If anyone asks you about the Why of art, especially in the face of atrocity or just its apparent impracticality—for the artist or the audience—this anecdote from Lawrence Weschler is about as good an answer as I know.
I happened to be in The Hague a while back, sitting in on the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal—specifically, those related to the case of Dusko Tadic, the only one of more than forty accused war criminals whom the Tribunal had actually been able to get its hands on up to that point. While there, I had occasion to talk with some of the principal figures involved in this unprecedented judicial undertaking.
At one point, for instance, I was having lunch with Antonio Cassese, a distinguished Italian jurist who has been serving for the past two years as the president of the court (the head of its international panel of eleven judges). He’d been rehearsing for me some of the more gruesome stories that have crossed his desk—maybe not even the most gruesome but just the sort of thing he has to contend with every day and which perhaps accounts for the sense of urgency he brings to his mission. The story, for instance, of a soccer player. As Cassese recounted, “Famous guy, a Muslim. When he was captured, they said, ‘Aren’t you So-and-So?’ He admitted he was. So they broke both his legs, handcuffed him to a radiator, and forced him to watch as they repeatedly raped his wife and two daughters and then slit their throats. After that, he begged to be killed himself, but his tormentors must have realized that the cruelest thing they could possibly do to him now would simply be to set him free, which they did. Somehow, this man was able to make his way to some U.N. investigators, and told them about his ordeal—a few days after which, he committed suicide.” Or, for instance, as Cassese went on, “some of the tales about Tadic himself, how, in addition to the rapes and murders he’s accused of, he is alleged to have supervised the torture of a particular group of Muslim prisoners, at one point forcing one of his charges to emasculate another—with his teeth. The one fellow died, and the guy who bit him went mad.”
Stories like that: one judge’s daily fare. And, at one point, I asked Judge Cassese how, regularly obliged to gaze into such an appalling abyss, he had kept from going mad himself. His face brightened. “Ah,” he said with a smile. “You see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town, so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.”
Sitting there over lunch with Cassese, I’d been struck by the perfect aptness of his impulse. I, too, had been spending time with the Vermeers at the Mauritshuis, and at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, as well. For Vermeer’s paintings, almost uniquely in the history of art, radiate “a centeredness, a peacefulness, a serenity” (as Cassese put it), a sufficiency, a sense of perfectly equipoised grace. In his exquisite Study of Vermeer, Edward Snow has deployed as epigraph a line from Andrew Forge’s essay “Painting and the Struggle for the Whole Self,” which reads, “In ways that I do not pretend to understand fully, painting deals with the only issues that seem to me to count in our benighted time—freedom, autonomy, fairness, love.” And I’ve often found myself agreeing with Snow’s implication that somehow these issues may be more richly and fully addressed in Vermeer than anywhere else.
But that afternoon with Cassese I had a sudden further intuition as to the true extent of Vermeer’s achievement—something I hadn’t fully grasped before. For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia (or had just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty, replete with sieges and famines and massacres and mass rapes, unspeakable tortures and wholesale devastation. To be sure, the sense of Holland during Vermeer’s lifetime which were are usually given—that of the country’s so-called Golden Age—is one of becalmed, burgherlike efficiency; but that Holland, to the extent that it ever existed, was, of relatively recent provenance, and even then under threat of being overwhelmed once again.
– Lawrence Weschler, Vermeer in Bosnia, 13-15