Why is Vermeer’s painting so popular?April 15th, 2009
In a recent interview, I was asked to explain why Vermeer’s art has enjoyed so much popularity in the last decades. Art historians, art critics, novelists, poets, film directors and ordinary lay people are inebriated by his canvases. Frankly, I am not sure I know the answer. However, the distinguishing features of Vermeer’s art seem to be at odds with much of the most successful art of our own age. That paradox might be a lead.
If pressed, I would take bets that the widespread increase in popularity of Vermeer’s work indicates a spontaneous trend towards unmediated visual experience and artist/viewer communication. The concept of art as an educational instrument may be loosing traction.
Here is how Vermeer’s work stacks up against today’s competition.
- Vermeer’s works are small. Today’s cutting-edge artist is generally inclined to work in large, if not monumental, scale. Vermeer’s representations are “scaled down” as in the minsicule Lacemaker, while today’s artist tends to “scale up” — see Jeff Koons’ £12.9m Hanging Hearts.
- Vermeer produced a paltry number of paintings (36 have survived but probably he made no more than 60) and he likely did not utilize available techniques to produce multiples. Our most successful contemporary artists tend to be quite prolific, not to say repetitive.
- Vermeer’s paintings were created for private viewing. They were destined to be hung in discreet bourgeois family dwellings where only a select few members of society could see them (public collections did not exit in the 17th c.). Today’s artists demand prominent, public or private platforms to exhibit their work including art fairs and public museums frequented by thousands of viewers.
- Vermeer’s art is undemonstrative and evasive. Cutting-edge art tends to be invasive, brash and deliberately disturbing.
- As far as we can understand, Vermeer proffered no substantial critique of any know social norm. Today’s artist is almost universally critical of one or more aspects of his society, and his work is frequently conceived a vehicle to direct social change.
- Vermeer’s art represents daily life. There is nothing overtly provocative, spectacular, miraculous, shocking, humorous or extraordinary in his subject matter. While he carefully staged his mise-en-scène interiors and contrived his compositions with painstaking attention, he never painted anything that could not have existed. His works evokes states of meditative calm. Often, the value of a contemporary work of art is judged from its ability to shock the individual and provoke public opinion.
- Vermeer accepted, and in one case rhetorically glorified, the canons of art of his age (see the Art of Painting). The cutting-edge artist is apt to challenge prevailing concepts of the art.
- Vermeer’s art does not lend itself to the spoken word; it is essentially silent. He left no written documents regarding his art. Most of today’s artists press their point by appending explanatory documents (ex. exhibition catalogues) to their works or widely publicized interviews.
- Vermeer was deeply committed to his craft. A significant portion of cutting-edge art is not materially executed by the artist himself.
- The appeal of Vermeer’s art is simultaneously populist and lofty while today’s art favors low-brow dialect (kitsch and vernacular) but comes across as elitist. Vermeer’s art is inclusive where much of today’s art is exclusive.