What you say, Raymond, about van Gogh, is very interesting. You mention two salient issues. One is the idea of the muse. It's an idea that still has much to be said for it: that an artist must be open to what comes, in the way that Lewis Hyde writes about it, as a kind of gift (see my post of 17 November). The second issue is that of craft versus art. The book that has influenced me on this is R. G. Collingwood's The principles of art, in which he argues that there is a set of activities, let us call them crafts, in which an end point is envisaged, such as the van Gogh brothers' idea of what would sell, and worked towards by well-understood methods. Art, says Collingwood, is different. There is no aim towards a particular outcome. Instead, art is exploratory of things we don't understand, principally having to do with the emotions, which we come to understand better as they are expressed and explored in the various languages of art such as the novel, architecture, music, and so on. I think Collingwood is onto something. The implications for the person who reads Madame Bovary, or walks through the Alhambra, or listens to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing Schlummert ein from Bach's Cantata 82, are both structured and open. That person too can explore. He or she is not being directed by a craft of having, for instance, certain emotions induced, as anxiety is induced in a thriller. So, was van Gogh seeking to induce certain emotions in us?
Lewis Hyde (1983). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage.
R.G. Collingwood (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This is a very interesting point that you make, on the distinction between art and craft. I must confess, this theory aligns very closely with my own beliefs. However, I think it also begs some troubling questions regarding intent, and its necessity and sufficiency. If someone creates something with no particular intent to explore and idea or an emotion, yet the result is thought or emotion-provoking, is this still not a piece of art? Similarly, if an artist has the intent to explore an emotion or an idea not well understood, but the product fails to provoke a similar response in any viewer, is that person not an artist and the piece created not art? Should we assume the most demanding criteria, that both intent and some success with regards to an audience are necessary? Stated another way, if an artists creates but no-one is around to view it, is it still art? I don't know enough about Van Gogh to speak of his own intentions, but I think that my impression of his life did serve to raise some troubling and broader issues with regard to the definition of art and artists.