The Art Corner

Pure White in Expression: On Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring
Girl with a Pearl Earring, oil on canvas by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665; in the Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Image: Ian Dagnall/Alamy

I’ve been thinking lately about one of my current reads: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. This book is inspired by the story of Johannes Vermeer and the infamous painting created by the same moniker identified within the title of the book. It’s one of the books I’ve been able to pick up and read more than a handful of pages, which has been an accomplishment for me, considering the book slump I’ve been entrenched in lately.

There’s one scene that’s been running through my mind and it deals with matters of art, expression, and creation. Griet, the main character who would later become a muse for Vermeer’s famous painting, declares that the clouds in the sky are white (Chevalier, p. 101). Vermeer counters her argument in this special scene, drawing her attention to the nuance of colors reflecting back at her through the clouds outside the window. In this scene, he questions Griet’s choice in handing him blue paint. He remarks, “You will find there is little pure white in clouds, yet people say they are white. Now do you understand why I do not need the blue yet?” (Chevalier, p. 101). For me, this stands out as one of the most significant scenes in the entire novel, namely because it illustrates the concept of expression.

Although I’ve never met Vermeer, I imagine he created his art as he saw it, meaning he observed the world behind the purest aspect of its appearance. I believe all artists work in this way within their work, whether it be through the written word or in the visual sphere of creation. All art is true as it is merely an observation of the pieces, which made the clouds both white, blue, and tinged with gray and black. In this way, there are many colors to creation and we need not settle to look at the world through a small lens, which reflects back at us what we imagine we need to find in the clouds or in a woman’s dress or even in the color of the grass beneath our feet.

At the end of the day, I truly believe this is the beauty of art and is one of the sole reasons why we need to create.

I think herein lies the beauty of this special scene within Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Where All The Poets Went to Die: On Mythos, Folklore, and Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, the lakes, Image Featured on Swift’s Lyric Video

I’ve been contemplating the mythos of stories — of folklore and of the myths we create in our lives. Lately, I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift’s two sister albums: Folklore and Evermore. After a meaningful conversation with a friend, I came to the conclusion that, as human beings, as lovers and dreamers, and as poets, we naturally mythologize our lives through living through them.

By making meaning in this world, we seek out natural connections to the stories and the myths we grew up with. These are painted in the portraits and vintage photographs our families raised us on. These are formed from the archaic, glossy textures our parents told us about, too.

In our quest to live meaningful lives, we turn to the stories of heart and soul — of Psyche plummeting to the ground after reaching for her immortal beloved Cupid — of Odysseus on his grand journey across the world — of Penelope waiting and waiting for the return (in due time) of her true beloved.

Why do we return to these stories again and again?

I’ve been asking myself this of late.

In the nature of Taylor Swift’s sister albums, I believe this quest for meaning is formed from the desire to ground and bring our words down to earth. In Folklore, Taylor Swift sets out to understand and, inadvertently, see herself in the characters she crafts between the lines and timbre of her voice and the instruments pressed in the liminal space she creates. Swift also speaks of an infamous woman and how she has inherited and contributed to the history of Rebecca Hartman since she now owns the home Hartman lives in.

By way of this, Swift is mythologizing herself and the long line of supposed “mad women” who were deemed inappropriate, brash, and obnoxious. Swift is smart as she offers a new interpretation of the “mad woman” as smart, bold, brave, charming, and beautiful. As viewers of this album, we begin to see the various ways in which Swift contributes to the myths she has unfolded in her music. In Cardigan, Seven, and perhaps even in Epiphany, Swift sets out on a journey to understand the myths she was told and how these myths weren’t believed — how in the very nature of these stories they were told “wrong.”

In Cardigan, the narrator of the song questions her potential love interest as he has supposedly rewritten the myths of her childhood in a thoughtless manner. Swift sings, “I knew you / Tried to change the ending / Peter losing Wendy, I / I knew you. / Leavin’ like a father / Running like water, I / ‘Cause when you are young, they assume you know nothing.” In this series of lines, Swift asserts the claim that the person she is speaking of has arrived at a thoughtless interpretation in not recognizing and sharing the same understanding of the myths she has created within her life.

Even more so, Swift critiques the nature of those who do not believe the “young” understand the nature of myth. She debates the pre-established interpretation that those who are young are deemed naive in the eyes of their ancestors. Here, Swift is performing an interesting declaration; namely, one which questions the set mythos while inadvertently contributing to this already formed mythos as well. In Swift’s case, she recognizes her voice and history as laced and formed from these myths. Nevertheless, Swift reminds the listener that she chooses to arrive at new, thoughtful interpretations from the narrative frames she has been given.

