. His view is that the spread of violence mimics infectious diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis; consequently, the incidence and the spread of violence can be reduced using the same health strategies used to fight global epidemics. There is a three-pronged approach that Cure Violence has employed in the most violent areas in the city of Chicago: “detection/interruption of planned violent activity, behavior change of high-risk individuals, and changing community norms.” Gratefully, as this approach has been implemented through most of this century so far, the strategy has been highly effective. Northwestern University led a study which found statistically significant differences in each community where the Cure Violence approach has been in full effect: there have been reductions in shootings and killings of 41% to 73%, reductions in shooting hot spots of up to 40%, and the elimination of retaliation killings in 5 of 8 communities.

In brief, the association between mass shootings/overall violence and mentally ill individuals is statistically weak, so weak in fact that other explanations are far likelier to account for the incidence of violent activities in the United States. However, the mental health system in this country can have numerous positive effects on reducing the frequency and spread of violent crime.

Why The Starry Night is Worth Discussing This Week

This painting is significant this week for two reasons. The first being that Vincent van Gogh was himself a sufferer of mental illness. And secondly, he committed suicide through a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Vincent van Gogh’s Mental Health

Van Gogh’s mental health is the one bit of information the general public knows about him that isn’t related to his artwork. It is most often summarized and encapsulated by his decision to sever part or all of his ear on December 23, 1888. At this time in his life, he was afflicted with seizures and internally traumatizing personal crises. On that December night, he removed part or all of his left ear with a razor blade and gave it to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to “keep this object carefully.”

During these debilitating times, van Gogh continued painting and tried in earnest to maintain a life others might refer to as normal. His contemporaries noted that his smiles seemed forced at times, as if he was merely forging his expressions of happiness. But in his artwork, most strikingly in his self-portraits, the trauma he underwent is abundantly visible.

Self-Inflicted Gunshot Wound

I don’t intend to share this detail to incite major political debate among all of you. I only bring this to your attention because it is a point that is rarely brought up on major television networks. It also reveals a interesting component on the current debate about gun control in the United States.

Far too often, discussions in popular media (which includes television, newspaper, and magazine) primarily focus on homicides and mass shootings when discussing gun control. Now this is not a topic that ought to be neglected or undiscussed, especially since the FBI confirms that the incidence of mass shootings has sharply risen since the year 2000. However, the danger in mostly speaking about these two statistical rates is overlooking the suicide rate, which has also risen significantly since 2000.

This is particularly important because deaths from suicide by firearm vastly outnumber both homicide by firearm and mass shooting. In 2014 the CDC reported 11,208 deaths attributable to homicide; deaths determined to be suicide by firearm numbered 21,175. In 2013, the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) reported that over 50% of all suicides were caused by a firearm.

Thankfully, some media outlets have discussed whether stricter gun laws could lead to a decreased number of suicides in this country. Further scientific study will be needed to corroborate whether this is the case, but it is a subject that is not readily spoken about, and for those who suffer with thoughts of suicide, it is one which has ultimate significance.

The Starry Night

So! Let’s first take a look at what is present in this painting before providing context. The night sky dominates the majority of the canvas with a rich intermingling of blues, greens, yellows and whites. The moon is quite large, and the light emanating from it is similar to that of the other stars, but not exactly. The sky is adorned with other smaller stars, displaying a light that is both yellow and white, creating a pattern which draws the eye. The sky has its own waving pattern which is a harmonious joining of clouds, light, and moving air. The remainder of the painting includes a small village with a church steeple prominently placed in the front.

There is some context that I haven’t yet offered. Van Gogh was not able to paint in the evening, and was only able to sit down and put a brush to canvas in the early morning or the afternoon. So, in a certain sense, he painted the scene from his memories looking out of his window. But in another, perhaps unrelated sense, he did not paint the sky from memory, based on paintings with a night sky that he had composed earlier.

Starry Night Over The Rhone, 1888.

Additionally, the village found in Starry Night does not actually exist, at least not as seen from his window at Saint-Paul’s asylum. It is an idealized little town, and art historians debate whether it was actually the town of Saint-Rémy, where the asylum could be found, or if it was merely a village from the Netherlands that van Gogh took from memory.

One of the reasons that this work has resonated so much in popular culture, aside from its beauty, is the person who created it. A painting of such complexity and beauty, coming from someone who suffered so greatly, is why we ought to consider The Starry Night this week. With misinterpretations and misunderstandings about mental illness so ingrained in current national discussions, this masterpiece of modern art reminds us that tremendous beauty can be interpreted by those with mental illness, and we ought to be paying them the care they so dearly need.

Further Viewing:

This was a pretty lengthy discussion on The Starry Night, and I know quite well that it can be pretty laborious to read a blog post with 1000+ words. For those of you who may not be interested in reading the entire entry, I would highly recommend watching the videos embedded below. One is an interactive animation of this painting, one is a look into the work and the presence of turbulence within it, and one is an educational video which elaborates on certain components of the piece I didn’t have enough time to mention in detail. See you next week!