Tim’s Vermeer

Camera Obscura

Last week I attended a screening of Penn & Teller’s new documentary Tim’s Vermeer at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of their Talk Cinema series.  This screening (and the discussion that followed) was hosted by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr.

As Burr warned us before the movie began, there would be a lot to talk about.  He was right.  But let’s take a look at the film first.

The film follows the inventor and engineer Tim Jenison as he attempts to recreate The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer using optical devices and mirrors that he believes (along with artist David Hockney and art historian Philip Steadman) Vermeer must have used to obtain the photorealism present in his paintings.  There has always been a mystery surrounding Vermeer’s work, especially the fact that there are no signs below his paint that he was working from sketches.  Was he simply able to paint photorealistic paintings from memory?  Could he have had superior eyesight that would allow him to capture visual anomalies in his work that are normally hidden to the naked eye?

There has been a tendency throughout art history to romanticize Vermeer as a genius but never attempt to understand why he was a genius.  This is exactly what Tim sets out to understand in his experiment (which the film traces from conception to conclusion).  Though Tim is enthusiastic about proving his theory, there has been hesitation in academic circles to accept the theory popularized by Hockney and Steadman that Vermeer was aided by optics.  The reason for this is the increasingly outdated belief that the worth of an artwork is dependent on the amount of traditional skill and effort used to produce the piece.  Even though abstract and conceptual art have been dominant in the artworld for well over a century, this belief persists.  It still accounts for negative reactions that some people have toward art they do not understand, exemplified by the common reaction, “My kid could paint that.”  So why is it that people seem so unwilling to see technology as a useful aid to artists and not a dirty trick or a cheat?

Teller addresses this issue in an interview with The Village Voice, which Ty Burr also quoted from during our discussion:

I blame it on academia. Academics very often don’t have to do the art that they write about. They also don’t have to make a living from the art that they write or teach about. So I believe they’ve never gotten their feet wet, their hands dirty, and said, “OK, how would I go about making a painting that I would sell to support my family?” If you talk to real artists who actually produce things, they’re not woofty. They don’t view artists as supernatural beings who just walk up to a canvas and paint with light. They use whatever tools they can to achieve the effect, because the important idea is to get the idea that’s in your heart to the heart of someone else.

What I noticed at the screening of the film at the Coolidge was that the audience was overwhelmingly open to accepting Vermeer in these terms.  When Ty Burr asked whether the use of technology should change our view of Vermeer as an artist, or if the technology is a “cheat” and makes Vermeer “lazy,” the audience responded “of course not.”  They reiterated a point made in the film that even Renaissance artists were aided by technology (e.g., the algorithm behind perspective) in their effort to increase the level of realism in their works.  It is a point I have often made in defending electronic music against accusations that the artists are not using “real” instruments: if that is your belief, you do not understand the meaning of the word “instrument.”  What Tim Jenison proves in the film is that there is still a lot of skill and effort involved in creating and manipulating the technology that one may use to create art.

That said, I am still not entirely comfortable judging an artwork based solely on the quantification of skill and effort supposedly put into it.  I would hope that the finished artwork ultimately matters more than the methods used in its creation.  Duchamp’s Fountain is still an important work, regardless of how “easy” it was for him to throw together.  Leaving Vermeer’s painting skills and use of technology aside for a moment, his paintings are still miracles of composition that can be appreciated aesthetically as masterpieces of 17th century Dutch art.  In other words, I think we can look at Vermeer as a proto-camera and judge his paintings by the same standards by which we now judge photographic art.  However, if your appreciation of these works is dependent on a romantic conception of Vermeer as a man struggling with just his brush and without the aid of any other tools to achieve his artistic goals, I would suggest that you are only appreciating a mere expenditure of energy and not necessarily the actual paintings.

With Vermeer’s legacy safe, at least among my fellow audience members, Ty Burr asked: “Is Tim an artist?”  One woman answered “no,” because Tim produced a copy of an already existent work.  I find it hard to argue with that point.  But I would like to add that, based on what we see of Tim’s methods in the film, he certainly can be an artist if he were to apply himself toward the creation of original works and submit them to the artworld for evaluation.  (Actually, the film asks what I find to be a more provocative question: “Is Tim an inventor or an artist, or is that distinction important?”)

Finally, “Is the film an artwork?”  In the same interview referenced above, Teller talks about the process of finding the film’s story from the 2,400 hours of footage that was shot:

I like that term, “narativizing.” It’s exactly right because, in real life, you don’t know the story of your day. If you get to the end of the day, and you get to your diary entry, you know what the story of your day was. We had four years of undifferentiated human experience that included a lot of technical stuff, a lot of funny stuff, a lot of dull stuff, and we had to go into that and say, “What is the core of the story?”

In finding the narrative, the form of a story within the chaos of footage, Teller, narrator Penn Jillette, and editor Patrick Sheffield clearly create a work of art.  The story is smart, moving, and funny, and it is scored elegantly by composer Conrad Pope.  The filmmakers even utilize Lightwave, a technology created by Tim’s company, to craft illustrative animations, proving that artists today are still using whatever means necessary to make the best art they possibly can.  Not only is Tim’s Vermeer such an artwork, it is also one of the standout documentaries of the year.

In closing, despite recent attempts by people like Leon Wieseltier to keep science and the humanities separate, as if the humanities were somehow threatened by science and technology, the relationship between science and art remains a fruitful one.  This film, and the work of Vermeer at its heart, are a testament to that.

Further reading:

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