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  The reason for this is the increasingly outdated belief that the worth of an artwork is dependent on the amount of traditional skill and effort used to produce the piece.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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Video Games Are Art

Smithsonian American Art Museum

I had wanted to write about video games as art for some time now, but I was worried that the question was no longer relevant–that most people (including me) had finally accepted the fact that video games can be art.  This past November, Disney released Wreck-It Ralph, a film which brings to life video game characters and worlds in the manner of Pixar’s Toy Story.  In his review of the film in The New York Times, A. O. Scott writes:

The secret to its success is a genuine enthusiasm for the creative potential of games, a willingness to take them seriously without descending into nerdy pomposity.

Clearly, I thought, this means that we’ve reached a turning point–that critics like A. O. Scott are now on board and willing to accept the aesthetic potential of games.

But I was wrong.  On November 30, Jonathan Jones, the art critic at The Guardian, published a blog entitled “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art.”  His blog is a response to the fact that the Museum of Modern Art in New York plans to curate a selection of video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.  Despite the fact that this is not the first time that an art museum will be playing host to video games (the Smithsonian American Art Museum held such an exhibit earlier this year), Jones has decided to put his foot down and play the predictable role of arbiter of what is and isn’t art (the role once famously played by Roger Ebert in this particular debate).  He writes:

Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition. Art may be made with a paintbrush or selected as a ready-made, but it has to be an act of personal imagination.

Whether through ignorance or idiocy, Jones has made an argument that is simply not applicable to video games.  If he were to watch the great documentary from this year on the subject of independent game design, Indie Game: The Movie, he would realize that he has no right to claim that video games are not the work of personal imaginations.  In that film, we see just how personal games can be to their creators.  We watch Phil Fish, for example, as he obsesses endlessly over every detail of his game FEZ, postponing its scheduled release for years and revealing how much of himself is in the game–how it has become his identity.  We also watch Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes as they complete Super Meat Boy, an ode to their childhood video gaming experiences. From the Wikipedia synopsis of the film:

McMillen talks about his lifelong goal of communicating to others through his work.  He goes on to talk about his 2008 game Aether that chronicles his childhood feelings of loneliness, nervousness, and fear of abandonment.

Surely this suggests the extent to which games can be the works of personal imagination.  Another film playing the festival circuit this past year, From Nothing, Something, a documentary about the creative process, also features a video game designer among its artist subjects: Jason Rohrer, who “programs, designs, and scores” his games “entirely by himself.”  It does not get more personal than that.

And this is not even limited to independent game design (a field which Jones might not even know exists).  Surely the games of Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto are recognizable as products of that creator’s personal vision.  Through pioneering works such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda, Miyamoto became one of the first auteurs of game design.

Regardless, Jones ends his argument against video games as art by making a point about chess:

Chess is a great game, but even the finest chess player in the world isn’t an artist. She is a chess player. Artistry may have gone into the design of the chess pieces. But the game of chess itself is not art nor does it generate art — it is just a game.

Jones’s use of chess to illustrate his case against the aesthetic value of games is interesting because he writes about the game in a previous blog titled “Checkmates: how artists fell in love with chess.”  In this piece, he doesn’t necessarily call chess art (he seems content to assign it the role of muse), but he comes awfully close:

It is a game that creates an imaginative world, with powerful “characters”: this must be why artists were inspired to create designer chess sets long before modern times.

On top of this, Jones seems willing to concede the fact that chess pieces can be art.  Would he also concede the fact that pixelated characters, orchestral scores, and other “pieces” of a video game can be art?  (To be sure, there are clearly “traditional” artists who work on individual aspects of games: graphic designers, writers, and musicians.)  My question would then become:  Why cannot the many artistic pieces cohere into a single work of art that also happens to be a game?  Architects create buildings that serve as works of art as well as living spaces.  Imagine an art critic who would perhaps recognize the artistry in a stained glass window yet say condescendingly of the cathedral in which it is found: “It’s just a building.”  The idea is absurd.

I am all in favor of meaningful distinctions between objects.  We can have art and games as separate categories.  But we must acknowledge that there can indeed be overlap.  I already demonstrated on this blog how food can serve both instrumental and aesthetic ends.  The same is true for games.

In his classic essay “The Artworld,” Arthur Danto writes:

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry — an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.

The fact of the matter is that video games have now been allowed into two respected art museums (the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art), the National Endowment for the Arts has started to allow funding for game designers, and the conversation about the artistic merits of games is alive and well–within the general populace, yes, but also within the hallowed halls of academia.  This is enough, in my opinion, to qualify video games as art.  Clearly, in practice, that is simply what they are.  Psychologically, people are experiencing them in the same way that they experience objects more commonly classified as art (e.g., novels and movies).  The fact that critics such as Jonathan Jones and Roger Ebert will not allow for the status of art to be extended to games–and that they would rely on smug and silly arguments to prove their points–says more about them than it does about the reality of the situation.  They are great critics, but here, where perhaps they feel their grasp loosening around that which they believed themselves to be experts, they are simply wrong.  We see some metaphysical justifications for their beliefs, but primarily we see the constricting influence of habit and conditioning–their inability to see other than what they have been trained (or educated) to see.  But no matter.  Others seem to have a much easier time seeing the artistic potential of games.

In an interview with USA Today about composing the theme song for the game Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Trent Reznor says:

I’ve watched with a kind of wary eye how gaming has progressed. I was there at the beginning with Pong in the arcade, and a lot of my great childhood memories were around a Tempest machine. I really looked at gaming as a real art form that is able to take a machine and turn it into something that is a challenging, human interaction puzzle game strategy.

And according to Penn Jillette (from the November 18 episode of his Penn’s Sunday School podcast):

Video games are culture; they are a new way of doing art.  You know, I fought against them at first.  I used to say that, you know, being able to make up a story as you went, I fought against that.  I did a couple of whole speeches about how you want the plot in Shakespeare.  But I’ve now understood.

And so have I.  The more interesting questions, moving forward, are: “By what criteria are people recognizing games as art?  By what standards of taste are these games being critiqued?”  As Luke Cuddy puts it in his review of the book The Art of Video Games in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism:

We must remember to compare the good to the bad, the same way we compare Foucault’s Pendulum (Umberto Eco, 1988) to The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003).

So what are the best games?  What are the worst?  What distinguishes them from each other?  I will leave those questions to the more experienced gamers and critics.

Further reading: