Lessons from Vincent Van Gogh: Celebrity Culture and the Rights of Domestic Workers

Our treasured religious beliefs tell us time and time again to care for the poor and the destitute and to love the strangers among us. We know that domestic workers and underprivileged laborers deserve our care and attention, but in our celebrity-suffused culture, we often forget this truth.

Vincent Van Gogh’s oil painting The Sower has a permanent home in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands. But I saw it this summer at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Painted in 1888, it depicts a sower strolling through a lush amber-colored wheat-field adorned with dabs of vibrant violets, vivacious yellows, intense indigos, tangerine oranges, and bold blues—the vivid colors that had become Van Gogh’s trademark—and with the careful brushwork which Van Gogh learned from Monet.

Van Gogh

The Sower is part of Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields” series of paintings. This series not only showcases Van Gogh’s interest in all of the intimate details of the natural world—of wheat-fields, of flowers, trees, plants, undergrowth, orchards, gardens, and sweeping landscapes—but it also showcases his love for ordinary, simple, hardworking rural workers. Like François Millet, Van Gogh lavished love upon field laborers and manual workers by bestowing on them the same painterly attention that the great artists once reserved for royals and the rich. This particular sower, in fact, is one of several variations of Millet’s original Sower that were painted by Van Gogh. In this version, by bathing the sower in the brilliant golden light of the saffron-colored sun, Van Gogh virtually crowns the worker with the same halo that classical artists once bestowed upon saints.

This painting has been on my mind, because this past summer I received a fellowship to work for an organization that seeks to protect and improve the lives of underprivileged workers like the manual laborer valorized here by Van Gogh. Through the Jewish human rights organization T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, I was placed with a domestic workers-rights organization called Damayan.

The Damayan Migrant Workers Association is a New York-based organization that helps Philippine citizens working abroad in the United States learn about their rights and combat abuses. Because the Philippine economy is so poor, many Filipinos travel abroad for work, much of which tends to be in the domestic service sector. Per capita, more Filipinos work abroad than citizens from any other country. Often, they are overqualified for the domestic service jobs they obtain as housecleaners, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly. There are Philippine citizens working as domestic workers in almost every country in the world, and tens of thousands of Philippine citizens work in the United States alone.

Not all of them come here of their own free will; unfortunately, many are lured here through false promises of a better life in an American paradise. Others are trafficked here through criminal means. However, even those who do come to this country of their own free will all too often encounter an unfortunate fate.

A Quiet Issue: Abuse of Domestic Workers

Domestic workers—and particularly migrant workers—are subject to an unfortunate array of abuses. In the United States, they are often overworked and underpaid, and are sometimes not even paid at all. They are also frequently subjected to wage theft, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, and the confiscation by their employers of their passports and identity documents.

Domestic worker abuse is not what we may call a “hot button” issue in the general press. It is not, say, on the level of what has been occurring in Syria for the past few years; it is not an insidious system of deliberate discrimination targeted against a certain class or ethnic or racial minority; it is not a sensational sort of abuse like sex trafficking, which tends to get more coverage. Domestic worker abuse is a quieter issue, not only because it is not sensational, but also because much of it happens in private, in the home, behind closed doors. But just because it does not garner as much attention as other abuses doesn’t mean we should care about it any less.

In our synagogues, we recently read about the elemental biblical rights given to workers by God:

Ki tavo b’cherem re’eicha v’achalta anavim kenafshecha sov’echa, v’el kelyecha lo titen. Ki tavo b’kamat re’eicha, v’katafta melilot b’yadecha, v’chermesh lo tanif al kamat re’eicha.

When you, if you are a worker, come into the vineyard of your fellow, you may eat grapes as is your desire, to your fill, but you may not put them into your vessel. When you come into the wheat field of your fellow, you may pluck ears with your hand, but you, the worker, may not lift a sickle against the standing grain of your fellow. (Deuteronomy 23:25-26)

Even though they may not put the crops in their basket and take them home with them, field workers are allowed to eat from the crops upon which they are working, because prohibiting them from doing so would be abusive.

