Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Point of Contact: Johannes Vermeer’s painting called, ‘The Little Street’.
I’m looking at this painting and also wondering why it requires even a moment’s consideration. This really isn’t glamorous. But then again, what is?
We live in a world saturated with false glamour. The problem does not lie with glamour itself, but with us. For we’re the ones who’ve collectively agreed to regard some things as glamorous and deem most others as ordinary.
Mind you, eradicating the whole idea of glamour from our lives simply isn’t the answer. Perhaps what we need to do is direct our admiration and excitement more wisely: to turn it upon things that genuinely deserve prestige. The ordinary often does!
‘The Little Street’ is insured for £100 million and is the subject of a mountain of learned articles. It is, quite exactly what it has been titled and therefore, out of synch with its status: A little street with a simple home and its dwellers going about day to day activities inside it.
One of the fundamental things artists can do for us is turn the spotlight of glamour in the best and most helpful directions. They can identify things that we tend to overlook but that, ideally, we should care about a great deal.
The tenderness, beauty, skill and wisdom with which Vermeer has portrayed this would make anyone see its worth. This painting wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. Through it, Vermeer says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching the children, darning cloth – and doing these things faithfully, without despair – is probably life’s real duty: to an extent, purpose even and therefore, source of fulfillment.
Admittedly, it is an anti-heroic picture: a weapon against false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats of courage or on the attainment of status. It argues that doing the modest things, things that are expected of all of us, is enough. It’s almost as though this picture is asking us to be a little like it is: to take the attitudes it loves and to apply them to our lives.
This visual might be what every good, decent society aspires to – a small picture that is a microcosm of the world’s understanding of happiness.
Vermeer communicates a crucial (and hugely sane) idea: much of what matters to us is not exciting, urgent, dramatic or special. Most of life is taken up dealing with things that are routine, ordinary, humble, modest and quite frankly, a touch prosaic. Could we develop a culture that focuses on getting us to appreciate the average, the everyday and the ordinary? It is special, even when it isn’t glittering. Even when nothing is happening, life is. And that’s sufficiently glamorous, if only we’d believe so…
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