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Vermeer's Gravity Print E-mail
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Written by Editor, Studios Saint-Sulpice   
Dec 12, 2009 at 12:35 AM

"Want to move mountains? Become the mountain, and then move."

Baba Ram Dass's guru. 


Here is what a New York Times reviewer said about Jan Vermeer:

"What was miraculous about him, among other things, was that he painted nothing, or mostly nothing: a woman reading a letter, or asleep at a table. But he made it seem as if time had nearly stopped in these pictures, and the effect is like slow-motion film: the ordinary suddenly looks extraordinary. Put another way, Vermeer eternalized moments that we all live, the ones when nothing much is happening, and gave them an almost mystical gravity."

Michael Kimmelman, New York Times Vermeer page. Italics are ours.

That is a superb description of how capturing the tactile silence of consciousness can be a revelation, exposing the extraordinariness of every moment. Great painters bring us face to face with the mystery at the core of images/stories/419px-Johannes_Vermeer_(1632-1675)_-_The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_(1665).jpgperception. Titian could; so could Leonardo; and Velasquez. But it is how they did it that is so rewarding to understand. 


It may not be intuitively obvious that the way we "attend" to something, the kind of regard we give it, can change perceived characteristics of a thing, but the phenomenon is a curiosity in quantum physics and it is all central to art. Although it has not been written about, classical painting is not just an aesthetic exercise but one involving the science of cognition -- how it is that we see, and how we participate in assembling the visual field. The painter regards the object, the thing seen, but he is also painting how the object is seen. Painting is a depiction of seeing. (We say elsewhere on this site that a vortex is a change to our attention, to how we see -- that is the connection.)

Vermeer shows how the attention is the key: with him, we are no longer seeing the thing as if it were in space, as we do every day, but we see the thing and space itself as if they were rendered in the mind. It is the same object, and the same space: what is different is our physical conception of where they are located. Everything is the same, except that an overlay we never noticed -- our naive belief in the pure externality of what we see -- has been replaced by a new consciousness of relatedness. In one case, things we see are in space outside ourselves; in the other, they are in the mind. We haven't replaced external reality by subjectivity (that old argument is bankrupt) -- we have become aware of what externality is. It is the same space, except now we are in a more intimate relationship with it. That is what we see in the eyes of the girl in Vermeer's painting. Like Nietzsche's abyss staring back if we stare into it long enough, some part of our consciousness is completely transferred: we are the girl looking at us looking at her. Seeing it this way creates an overwhelming plasticity that is molded grain by grain, and surface by surface, tangibly, to our attention. The world is not "in our heads," either -- we have to reconceive the way we diagram "inside" and "outside" ourselves. Suddenly, what we think makes a difference. It effects our world directly. 


Vermeer is the master of that kind of paradigm shift, and it is indeed a matter of gravity. The painting of the girl with the pearl ear ring is obviously a masterpiece, very objective, yet there is nothing picked-over, minutely detailed or fussy about it. It is very generalized into a soft, smooth form of light and dark: it balances out changes and finds the definitive statement, and as it does so, little changes in time are eliminated because they are summed up in a higher calculus. It is as if the object becomes heavier, endowed with all the mass of our attention and it slows down because we are looking at it. This phenomenon is not unknown at vortex locations either (see Plasticity of Time on this website.) There is a famous experiment in quantum physics showing how, when an unstable particle such as a radioactive atom is continually observed, it cannot change its state at all; if the attention is somewhat less intent, its changes are slowed down. This demonstrates a kind of quantum level self-consciousness of the particle, where the presence of an observer inhibits it from changing. (These results, obtained at the University of Texas in Austin, were recounted in The Scientific American in May 1990. The principle is known as the Quantum Zeno Effect, and it is described in this Wikipedia article.) 


The kind of attention that vortices can evoke from us, as if we were put into a spell of "mystical gravity," is very similar. Time slows; the object is the presentation of the object -- it "breathes" within itself, and it is as if the waves of light it sends to us are launched slowly, sequentially, observably. It is impossible to say what is the quality in Vermeer's paintings that causes this effect. It may be that Vermeer and certain other great artists have a way of seeing the object that balances out its changes in time, creating a kind of harmonious average of what the waves of light tell us; the painter is seeing deeply, bridging moments of time, subordinating the flow of instants to a meditative gaze, and thus time slows down. There is something in this slowing that transcends our materialistic prejudices about the world -- the assumption that objects exist entirely independently of perceptions about them. This bridging of waves of time is very much an effect one can experience in Sedona, and also at the Shrine Mont Vortex in Orkney Springs, or the Red Serpent Vortex along the bridle path in Basye. As time slows, consciousness materializes and is present to us as "stuff." It is not different from the world, it is the world, and we are in the world with it. 

It is an irony how things have been inverted: exactly those elements we classically thought of as "the object" are consciousness itself, presenting form, shape, texture and surfaces that, once focused on, are self aware but disguised through the device of perspective, as "our" awareness; and the things, like the background haze, the low level setting from which the objects emerge to be delineated specifically -- that background, which seems like a subjective air, is more like the horizon of objectivity.


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