Vermeer at the NGA: Conversation and Commercialism

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By Jordan Moeny

I have two main thoughts as I reflect on my visit to the National Gallery of Art. The first is that, despite being referred to as “the Vermeer exhibit” by everyone I’ve heard mention it lately, the exhibit didn’t really highlight the works of Vermeer in particular. While there were a few exceptions, for the most part the Vermeer paintings were spread throughout the gallery without distinction from the rest of the works. In a way, I thought it provided a commentary on how we as a culture (and particularly those of us who are just casual/occasional observers of art) view great artists. While Vermeer may be the only Dutch painter most Americans can name, in his time he was part of a community of artists who were in constant dialog with each other. In putting Vermeer on a level playing field with his contemporaries and highlighting the similarities in their subjects and styles, the exhibit reminded viewers that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It provided a level of context that isn’t really possible when viewing the work of just one artist.

My other, rather different, observation regards the very end of the exhibit—that is, the gift shop. While this certainly isn’t exclusive to this exhibit, I’m fascinated by the interaction of culture and commercialism that happens when museum-goers are spit directly from a carefully curated exhibit into a gift shop. This one had every sort of Vermeer-related souvenir you could buy, including many featuring paintings that weren’t even in the exhibit (like “Girl with a Pearl Earring”). It was an interesting contrast: I started in a contemplative space in which I as the viewer was reminded that Vermeer, though justly celebrated, was one of many Dutch painters whose works are just as worthy of being remembered and studied. I ended in a space in which I was given the opportunity to buy scarves, notebooks, stickers, and postcards featuring whatever limited art I recognized when I entered in the first place, as if I had absorbed nothing of the exhibit I had just come through. (To be fair, I have no real opposition to this approach to gift shops, given that a free museum needs to fund its activities somehow.)

There’s a commentary here on how museums must cater both to those who wish to engage with art and those who wish to consume it—with the recognition that those two groups may or may not overlap. Which, perhaps, makes my two interests above not so different after all. Both demonstrate that the museum-going public may not be particularly concerned with more than a superficial visit to see the “great” artists. The difference is that while the gift shop embraces this, the exhibit itself challenges that superficial approach to art.