A product of the transitional time in which we lived, famed philosopher Walter Benjamin had a lot to say about the impact of mechanical reproduction. In a era marked by change, the repercussions of photography inspired musings on similar developments in lithography and other artistic and creative technologies and called into question the degree to which authenticity depended on uniqueness. (Benjamin 1936). Benjamin made the case that an inherent trade off occurred wherein an object’s singular-ness and originality was sacrificed in an effort to distribute the image more broadly to an increasingly diverse audience.
As I pondered these approaches, I found myself contemplating the role of pre-photography image-making and the ways in which quality was assigned to certain types of artists – specifically the great painters whose works now fill the Met, the Louvre, and other renowned art museums. I contemplated historical and modern debates concerning forgeries and the ways in which the international art market’s development of special technologies and skillsets for identifying forgeries continue to unintentionally give rise to ever more sophisticated forgery techniques. Enter the documentary Tim’s Vermeer.
With Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Vermeer is revered as a premier Dutch artist who existed in relative obscurity until the end of the nineteenth century. Much of Vermeer’s myth is attributed to his mastery over depth and related optical effects and how his masterless and pupil-less career provided no insight into the techniques he used to create trailblazing depictions of reality. However, the Metropolitan Museum of Art defensively ( and perhaps self-preservationally) describes Vermeer’s approach as follows:
“These qualities in Vermeer’s work may have been inspired by an interest in the camera obscura (which projects actual images), but its importance to the artist has been greatly exaggerated. His compositions are mostly invented and exhibit the most discriminating formal relationships, including those of color. In addition, Vermeer’s application of paint reveals extraordinary technical ability and time-consuming care.”
Bringing new meaning to Goldstein’s observation that “…the image is not only a mirror for the artist’s experience but also for those of the viewer,” (Goldstein 2011) Tim’s Vermeer calls into question the ways in which the inclusion of reproductive technologies taint (according to the Met) the creation of an new piece of art. As if artists are supposedly pure and unaffected by the world around them, Benjamin’s claim that “in principle, the work of art has always been reproducible” punctuates the degree to which salvage ethnography-esque techniques often introduce technologies that later become associated with devaluing originality. The measured fervor with which the established art world dismisses the idea that technology aided Vermeer’s ability to create such lifelike images echoes the sluggishness and unease exhibited by other large institutions when reconciling the role of technological reproducibility in today’s digital society.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Martin Irvine, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
Goldstein, Mark. “How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos” Photography Blog. N.p., 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
Tim’s Vermeer. Dir. Pen & Teller. Sony Classic Films, 2013. Film.