In Seven, Swift speaks to a childhood rife with trauma and wonderings. She contemplates the house, which birthed her mythos and the friendships she garnered in this place. She sings, “Sweet tea in the summer / Cross your heart, won’t tell no other /And though I can’t recall your face/ I still got love for you.” There’s a gentle vulnerability in this song, which is quite comparable to the kind expressed in Cardigan.

Yet, in this space, Swift speaks to the remembering of the myth in all its delicacy, gentleness, and candor. Swift sets out to remember the potent memories of her youth. Even so, in this place, Swift recalls the trauma too of the mythos, which has tainted her youth. She declares, “And I’ve been meaning to tell you / I think your house is haunted /Your dad is always mad and that must be why /And I think you should come live with me and we can be pirates / Then you won’t have to cry / Or hide in the closet / And just like a folk song / Our love will be passed on.” This moment is potent as Swift recalls the trauma and the twisted, inherently insidious nature of her youth as recaptured in the mythos of her fathers and in the nature of bad men, viz. a viz. the patriarchy. Taylor Swift decides then and there that she will move away from the myths, which speak of abusive men who abuse with their words and their rigid, physical actions. These series of lines can be interpreted in several means, but no matter how they are to be interpreted, the listener will inevitably arrive at the interpretation that some myths are not beautiful as they have taint to their tellings.

Nevertheless, Swift chooses to remember the unfolding beauty of the myth despite its tainted beginnings. There is poetry even in the classic myth’s shortcomings. In Epiphany, Swift recalls the birth of the trauma as she compares it to the contemporary setting in which she is situated in. Swift sings, “Only 20 minutes to sleep / But you dream of some epiphany / Just one single glimpse of relief / To make some sense of what you’ve seen.” It is not an easy endeavor to traipse through the trauma of the past and of the mythos created in this liminal space. Yet, Swift chooses to make some “sense of what [she’s] seen.” As she charts her way through the story of her grandfather who served in World War One, and by way of this, compares the current trauma she is experiencing as witnessed through the pandemic and Covid-19, she considers what it means to dwell in these myths.

What does it mean to catch “one single glimpse of relief?” How, despite, the shortcomings of myths can we reinterpret them and arrive at brighter conclusions and reopenings in the stories of our life? There’s “only 20 minutes to sleep,” but in this moment, Swift asserts that “we dream of some epiphany.”

We remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. Our mythos can be fantastical, filled with pleasure, and removed from trauma.

Despite all this, as readers and as listeners, we are left to wonder how we “can make some sense of what [we’ve] seen.”

How can we mythologize our lives and ground them in this reality, too?

How can we dream better dreams and wash the gum from our eyes to see honestly and live lives filled with integrity?

I believe it begins with a word.

I believe it begins with a new interpretation.

And I believe it begins with me and you.

The Shattered Record: An Examination of the 2008 Universal Studios’ Fire

Ron Wolfson/WireImage

Last night, I read an article about the 2008 tragedy, referred to now as the Universal Studios’ fire. After this fire, hundreds-of-thousands of original masters were burned or destroyed, reduced to an irretrievable form of what they once were. Some of the music records spanned as far back as the 1940’s and included big names like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday.

This information still isn’t known by the main public to this day. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, but in the age of digital streaming, the importance of masters is paramount. As the desire for higher resolution audio increases, the desire for capturing a moment in time in music does as well.

This, in turn, is why the 2008 fire is an absolute tragedy for the world of music. In the face of this travesty, hundreds of records cannot be returned to — a moment pressed into a vinyl or earlier form of recording now cannot be captured or re-translated as it once was intended in its original form.

At times like this, I am reminded of semiotics — the study of signs, symbols, and meaning-making in a world dominated by images and advertising on a daily basis. In essence, the poor management of these records symbolizes an ill-regard or lackadaisical care for the work of many artists — people of color and various minorities included to top all this. Moreover, this tragedy raises questions of private ownership and who possesses the privilege to maintain and safeguard artifacts for future posterity.

In this manner, I often think about questions of privilege as it pertains to who “owns” the rights to keeping and storing away masters, because in this case, Universal Music Group (UMG), the record company, obviously did not handle this well.

Who, in the end, holds the power to store these masters and maintain their quality?

Who chooses what artists will be available to the populace or viewing audience?

These are all questions worth considering, which have obviously not been mulled over well enough.

Now, because of this fire, we as the viewing audience, will never have access to these masters or be able to see them re-interpreted in the 21st century.

So, what do we do then in the face of such a travesty? Well, it’s a multi-faceted question we should partake in, but it begins with asking greater questions of societal hierarchies.

And, yes, it means questioning the inherent power that record companies like Universal Music Group have over the music industry and even over you as a consuming listener.

Link to New York Times Article