Kandinsky and Dreams of Tomorrow
A wild, wild picnic!
I haven’t yet lived through the transition of a major technological or social paradigm, but I bet either one would make you feel small. Small in the sense of being open to feelings of the sublime, to feeling awe at something so much larger than yourself. How must it feel to live for years in a world you think of as constant, stagnant, comfortable, just to wake up and see the seeds of a new way of living sprout up and out of the ground? What must it feel like for your “common sense” to be no longer that common and not really that sensible?
Would you not feel like an ant suddenly lost in an alien forest? You've only seen brown bits of soil before. What are these green shoots that were, yesterday, only up to your lowest joint, but, today, stand taller than your crown? Does this world not feel alien to you?
One might ask, before looking to the next leap of progress — what would be something tangible that fits in with how our “common sense” works today? An “understandable” image, I’d say, would be something like a pretty photograph of humanity taming nature by the coastline. Imagine a Macbook background.
What would embody the turn from today to tomorrow? If that background photo makes me feel large on behalf of humanity’s accomplishments, like an ant walking through soil and belittling the young sprouts, then Vasily Kandinsky’s Picnic makes me feel small and open, curious about what’s to come. A painting that feels like “tomorrow” would be one that feels more like dreams than reality, more like play than “seriousness.” Seeing such a painting must blow the ant’s mind — experiencing Picnic would not be too different than seeing young sprouts grow into the open skies. Which is to say, the ant would not have the vocabulary to describe his experience.
Exploring the future, then, must not be so different from exploring our dreams. Do we really have the vocabulary to talk about dreams without flattening them into shallow vignettes? I’m not sure we do. But in visual artwork, perhaps we can experience a vocabulary better suited for our dreamlands. We can grow from pompous, stodgy ants into playful hawks. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the hawks in just a second.)
Picnic makes me feel like I'm peering into my skin with a microscope, like I'm just starting to learn what I'm really made of. Though instead of studying a few cells, I'm peering into the stuff of thought and dreams.
Microscopes and dreams are not all that different. When we peer into magnified light, what we think we know becomes unknown. When we dream about our friends, our families, or even what we ate for lunch, our memory warps and twists until it becomes fresh, prismatic, and new. When we dream, the absurd somehow makes sense — yes, I was a hawk, and then, the next moment, I started swimming in the ocean, sandwich in my claws. Naturally.
The logic of our dreams is different than the logic of our waking lives. It’s almost like we have a teleological sense of time (yes, like the weird octopi from Arrival). It’s not absurd that I, a hawk, held a sandwich in my claws because, of course, I was hungry. And I just had it for lunch that day, so why wouldn’t I be eating it? And then, obviously, I felt thirsty, so I took a dive into the ocean. In dreams, what matters is the goal, the end-state (or telos), not the method by which I get there. It quite literally does not matter than hawks can’t swim because I am not quite a hawk and I am also not quite swimming — I am dreaming. Once we wake up, we make sense of these dreams from a teleological perspective. We construct a story out of our dreams after we already know how it ends. My retelling of this hawk’s narrative cannot possibly be as radiant as the experience of being the hawk itself because when I am the hawk (namely, when I am dreaming), I don’t know what the future holds. I’m unaware of any broader narrative purpose beside my utter absorption in that present moment.
We don’t doubt our dreams because their substance comes from things we think we know! If the building blocks of our dreams were totally unfamiliar, doubt would be everywhere. We know our friends, our families, and our DoorDash orders (maybe a bit too well), so we suspend our disbelief when they reenter the stage, no matter how absurd their movements. In his short story Nightmares, Jorge Luis Borges quotes Petronius: “The soul, without the body, plays.” Picnic is Kandinsky at play.
The advent of tomorrow is bewildering, alienating, and awe-inducing. It’s also illegible. But what does that have to do with Kandinsky? And what about him “playing”?
In this watercolor, he shows us that we live with the illegible already. Our future will be yet another illegible thing that may induce fear right now, but can be explored through play — the way we explore our dreams. What does the ant have to do with the hawk? The ant, a native of daylight, is paralyzed and bewildered by a world that doesn’t fit his map of reality. He doesn’t expect seeds to sprout so quickly, so he feels lost, alone, and overwhelmed when they do. The hawk, a beast of dreams and slumber, does not expect the world around him to be like the world he entered the night before. Each dream is new, though it may have recurring elements. In a world born anew each night, the hawk plays. The ant fears change; the hawk knows nothing else.
Kandinsky’s painting is special to me because it’s an artwork that embraces the sublime, that does not try to categorize that which cannot yet be defined. The figures in Picnic are not buoys trying, desperately, to stay afloat and make sense of their irregular ocean fabric — they are surfers: calm, open, full-of-awe as they stare into something bigger than themselves.
