Art vs. Craft: ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ and ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ Explore Different Sides of Creativity

By Ben Godar

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There are two key ingredients to any creative work — call it the art and the craft. The art is the creative inspiration, while the craft is the hard work to get the thing done. From this comes two distinct archetypes for an artist: the dreamer who follows only his muse and the tradesman who rolls up his sleeves. Two documentaries now in theaters, Jodorowsky’s Dune and Tim’s Vermeer, explore opposite ends of this spectrum.

For an avatar of the artist as mystic, it’s hard to imagine a better subject than Alejandro Jodorowsky. As portrayed in the first of these two docs, the Chilean director is driven by his singular vision as he assembles a creative team for a film adaptation of Dune, circa 1975. He even addresses the art vs. craft question directly, saying at one point that he was not just looking for technicians, but for “spiritual warriors.”

At times, Jodorowsky’s ambition is played for laughs, as when he admits he began the project having not read Frank Herbert’s novel and when he matter-of-factly tells studio executives the film will run 14 hours. But as outlandish as the project and director sometimes seem, he is also a Pied Piper who gets Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and an endless stream of creative greats to follow him. He decides every planet in the film should have its own rock band, then recruits no less than Pink Floyd.

By contrast, Tim Jenison, the Texas inventor at the heart of Tim’s Vermeer, states plainly that he is not an artist. But he does imagine a primitive system of projection and mirrors that the artist Johannes Vermeer may have used to paint his masterpieces, and he sets out to replicate the process.

The very idea that Vermeer might have used such a process is an affront to some because it diminishes their image of him as an artist. It reduces him to being merely a craftsman.

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While more pragmatic in his approach, Jenison’s drive is every bit as strong as Jodorowsky’s. He spends years to replicate a single painting. When he cannot find furniture to match that in Vermeer’s original, he teaches himself how to build furniture.

At the end of the film, narrator Penn Jillette asks if Jenison is an artist or an inventor. The implication is clear: the dedication and hard work that Jenison has put in — the craft — makes such a distinction trivial.

It would be easy to walk away from the two films seeing craft as the more important component of art. After all, while Jenison completes his painting, Jodorowsky’s Dune ultimately cannot find a studio willing to produce it. But the ideas of the latter lived on. Artists who worked on the project, such as Moebias and H.R. Giger, took ideas from Dune into their next projects. The film documents elements from sci-fi films that would follow, from Star Wars to Blade Runner, which seem clearly derived from the concept art and storyboards for Jodorowsky’s unmade adaptation. Meanwhile, Jenison demurs somewhat on his role as artist, noting that the concept and composition of his painting were still Vermeer’s.

This question of art vs. craft may boil largely down to aesthetics, to a question of what we imagine an “artist” to be. But it’s a question artists struggle with themselves. It’s an idea that bubbles under many documentaries about creative work. It’s the centerpiece of Ondi Timoner’s transcendent Dig, a profile of the interplay and envy between two rock bands, one led by a creative genius and the other that actually shows up for its gigs. And what are classic filmmaking docs like Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness if not stories of the conflict between idea and execution?

The yin and yang of art and craft are fertile ground, which films like Jodorowsky’s Dune and Tim’s Vermeer continue to explore.