Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience: A Review – by Kathryn Desplanque

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, Raleigh, NC, April 2022-2023.

We are all by now aware of the immersive Vincent van Gogh exhibition phenomenon and have perhaps even encountered whispers of its many mysteries: Why do these immersive exhibitions differ so much in their quality? Exactly how many immersive van Gogh exhibition franchises exist, and how do we tell them apart? What is the Vincent van Gogh Foundation’s involvement in these exhibitions? How is it that these exhibitions attract audiences that we have failed to draw to marquee art world institutions like museums? Questions we have not asked, but which I will raise here, are: Why are members of the fine arts world so uncomfortable with the proliferation and popularity of these immersive exhibitions? And what is it about the myth of the struggling artist that so enchants audiences, high and low?

I brought students from my undergraduate and graduate level classes on “The Invention of the Modern Artist” to see Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience in Raleigh, which is part of a franchise that has, is, or will tour to New York, London, Boston, Brussels, New Orleans, Berlin, Miami, Naples, Atlanta, and many more cities. Not to be confused with any of the many other van Gogh immersive experiences, including The Original Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit—an entirely different franchise featured in an episode of the first season of Netflix’s Emily in Paris—Raleigh’s Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience was hosted in a strip mall sandwiched between a Dick’s Sporting Goods and a Dollar Tree, complete with characteristic drop ceilings and integrated fluorescent lighting. The leaks in the ceilings, since repaired, were of minimal concern since the works in these exhibits were canvas prints or wall projections. Before entering the main immersive experience event, we had the opportunity to buy soda, alcoholic drinks, or snacks at a mini bar that advertised itself with an illuminated sign in three-dimensional letters, which a quick Amazon search has verified can be purchased for $24.99 with Prime delivery. Additional programming was available to us, such as yoga sessions in the immersive room promoted with a drawing of van Gogh doing tree pose on a yoga mat.

In the spirit of Pierre Bourdieu’s observation that “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences,” I would like to avoid rehearsing the art world’s habit of reinforcing elitism via exclusion and dismissal.[1] Even the more lauded original van Gogh immersive experience has been dismissed as “tacky” and “crass,” echoing the accusations Clement Greenberg once leveled against the influx of “kitsch” in New York’s contemporary art scene.[2] Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience is, however, clearly designed to cater to viewers accustomed to the myriad ways in which our gaze is relentlessly pursued in the world of the attention economy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and IMAX 3D experiences—a new visual economy now virtually inescapable. We are, undoubtedly, manifesting Guy Debord’s now 56-year-old Society of Spectacle in new ways.[3] The Immersive Experience never risked assuming that its viewers had a visual attention span longer than one or two seconds. It animated van Gogh’s œuvre wherever it could to render it visually entertaining, and it was rarely possible to gaze at a single painting for longer than an instant before an animation swept it away and replaced it with another. And, in keeping with the attention economy’s tendency to compete for this attention primarily through the smartphone, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience provided ample opportunity for selfies and group pictures, for instance, with a reconstruction of The Bedroom (1888) in their “photo room.”

The success of exhibitions like this prompts us to consider the many ways in which the art world has made gestures at inclusivity while failing to become structurally anti-elitist and anti-exclusionary.[4] The National Endowment for the Arts has been tracking the gradual decline of museum attendance in its Survey of Public Participation in the Arts for over a decade, yet the younger audiences that museums fail to capture are more interested in art and culture than ever.[5] They are simply far less interested in visiting an art museum or a gallery. Exhibitions like Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience attract audiences of all ages who are, perhaps, discriminating about how they spend what has become an increasingly rare commodity: leisure time. Art museums still demand a deeply exclusionary and cultural- and class-specific quiet, piety, and reverence that may intimidate those without the specific forms of cultural capital that these spaces implicitly expect.

