B1 Intermediate UK 782 Folder Collection
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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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Why an Ordinary Life Can Be a Good Life

782 Folder Collection
Rain published on April 3, 2018
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