The Torah also explicitly prohibits the abuse of workers (Deut 24:14-15): “Lo ta’ashok sachir ani v’evyon, me’achekha o migerncha asher b’artzecha bish’arecha.” In English, “You shall not cheat a poor or destitute hired person among your brethren.” And the Torah enshrines prompt payment of workers as a religious principle as well: “b’yomo titen s’charo” (ibid., v. 15)—“You must pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.”

Celebrities, Laborers, and Artistic Veneration

Manual laborers, day laborers, and domestic workers are often overlooked in our society. We live in a culture that tends to venerate celebrities and to celebrates people who are famous for being famous. But it is interesting to look at who our great artists chose to venerate. What kinds of people did they choose to paint with saintly halos?

The pictures of people hanging in our museums are strikingly different from the pictures of people hanging on our billboards. Go to a museum and see whom Van Gogh chose to venerate: not the celebrity du jour, but the day laborer in the field. Whom did the great Dutch painter Jan Vermeer immortalize through his art? Not a popular singer or actress of his day, but The Milkmaid, the domestic worker:

Vermeer

Even the great Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, who was court painter for the royal family of King Phillip IV in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spain, did not confine his talents to painting the royal and the rich. He painted the humble and the destitute with the same care and attention with which he painted the Spanish royal family. When Vélazquez was able to, he didn’t honor famous politicians; instead, he honored those perhaps even more deserving of honor: the poor. See, for example, his painting in The Uffizi in Florence, The Waterseller of Seville (1618):

Velazquez

And, of course, he honored domestic servants as well, in paintings such as The Kitchen Maid (1618-22):

Velazquez 2

Strangers in a Strange Land

It is one thing not to mistreat workers. Abuse of workers, and abuse of any human being, is a clear and serious violation of law and of our ethical and religious values. But it is another thing actually to honor, and even perhaps love, the sowers and the waterdrawers and woodchoppers, the domestic workers and the milkmaids among us. Yet the Torah says that this is precisely what we are called upon to do: ve’ahavtem et haGer, “Love the stranger” (Deut 10:19)—the Torah does not just command us not to abuse the underprivileged individual; it commands us to love her or him: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

Countless times does the Torah tell us to care for the widow, the orphan, the Levite, and the stranger (see also, e.g., Exodus 22:21; compare Matthew 5:43). Domestic workers who come here from abroad are often de facto widows or orphans; many are older women separated from their children or younger individuals separated from their families. They are Levites, in that just as Levites were underprivileged in the ancient Israeli economy because they did not own land, so too, migrant domestic workers come here to provide needed services for others without having a stake or roots in this country. And they are strangers in a strange land, many of whom do not know the culture, the language, or the laws that offer them needed protections. This situation creates openings for migrant domestic workers to be abused and taken advantage of in all sorts of nefarious ways.

We know that our most treasured values tell us time and time again to care for the poor and the destitute and to love the strangers among us, and we know that domestic workers and underprivileged laborers deserve our care and attention. But in our celebrity-suffused culture, we often forget this truth.

Just look at a typical Facebook newsfeed. On a recent day, the top three “trending” stories were that a certain young male pop-star singer did something, that a certain female pop-star singer performed a song with a former sitcom star in Los Angeles, and that a Chicago Bulls point guard was accused of doing something despicable to a woman.

Are these really the types of people that the Torah, the Judeo-Christian God, or our great artists would have us think about? Are these the types of people we should be honoring with our devoted attention?

The great artists remind us of the same truths that the Torah does: not only does every human being deserve ethical treatment, but the housecleaners and the farmers and the grocery store workers are children of God who should be loved by us and honored as such by society. They remind us that the human being is an infinitely valuable individual deserving of our adoration, whether that human being is King Phillip or the Waterseller of Seville. In fact, the true heroes of our society are not the pop singers and point guards but the grocery baggers, field workers, and housekeepers.

If Van Gogh, Vermeer, and Vélazquez—and the Torah—had their way, we would not seek to emulate “reality” television stars, but rather those people who ensure that we continue to live and to flourish in our earthly reality: those who do the real work in our society and our homes—raising our children, caring for our elderly, planting seeds, harvesting produce, and doing all the work that is necessary for us to eat and to live. For what is more precious—especially in Jewish thought, in which uvacharta bachayim (“choose life,” Deut 30:19) is the prime imperative of Torah—than the persistence and rejuvenation of life?

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