It is equally significant that the van Gogh immersive experience franchises hinge on the idea of van Gogh: a mythological presentation of the artist that has captivated audiences for over a century and rendered him a household name. He embodies a specific construction of the artist as a perpetual outsider who forfeits his material, financial, and emotional well-being in favor of his creativity and his genius and is only rewarded for it posthumously. A vision of genius that is often only applied to men, van Gogh is a Jesus-like figure who is misunderstood and martyred in his lifetime but is lauded eternally thereafter for his foresight and dedication. Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience relies heavily on this construction, marrying its spectacularized exhibition strategies with the gravitas of van Gogh or, more specifically, with the gravitas of the idea of van Gogh as a struggling, starving artist. It is rehearsed via apocryphal quotes intermittently read over the loudspeakers in the deep baritone of a middle-aged man: “I put my heart and soul into my work and I lost my spirit in the process,” or “Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk on, but no flowers grow there.” This idea of van Gogh is reinforced by the exhibition’s notable absences, such as the perpetually overlooked yet instrumental Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who strategically and deliberately pantheonized van Gogh posthumously but who is only mentioned briefly at the bottom of a label about van Gogh’s sisters.[6]

In Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, as in many representations of male artistic genius, the artist’s outsider status and suffering is fetishized while the artist’s biography is manipulated and shoehorned into a specific biographical mode. And this biographical mode can and has been historicized. Our ideological investment in the idea of the starving artist is quite old and, paradoxically, emerged and was popularized in the late eighteenth century as a means to contest the emergence of a free market for art. For instance, French genre artists Simon-Mathurin Lantara (1729-1778) and Alexis Grimou (1678-1733) were both mythologized in the late eighteenth century, shortly after Lantara’s death. They went on to become popular comedic characters in opéra comique and vaudeville at the beginning of the nineteenth century.[7] Early representations of the starving artist trope, they were both depicted as drunken, insolvent, and constantly in debt, unpredictable and eccentric, entirely disinterested in social decorum, aloof and wildly independent, and delusionally driven and self-confident. In the 1809 Lantara, ou Le peintre au cabaret, we gradually discover the nobility of Lantara’s eccentricity: despite the greedy machinations of brocanteurs and art dealers, Lantara refuses to sell his work for more than what it’s worth and refuses to sell work he deems subpar, even if the income from that sale could solve all of his and his family’s problems.[8] 

The case of Lantara exemplifies the proliferation and evolution of this trope in popular media, specifically the printed satirical image, where practicing and aspiring artists used the trope of the starving artist as a vehicle to express their anxieties around the art world’s growing reliance on the newly visible bourgeois class, their emerging status as patrons of the arts, and their participation in a liberal art market.[9] When we reimagine the trope of the starving artist as a vehicle for criticism, its satirical bite is clear: in a free market where anyone can be an artist, new classes of art buyers emerge, and the cursus honorum for artistic excellence shifts from public patronage to private sales. The starving artist is the ideal means by which to visualize the material impact of such shifts on the artist’s status. Artists showed themselves as materially precarious and unable to navigate a system that was not designed with their material wellbeing, nor artistic excellence writ large, in mind. After centuries of fighting for the visual arts’ membership among the Liberal Arts, the visual arts were presented with a new competitor for cultural supremacy: commerce and industry.

There is here, as they say, a catch-22. While the trope of the starving artist was initially popularized to criticize the emergence of a free market for art, it eventually became an essential means to negotiate the artist’s status within a new economic system. The capitalist art world maintains a rather ambivalent relationship to commerce, participating in it yet prioritizing anti-economic and disinterested behaviors by privileging what Bourdieu called “symbolic capital,” such as prestige or authority.[10] In other words, any art or any artist that is too commercial is tacky, crass, or kitschy, and the art world is, with a few notable exceptions, unlikely to absorb them unless that art or the artist frames their commerciality as a part of a performance or critique.

The status of the artist hinges on the artist’s separation from the world of commerce. In the French licensing or patente system of the 1790s that replaced the corporate or guild system, the separation between the fine arts and the world of commerce was legally enforced. In a strange twist of fate, artists secured their exemption from the licensing or patente system through the trope of the artist as a suffering and starving outsider incapable of navigating the world of commerce. From approximately 1797 onwards, visual artists were required to avoid any outward signs of participating in the world of commerce if they wanted to maintain an exemption from the licensing system and thus retain the prestigious title of fine artist. And this was most easily effected by adopting the trope of the starving artist and by leaning into the outsider status. What was initially a vehicle for the criticism of an economic system became a lifeline to ensure survival within it.

