The new movie, Tim’s Vermeer, produced by Penn Jillette and directed by his stage partner Teller, tells the story of inventor Tim Jenison and his attempt to prove that the great 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer relied heavily upon optical devices and mirrors as tools to create the photo-realism for which his great masterworks are revered. Jenison set out to prove this thesis by building an exact replica of the room Vermeer used for his painting, The Music Lesson, and then, with no training or experience as a painter, to recreate the work himself using only the tools he surmised Vermeer had available at the time of original painting.
The narrative leaves us wondering whether Vermeer was a remarkable artist or simply an innovative technologist. I admit that my view of him as a great master lessened as I became more convinced of his use of these optical crutches. Exiting the theater I found myself wondering why I felt that way. The Music Lesson, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Vermeer’s other masterpieces exist in the canon of great Western art. Why does my knowledge of how they were created impede my appreciation of his talent?
Perhaps because it seems somehow unfair, like steroids in bicycle racing. If Vermeer’s greatest accomplishments truly were “done with mirrors” then the free-handed paint strokes at the core of creative execution were abetted in a way unavailable to his peers. But 17th century Vermeer was not painting for inclusion in a 21st century list of Dutch Masters. He was responding to immediate pressures to feed and clothe his family using all the image manipulation tools at his disposal to generate better artistic products, the type of process that, three centuries later, admiring business academicians would call “competitive advantage”.
My real reservation about Vermeer may simply reflect my own exaggerated affection for convention. Most of my career was spent in large commercial organizations whose very scale demanded precise labels, hierarchy, structure and processes in order to function efficiently. I have been tutored to approve of structure over idiosyncrasy, the organizational utilitarianism of what is best for the largest group of value creators even if at the expense of the truly unorthodox. My reaction to Tim’s Vermeer reminded me once again that I have this natural bias which, if unattended, has consequences.
Once I had a salesperson several levels down in our organization who came to me because he felt that his personal sales methodology was superior to the one he and his peers were required by the company to utilize. He felt strongly he should be allowed to try his own method and fail or succeed. It was clear to me that even if he succeeded individually, his process was so personalized that it could not scale to the 2,500 other salespeople in our organization. Were he successful it would only tempt other, less gifted salespeople to abandon our sales procedures and try to invent their own with disastrous results for them and for the company. In the end I dissuaded the individual from practicing his iconoclastic techniques and he subsequently left the company.
I believe I made the right decision. But did it lose me the “Vermeer of sales”?