Not much is clear these days. In fact, quite the contrary. Obscurity, obfuscation, evasiveness, deception abound, while clarity seems to be dwindling away. What’s gone wrong?
One of my favorite television shows is “CBS Sunday Morning.” It never fails to illuminate people, ideas, or events by shining its klieg lights and cameras into dusty corners, allowing us to see what is often unobserved or overlooked. Just yesterday, it aired a feature on a blockbuster exhibition of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpieces at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: 28 of his 37 known paintings, the largest assembly of Vermeer’s work ever presented in one location. Don’t bother to apply for tickets: all 450,000 tickets were sold out within a few hours. But don’t despair: there is a free, interactive online exhibition called “Closer to Johannes Vermeer” that is the next-best-thing to seeing Vermeer’s work in person.
During his lifetime, Vermeer was only a moderately successful regional genre painter who specialized in scenes of everyday life. He worked slowly and used expensive pigments that exquisitely rendered the light, color, texture, and detail of everyday life in 17th Century Holland. But he died in relative obscurity, leaving his wife and children in considerable debt. It took two centuries for his work to be rediscovered, but now, thankfully, Vermeer is considered to be one of the two greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. The other is Rembrandt.
I am hardly an art historian, but to me, Vermeer’s genius is his ability to render everyday life with stunning clarity. Water in a gutter glistens. A pearl earring shimmers. A fleeting expression is just that: fleeting. A gesture or a hint of movement—a woman sewing, another sweeping, a third and fourth scrubbing—gives life to the most mundane of moments. Cracked plaster and bricks are warmed by the sun. Leaded window glass wavers. Milk dribbles from a pitcher. An oriental rug captures and holds both afternoon light and shadow. A glass globe reflects a room and the objects within it allowing the viewer to see both into and out of simple domestic life.
Vermeer has been accused of using a device—something akin to a camera obscura—that enabled him to go beyond painting and embrace his subjects with almost photographic reality. That theory has been debunked and scholars and x-ray technology now point us in the direction of something called the pin-and-string theory that might have enhanced Vermeer’s uncanny ability to render perspective. Was he cheating? I’m not qualified to say, but anything that enabled him to see more clearly is OK by me. I like clarity, especially when its’s almost five-hundred years old.
Which brings me back around to my starting point: we’ve lost—or are quickly losing—the ability to see things as they are. Clarity is suspect. Artificial intelligence, ChatGPT, Voice Mimicry and a whole host of sketchy algorithms have loosed the hounds of deception, making truth and clarity susceptible to all manner of lies and falsehoods. There has never been a time when we need to see clearly more than now, but for some reason, we’ve never been more manipulated into seeing not what is real, but what someone else wants us to see. Vermeer’s genius, even if it was enhanced by using a camera obscura or pins and strings, is nothing compared to what bombards us daily on today’s platforms.
We believe what we believe at our own peril.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is musingjamie.net.