Hey, somebody be Vermeer

Girl with the Red Hat, detail, Vermeer, National Gallery of Art

While I was running today, it occurred to me there ought to be a contrarian challenge directed at idealistic and/or gullible art students before they get launched into the world. Someone should dare them to leave behind, at their death, fewer paintings—or works of any sort—than Vermeer or Piero did. Of course this isn’t difficult. Anyone could leave behind three dozen paintings. Three dozen supremely painted ones, though, is still a challenge. Vermeer’s A-game isn’t in evidence in every one of his 36 extant works. There are around twice that number from Piero della Francesca. The seed to be planted here is that you would spend so much time on each of them that you have a far better chance of achieving something near that rarefied level of quality, without going full-throttle OCD. Finish fewer than most, not more, but make each one count in a way few artists can. It would run counter to most of what the commercial art world herds people toward: don’t get on a track where you’re working for another solo show every three years, don’t try to come out of art school and sell through a metropolitan gallery for significant sums, quit worrying about building a CV with awards and honors, and so on. The whole point would be to ignore the entire system that turns an artist into a one-person factory and simply focus on producing a small number of supremely realized works of art, on your own terms. This is all slightly self-justifying though I have no intention of reducing my slow output even more. Yet I’m thinking about this because my own production has slowed down in the interest of getting things right and focusing on a single series of larger paintings. But the Vermeer Way would be more extreme. For someone thinking on those terms, it would require a day job, or some other humbler and/or more nefarious way to make enough money to get by, short of becoming a professional gambler or day trader—and it would probably mean not having children, though a marriage or other domestic partnership could certainly help, on the economic end. It pays to be gay in the art world, in many ways, but the greater chance it gives you of being childless is a major logistical advantage. Mostly though it would be a way of focusing, while in the studio, on nothing but the quality of the work itself, leaving aside all motivations related to quantity. Imagine posting one image every three or four years on Instagram. You would have six followers, but it would be an event. At the very least, you and a few others would know what you’d done, though you might feel like Crash Davis breaking his minor-league baseball record in Bull Durham with only Susan Sarandon paying enough attention to realize he was a record breaker. Worse fates could be imagined.

  1. No Comments