I. The Gauguin myth in the age of media hype

The process by means of which certain artists—certain modern artists particularly— attain a mythical status that transcends all aesthetic considerations is one that is so familiar to us that we hardly any longer pay it much attention. It is now taken for granted as one of the facts of modern cultural life. This does not mean that the myths themselves have lost their power to influence our thinking about art, but precisely the contrary. Both the myths and the process of mythmaking are now so firmly established in our consciousness that they continue to exert an influence even when the effort is made to discount their effect and rid our minds of their disfiguring fictions.

Yet it is only on a certain kind of artist that such a mythic status can be conferred. Great achievement in art is not itself a sufficient condition; at times, indeed, it is not even a necessary condition. It is life,...