Why an Ordinary Life Can Be a Good Life

November 10, 2019

We live in an age with a high regard for extraordinary
lives – that is, lives that the vast majority of us will never lead. Our heroes have made
outsized fortunes, appeared on gigantic screens and demonstrated unique virtue and talent.
Their achievements are both dazzling and continuously, in the background, humiliating. In the late
1650s, the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted a picture called The Little Street. Doing
so was a quiet but momentous and revolutionary act, with an impact that challenges our values
to this day. Johannes Vermeer – Gezicht op huizen in Delft, bekend als ‘Het straatje’
– Google Art Project.jpg It showed nothing more outwardly impressive than an ordinary
street in Vermeer’s home town of Delft. Someone was doing a little sewing; some kids
were playing on the stoop, a woman was busy in the yard. It is one of the greatest paintings
in the world. Up to this point, the most prestigious cultural works had emphasised the merits and
value of aristocratic, military and religious lives, that is, of lives filled with extraordinary
moments and advantages. The great epic poets, Homer and Virgil, had written of heroic warriors;
Renaissance artists had produced magnificent visions of saints and angels. And the routines
of kings, queens and aristocrats were constantly celebrated and held up for admiration on the
most prestigious canvases. But Johannes Vermeer went in another direction. He wanted to show
us what could be appealing and honourable about very different sorts of activities:
keeping a house tidy, sweeping the yard, babysitting, sewing or – as in his equally significant
painting of a kitchen maid – preparing lunch. Several younger Dutch contemporaries joined
Vermeer’s quiet revolution. One of them, Pieter de Hooch, focused on almost random
moments of the day, when nothing particular is going on: a routine afternoon at home,
coming back from the shops, perhaps with a bag of vegetables. Maybe the people will be
hanging out the washing later. Someone’s rigged up a little arbour by the back door;
it could do with some mending at the weekend. De Hooch was the first artist in the history
of humanity to point out the charms of organising a cupboard. He did one picture that depicted
a rather well-off merchant’s house, but the thing that really interested him was the
laundry basket and how the owner of the house and her assistant are folding and putting
away towels and bed sheets. This, de Hooch seems to be telling us, is also the meaning
of life, properly understood. Another of Vermeer’s follower, Caspar Netscher, admired people
doing jobs that were often considered rather boring and lowly: like lace-making, which
was fiddly and not very well-paid. Netscher couldn’t himself alter what people earnt,
but he was intent on changing how we might feel about those on a modest salary. Although
these artists are famous – their works are in the greatest galleries and fetch enormous
prices if they come up at auction – their tentative revolution hasn’t as yet properly
succeeded. Today – in modern versions of epic, aristocratic, or divine art – adverts
and movies continually explain to us the appeal of things like sports cars, tropical island
holidays, fame, first-class air travel and expansive limestone kitchens. The attractions
are often perfectly real. But the cumulative effect is to instill in us the idea that a
good life is built around elements that almost no one can afford. The conclusion we too easily
draw is that our lives are close to worthless. Vermeer, for his part, was insisting that
ordinary life is heroic in its own way, because ordinary-sounding things are very far from
easy to manage. There is immense skill and true nobility involved in bringing up a child
to be reasonably independent and balanced; maintaining a good-enough relationship with
a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; keeping a home in reasonable
order; getting an early night; doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly
and cheerfully; listening properly to another person and, in general, not succumbing to
madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive. Vermeer was not claiming
that everything ordinary was invariably impressive. He was merely directing us with grace to the
idea that there are a host of things that we too often ignore and that happen to be
both ordinary and good. With extraordinary talent, Vermeer was convincing us of an idea
we should dare to hold on to in the face of immense pressures to imagine that we should
be living in more exalted ways: that there is already much to appreciate and venerate
in our lives when we learn to see them without prejudice or self-hatred. If you liked this
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