Obama administration hires Dutch artists

President Obama has been in the Netherlands for a major international conference focused on two of the world’s great crises: nuclear proliferation and the drama in the Ukraine.

But despite a packed schedule, the President made an unusual request: that he be allowed to visit Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum for a few hours. In the company of the mayor of the city and the head of the museum, Obama walked the galleries containing the masterpieces of the Dutch 17th century ‘Golden Age’. He studied works done by, among others, Vermeer, Hals, Rembrandt and de Hooch.

Why on earth did he bother?

© Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Press Association Images

Our societies may ascribe great prestige to art, but we still tend to think of it as a relaxation or a brief escape from ‘real life’; a diversion from the sorrows and tensions in adult life.

But by interrupting his diplomatic schedule for the sake of a few paintings, Obama was sending out a rather different and more unexpected message: that certain works of art are not merely pretty playthings; they contain within them solutions to some of the most perplexing and urgent dilemmas of our age. They aren’t an escape from politics; they are political manifestos of the highest order.

The artists were offering Obama help with some central difficulties of US political life. Multiple clues as to the future of the economy lay in Johannes Vermeer’s, The Little Street (by which Obama stood for three and a half minutes).

Policy proposal on modesty and community

In his major political manifesto, The Little Street, Vermeer identified a corrective to this dilemma. His painting speaks to us of the importance of two strands within ‘bourgeois values’: hard work, capitalist enterprise and thrift; but also a sense of social responsibility, generosity and modesty. This is what the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ was good at: combining a huge devotion to making money with a strong commitment to the attitudes and habits that make for a good society. Vermeer was offering Obama a map of how to get more beauty and quiet dignity into the veins of US capitalism.

Obama also consulted Rembrandt on civic pride.

In Rembrandt’s painting, the well-off citizens are shown as keen to be part of the night time security patrols. It wasn’t a very nice task; they had to go out in the rain and cold when they could have been at home. But they were eager to sign up for it, despite their wealth, because status had been attached to the task of looking after the community. The ‘Golden Age’ used the power of art to make civic duty glamorous.

We know the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as an extremely pleasant venue to visit when one is on holiday. Obama shows us a more ambitious path: how to use galleries as places to find help for the most urgent problems of our lives.

© Getty