Manna not the Maid

The Best American Poetry Blog
November 12, 2009

Before I pushed the pause button on this blog yesterday—to share a Veterans Day sign of peace—you may remember I was fantasizing about hustling Johannes Vermeer, the Sphinx of Delft, into the small elevator at the back of the Metropolitan Museum and up to the third floor to meet Robert Frank.

People have imagined odder, even more hostile jostling of Vermeer. There’s Dali and the rhinoceros and the morphology of Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker.”

In some sense, the fantasy simply mirrors the swing in our emotions between contemplation and engagement, between the source of light and what the light falls on, between the brushstroke and the personality. Or, to put it in a way that seemed bizarre, but ravishingly obvious only when I stood in front of “The Milkmaid,” Vermeer was interested in manna, not the maid.

Yes, the light. Yes, the wall as intimate as skin, as gorgeously flawed as a lover’s body. Yes, the inky apron of a rare blue pigment Vermeer coveted and had to special-order from the apothecary when he could afford it. Yes, the subtle code of eroticism in the floor tiles with Cupid. Yes, the triangles and the sculptural solidity of color and the way shading pushes shapes forward. Okay, okay, it’s rapture.

But … manna, not the maid.

In the foreground, under the window, under the apron, under the gaze of the maid, is a slight-thread waterfall of milk from a ceramic pitcher and a little stone ridge of bread broken across the table glowing gold. The bread in particular looks as if it has just been brought into focus by a camera obscura: intense clarity at the center of the loaf, a slight, curious fuzz and blur on the left as the surface curves away from view.

Otherworldly. Food for and from the gods. But, here’s a painting called “The Milkmaid,” dominated by the full-figured shape and colors of a woman at work—and she, whoever she is or might ever possibly be, doesn’t matter in the least to the painting or its beauty or its power.

The whole time I was standing there studying the painting, marveling at its effects, being pulled in by paint, shrewdly, gently tugged and pushed here and there by Vermeer’s control of light and reflection, I couldn’t help fidgeting and thinking oh where oh where are people and passion? I felt chastised and annoyed, not by Vermeer’s virtuosity, but by the thin moral air.

The curators seem to know this might be a problem for contemporary audiences because they surround Vermeer’s milkmaid with images of more lascivious playmates from the iconography of Dutch domestic desire. Lots of overcompensation going on as the show tries hard to convince us that Vermeer is doing a lot of his own winking and nodding.

Peter Schjeldahl would have none of it in “The New Yorker”:

“The sturdy dignity of the maid forfends even a notion of prurience. The majesty of her presentation—with sculptural mass in a monumentally composed and compressed, wide-angle view—would stand me off, in an attitude of reverence, even if she were naked.”

Schjeldahl praises this “chastening force” of Vermeer, his “wordless sermon urging our betterment.” To me, that sounds a lot like Plato coming to town as the guest minister. Now, I love Plato. I love Vermeer. But I do have a tendency of checking for the exits when the sermons begin. I don’t smoke. But I like to go outside with the smokers and come back in for the music.

Vito Acconci said not long ago, “With art, no matter how many nudgings into the traditions are made, the convention is always the viewer is here, the art is there. So the viewer is always in a position of desire and frustration. Those “Do Not Touch” signs in museums are there for a reason: The art is more expensive than the people are. I hope that is an immoral position.”

Now these are two ethical corners of the art museum elevator I would love to hear argued out. I’ll stand in the middle and keep pressing buttons until the guard comes and asks us to leave.

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