Friday, 6 December 2013


I have written before about the mixed blessing of having a talent.  Natural abilities, even if possessed in abundance, are only of use to their possessor if combined with the urge and opportunity to pursue goals in life in which they bestow some advantage.  You might be fast on your feet, but perhaps your dream job involves sitting down.  You might be freakishly good at mental arithmetic, but in a world in which electronic calculators are treated as disposable land-fill, it's hard to think of a suitable career-track for you.

The merely-talented are often left with a nagging sense that they have somehow failed to lead a righteous life.  My own talent, such as it is, is for drawing, and it is one I have surely severely neglected.  People still ask after it, as if it were a relative, or a chronic condition: how's the drawing, these days?  Luckily, the Social Services do not interest themselves in those who under-nourish their abilities.

Curiously, in a jealous world, we are generally quite happy for other people to have major talents.  A cynic might suggest that this is because it lets most of us off the hook of under-achievement -- not enough talent,  you see!  -- but I think it has more to do with a desire to believe in magic and its human manifestation, genius.

Not Vermeer, but my 2009 Christmas card

I was reminded about this by an article on Vermeer's use of optics in, of all places, Vanity Fair (avert your eyes, gents, from those sidebars; some o' they gals there got next to nothin' on...).  I'm never quite sure what people are hoping to prove with this kind of exercise.  I enjoyed David Hockney's book, Secret Knowledge, and found his thesis and examples very convincing.  It seems almost certain that optical devices, of one sort or another, have been used by painters for longer than one might think.  But, in the end, does it amount to anything more than a factitious excitement over the use of the sort of aids to creativity and productivity that any professional uses?  Up to and including the use of more talented (but anonymous) craftsmen, in the case of "conceptual" artists.

Setting aside the main, fascinating discovery by Tim Jenison described in the Vanity Fair article, which may well account for the missing "how" between seeing with optics and doing with paint, I thought the most interesting point made was this:
“One of the things I learned about the world of art,” Teller says, “is there are people who really want to believe in magic, that artists are supernatural beings—there was some guy who could walk up and do that. But art is work like anything else—concentration, physical pain. Part of the subject of this movie is that a great work of art should seem to have magically sprung like a miracle on the wall. But to get that miracle is an enormous, aggravating pain.” To see Vermeer as 'a god' makes him “a discouraging bore,” Teller goes on. But if you think of him as a genius artist and an inventor, he becomes a hero: “Now he can inspire.”
That rings true to me.  The fear of "disenchantment" as a consequence of too much understanding of process (encountered in its extreme form in Creationism) is essentially misplaced.  Vermeer's "genius", if we want to call it that, lay not in his innate ability to draw, or to spontaneously conjure magic onto a canvas, but in his ability to discover new ways of using paint by means of new ways of seeing that both reflected and arose from new ways of living, and new ways of understanding the world.  The thing is, unlike stage magic, knowing how the trick is done takes absolutely nothing away from the spellbinding "magic" of a Vermeer painting.


Kent Wiley said...

A great story. Looking forward to seeing Tim's Vermeer. No doubt the "experts" will resist this solution to the mystery of Vermeer's paintings. The idea of supernatural abilities does seem much more palatable to those experts than any sort of mechanical fluency. After all, many still resist the artistry of photography.

Mike C. said...


His technique reminds me of a great book called "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards, which can get astonishing results from many people who claim "they can't draw". It won't turn anyone into a great artist but it does demystify the process.

His Vermeer, similarly, is both astonishingly good (for a non-painter) and pretty awful (for a Vermeer).