I do not mean to suggest that artists of the past nor of the present are insincere in their outsider status or avoidance of commercial savviness. Rather, as the world of NFTs has recently demonstrated, a commerce-savvy crop of artists is eager to straddle the world of equity trading and the art world simultaneously. Although the nature of NFTs is far too complicated to summarize in a few sentences, it is worth pointing out that our collective discomfort with them is not unlike our discomfort with exhibitions like Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. Closer examination of the nature of this discomfort reveals some of the deep ideological underpinnings of our art world: we find it distasteful when it feels too commercial. Paradoxically, the trope of the starving artist has, from the eighteenth century to today, both contested the emergence of a capitalist art world and ensured visual artists’ status of exceptionality and distinction in that world.

In Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, this paradox is in play. The artist’s mythologized outsider status and biography have much in common with—and are indeed thoroughly indebted to—the elaboration of the trope of the starving artist that began a century before van Gogh was born. The general public has long since been primed to interpret van Gogh’s lack of commercial success as a sign of his authentic and noble investment in his practice and to interpret his struggles with mental health as symptomatic of his genius. Though initially elaborated as a critique of a capitalist art market, the trope of the starving artist has, in many ways, become the criterion by which many measure an artist’s worth. The stage has long been set for the spectacularization of van Gogh’s art and biography. And yet, the art world has played a long-standing and crucial role in preserving a distinction between commercial acumen and success, and artistic integrity, authenticity, and excellence, and it is this very distinction upon which the trope of the struggling artist relies. If the van Gogh immersive experience franchise is a horrific phone call that the art world protagonist shudders to pick up, we must admit: the call is coming from inside the house. The question, then, is, what do we do next?

Kathryn Desplanque is Assistant Professor of 18th and 19th Century European Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

[1] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 7.

[2] Joseph Nechvatal, “A Tacky Tech Take on Vincent van Gogh,” Hyperallergic, May 2, 2019,; Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 3–33.

[3] Guy Debord, La Société Du Spectacle (Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 1967).

[4]  I will explore this topic through a series of case studies in my second book project, Creative Destruction: Visual Art Defined by Exclusion, from the 18th Century to Today.

[5] “Why We Engage: Attending, Creating, and Performing Art. Based on an Analysis of the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and the 2016 General Social Survey” (National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Research & Analysis, September 2020).

[6] Her definitive biography has recently been translated into English and published. See Hans Luijten, Jo van Gogh-Bonger: The Woman Who Made Vincent Famous, trans. Lynne Richards (London: Bloomsbury, 2022).

[7] See George Levitine, “The Eighteenth-Century Rediscovery of Alexis Grimou and the Emergence of the Proto-Bohemian Image of the French Artist,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 2, no. 1 (1968): 58–76; and Levitine, “Les origines du mythe de l’artiste bohème en France: Lantara,” Gazette des beaux-arts 6, no. 86 (1975): 49–60.

[8] Pierre-Yves Barré et al., Lantara, ou Le peintre au cabaret (Paris: Fages, 1809).

[9] I explore the proliferation of the trope of the starving artist in my forthcoming book, Inglorious Artists: Art-World Satire and the Early Capitlist Art Market. My work on this topic has also been published in the following places: Kathryn Desplanque, “Repeat Offenders: Reprinting Visual Satire Across France’s Long Eighteenth Century,” RACAR 40, no. 1 (2015): 17–26; Desplanque, “A Satirical Image against Jean-Baptiste Greuze: Celebrity, Printmaking, and the Public Woman,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 50, no. 1 (2016): 27–51; and Desplanque, “A Physiology of the Inglorious Artist in Early Nineteenth-Century Paris,” in The Mediatization of the Artist, ed. Sandra Kisters and Rachel Esner (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 197–214.

[10] Bourdieu, “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods,” in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 75.

[11] Édouard Pommier, “De l’art libéral à l’art de la Liberté: le débat sur la patente des artistes sous la Révolution et ses antécédents dans l’ancienne théorie de l’art,” Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français / Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français, 1993, 147–67.

Cite this note as: Kathryn Desplanque, “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience: A Review,” Journal18 (May 2023),

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