“The problem is that we have that distinction…”

A man showing off his paintings

Have you heard of the movie “Tim’s Vermeer” (2013) — it caused a bit of a stir for it suggests that a great artist wasn’t quite the artist we think him to be but, instead, a technologist who might have used lenses and mirrors to produce surprisingly life-like oil paintings.

What’s interesting, though, is the closing narration from the documentary on trying to reproduce how Vermeer might have actually done his work. Penn Jillette, the narrator, closes the film as follows:

My friend Tim painted a Vermeer. ln a warehouse, in San Antonio. He painted a Vermeer. And is Tim an artist, or is Tim an inventor? l think the problem is not trying to pick one of those two for Tim to be, but the problem is that we have that distinction. What Tim has done is given us an image of Vermeer as a man who is much more real, and in that way much more amazing. l mean, unfathomable genius doesn’t really mean anything. Now he’s a fathomable genius. lf there’s any great merit in this picture as a work of art, it’s Vermeer’s. lt’s Vermeer’s composition and it’s Vermeer’s invention. lt’s just been forgotten for 350 years.

It’s the anachronistic retrojection of a modern notion of what it is to be (or not be) an artist that creates the problem, evident any time we try to fit prior social actors into our current way of dividing up the world and making sense of it. Not that we can ever confront the world as it really is — as if we can ever come up with some definitive definition of what counts as an artist — but perhaps we can recognize that anomalies are the product of our classifications’ own baggage, their situatedness and inevitable limitations, and not something running around in the wild.

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