What would Rembrandt do if he would suddenly appear in our time and age, in 2018? What would Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen, painters from the Dutch Golden Age think about our times? Would they continue painting or take new occupations in areas like photography, they would certainly be mesmerized by it but maybe no strangers to some old form of it, camera obscura, Leonardo da Vinci is known to have experimented with it long before the painters from the Dutch Golden Age were born. Their paintings can be described as the photographs of their time because much of their work was concentrated in illustrating people and their ordinary lives. For some people, looking at paintings gives them the impression of the time stopping and atemporal space, for me looking at old paintings is a travel in time.
Their paintings tell a story, the people in them permeate character through the canvas. That’s what I see in their paintings, people of great character and even some with great personalities. What’s the difference between character and personality? Well, I mentioned something about it in my review of the book Quiet by Susan Cain, CHARACTER refers to mental and moral qualities and beliefs and PERSONALITY is the outer appearance and behavior of a person. We are living in a world of personality nowadays not character, just take a look on social media. Our modern day paintings, exposed on a canvas called Instagram show a culture of me me me, ego, vanity, cheap dopamine kicks, shallowness, the people’s values and worth is expressed by showing body parts, what they have eaten/drank, what places they have traveled to, meaningless activities and cheap entertainment. People feel like they have to maintain that snobbish “Instagram life” to keep up with others at all costs, their value is derived from their outward appearance and how others perceive them. There are recorded cases in which people entered in financial troubles and debt to maintain the veneer of the “good life”. Wandering how the glamorous Insta-models can afford their lifestyle? There are agencies that take care of this and when I’m saying agencies I’m not referring to modelling agencies, there are agencies that put the models in contact with rich people, think Dubai, remember all those pictures in Dubai that the model put on her Instagram? well that’s when she went there working, “what kind of work?” you might ask, well, it’s not hard to fill in the gaps, it’s the oldest type of work. There is a rich and successful Russian entrepreneur, Serge Faguet, he talks openly about this and his contacts with models. They are all Personality and no Character.
Because it takes time to build character. Character doesn’t come as easily as taking pictures of yourself and posting them. Character building takes patience and dedication. Character building takes suffering and pain. It’s easy to forgo it and to chase cheap entertainment instead, to watch silly videos on Youtube, look at Dubai sponsored models, to watch how other people live their lives, to watch TV and to constantly check your phone for some meaningless stuff. Forget about learning a new skill or a new language, you can play a video game instead and get a quick dopamine kick.
When you don’t have a TV, computers, Internet and mobile phones and no culture of Personality, you get to dedicate your time and attention to character building activities. We can see this in Vermeer’s paintings, his paintings usually depict somebody who is “surprised” while doing something: learning to play an instrument, painting, singing, watching over a map or globe, embroidering, reading, writing. When you don’t have immediate access to entertainment, you have to learn to deliver it yourself, otherwise how will you pass the long winter nights? You learn storytelling, poems, you learn to sing and to play an instrument, you read and spend time writing letters several pages long, you learn a foreign language, you expand your horizons. You dedicate long, concentrated, undivided chunks of time to an activity and this is the essence of “deep work”. You build your character. Nowadays, there is a real problem with distraction and shortening attention spans, in regards to finding out more about this issue I recommend the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. And it’s not only the Internet, since this book appeared in 2010, smartphone using-head-bending-down-while-walking-and-texting become a good contender for the title of top attention thief.
What would Vermeer think about all these people that walk on the streets with their heads down? How would he paint a scene like this? “Scene with tall buildings and ostriches with their heads in the sand”. The young ladies in his paintings that are depicted writing and learning to play an instrument would be replaced by modern ones that are texting on their phones or watching Youtube videos. Jan Steen’s paintings of families sitting together, being jovial, playing music, each member of the family singing at a different instrument would be replaced with a scene showing a family sitting on a couch and starring blankly at the TV. Vermeer’s paintings showing young men studying geography and astronomy would be replaced by young men playing video games.