guided tours and the uncanny valley
First I have to share the latest event in the Vermeer saga. I’ll try to be snappy and to the point so as not to either bore you or drag you down the dutch rabbit hole with me. On Monday he who started this obsession and I both had the day off (thank you national holidays for a lovely bonus!) so we decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which is open on holiday Mondays) to see the 5 Vermeer paintings housed there.
We get to the Museum, pay the suggestion donation (as we are excited and feeling philanthropic) and head to the appropriate gallery on the second floor. Much to our surprise and growing horror, many of the galleries are roped off. And we can see a Vermeer far back in one of the inaccessible rooms. Excuse me? What is going on? Now the part of me all caught up in art heists thinks that maybe something happened or maybe something was stolen. Before I get completely carried away, we go over to a guard standing in the next room. She was super nice and told us that since it was not a usual business day, they were understaffed and not every gallery was open. We told her that we were here to see the Vermeers (wisely NOT mentioning the art heist obsession, probably a good omission). She sympathized and told us to go raise a stink (her words) downstairs.
Our plan was to ask to see the paintings or get a refund. We decided to say that we were from the Midwest (my hometown actually) and only there for the day. I felt bad that we were going to lie but if we said we live in the city they would have told us to shut up and come back tomorrow. The man at the Information Desk told us to go to the Security Desk and speak to the manager. He was very cool and said to hold on (and yes, he did ask us where we were from so good on us for crafting a story on the walk to the desk). After getting off the phone with (I presume) his boss he told us that he’d take us up to the gallery himself.
So not only did we get to see the Vermeers that day but we saw them on a guided tour (he knew his stuff, he kept pointing out other paintings and telling us about them). He stepped away and let us gaze in silence. It was amazing.
Study of a Young Woman
(perhaps a precursor to Girl with a Pearl Earring?)
A Maid Asleep
Woman with a Lute
Allegory of Faith
(although the sign at the MET said Allegory of the Catholic Faith)
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (my favorite of the group)
We had developed an elaborate tale on the way up the stairs as we tried to keep up with Security Supervisor Speedy McSpeederson. It was just in case he asked us more or seemed irritated. Our story was that we were trying to see all the Vermeer paintings in the world in a year (well, not The Concert– unless you have any leads?). Now, ridiculously, I really want to do that. Not really an option as it involves significant international travel… maybe I can find a sponsor or a benefactor. Maybe we could write a Vermeer in a year book. Okay, then the next stop is Washington, DC where the National Gallery of Art houses 4 paintings. And as I mentioned before, I do love the train.
So I felt the need to write a bit about something else, or at least apply some art concepts to the world at large so as not to feel so singular in focus. There is a painting at the MET (I swear this is going somewhere really cool) called The Visit. I saw it from across the room and thought it looked like a Vermeer- but as I got closer I knew it was not one of his paintings. I knew it even before I read the sign. Something about it just wasn’t clicking.
And yes, it is by Pieter de Hooch and initially it was thought to maybe be a Vermeer. I’ve since learned more about the origin of my strong denial and why it simply felt lesser to me. There is a concept in robotics called “Uncanny Valley.” It is where something becomes so life-like that it dips into revulsion or non-acceptance. It is most widely visible in the way people hate some animated characters (like in Beowulf) but it also exists as a major component in the discovery of art fraud. There are a few rockin’ articles about it here and here. But what I think is interesting is how this applies rather universally to art- we want things to seem real but not actually be real. A close proximity. I don’t have my theory completely solidified but I’m seriously going to do some more writing on the topic in some fashion. One of my favorite parts of the article (which talks about the artist Van Meegeren whose work has been sold as a Vermeer but turned out to be uncanny valley forgeries) is:
“It wasn’t going to be about how “you can’t tell the difference,” because you could. It would be, “How could people look at these things which are manifestly so different and not see what’s going on?” It became a story about how experts can get it wrong, and in fact, how expert knowledge, instead of helping, can be a hindrance. On the surface it seemed to be a story about art and history, but really, it’s a story about psychology.”
Seriously, I find that riveting and amazing. I can’t top that so I will close by saying that there is great mystery in the art world and I am astonished to learn of its equal parts beauty and deceit. I suppose no arena or profession is spared the best and the worse of humankind. After all, I did lie to three people at the MET to get to see some paintings. And I’d do it all over again.
Have a great week,