Jerry Seinfeld might speak of them as he described their fellow surfers:
What are they doing this for? It's just pure. You're alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You're always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you're going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form.
If our lives are just these brief, little art forms in the fullness of time, then I’d hope that mine would be as absurd, interesting, and resonant as the picnic Kandinsky paints here.
Back to the painting. There's an odd, tubular tension throughout, like seeing a blood clot or mesh of bark cells, and there's more emptiness than substance (though there’s a lot of substance). Each color under this microscope is slightly translucent and blasted out of anonymity by a backlight. The open space here is a central part of why this painting is so playful and full of hope — even (maybe especially) in the unknown, we have so much to discover and to create. Paintings, like inventions, have an element of emptiness. They are incomplete until someone comes and adds to it. This open ground can be scary. The emptiness in a painting is no different than the present moment perennially pregnant with what we call the future.
Kandinsky paints familiar things — wine, swans, fish, bread, people, roses — but he makes them new to us (like our dreams do). When we look at something closely, it starts looking like something else. Not in a sinister way, but in a hypnotizing, entrancing, and alienating way. Alienating. Not in the sense of foreign or cast out—rather, in the sense of (wait for it...) alien. In the sense of not yet belonging.
If we were to land on a new planet, would those beings’ common colors not look as new as these? Wouldn't their creations be spiritually attuned to a note we might not hear? I feel small before this watercolor, like a surfer watching something brew in the distance.
Etel Adnan said, "when someone blows the saxophone, the sky is made of copper" — in this painting, the sky is made unknown and anew.
Each man is given, in dreams, a little personal eternity which allows him to see the recent past and the near future. All of this the dreamer sees in a single glance, in the same way that God, from His vast eternity, sees the whole cosmic process. And what happens when we wake? What happens is that, as we are accustomed to a sequential life, we give narrative structure to our dream though our dream has been multiple and simultaneous.
Kandinsky's visual grammar is not incoherent; it's just not obviously intelligible. It’s “multiple and simultaneous.” It's rambling, redundant, and spectacular. It's unusual. It's recursive, Hofstadter-like. Why do I love this watercolor so much? It feels like a waking dream, a little personal eternity captured before I wake up and start organizing it into some linear narrative that makes sense (and loses so much texture). John Berger’s sense of art as a way of capturing a part of the visible that we do not yet understand resonates with me. There are echoes in this painting, yes, but we do not know who or what started the sound.
Like how microscopes show us that living things are really just made up of smaller living things, Picnic gestures toward the idea that what we think of as knowledge is just, like life, smaller bits of knowledge pointing to even smaller bits of knowledge. The painting says, yes, it is just turtles all the way down, but each turtle is infinitely different and worth your attention. John Updike echoes this, too: “We skate upon an intense radiance we do not see because we see nothing else.” This intense, blinding, bewildering experience of living is all that we can see. And precisely because we see nothing else, it’s hard to see the fullness of life as the truly remarkable, illegible thing it is.
“Common sense” itself emerges from this suffocating proximity to the thing we are trying to make sense of — namely, life. Why is it so rare to have conversations about what life actually is? Why is it easier to talk about what you did over the weekend and ate for lunch? Maybe we talk about these questions because they’re more legible, not because they are more interesting or important. We should not be embarrassed to ask each other genuinely interesting questions — how else can someone begin to appreciate the radiance that suffuses the mere fact of being alive?
Kandinsky’s unit of sense-making is not symmetric or cleanly patterned like how we think about communicating in today’s Information Age (which I see as different from tomorrow’s Knowledge Age — ideas from Albert Wenger’s World After Capital, if you’re interested). It's fundamentally different. The future of knowledge may not be strongly typed or organized from a top-down perspective — it may be weakly linked, associative, emergent. But that's really how it has always been.
In all of what may come tomorrow — fat protocols, owning one’s own attention, and “conscious” machines — I think what excites me most is the prospect of looking at the society I live in with a fundamentally fresh perspective. Maybe blockchains recast our social hierarchies into a million, decentralized islands. Maybe other technologies centralize our society into just one big planet. Maybe we rebuild Babel and start speaking the same language again. Maybe things can be legible, hopeful, and unknowable all at the same time. No matter what happens, I’m looking forward to becoming an alien amongst aliens, getting to learn, together, who we are in this brave new world.
Etel Adnan also wrote:
Kandinsky didn't speak so much about abstract painting as about ‘absolute painting’; we forget that, for him, it was as natural to express mystical explorations in painting as it is for us to find them in written texts.
I hope the future is more open, accessible, moldable, and public than today. I hope we build our muscles of memory. In a world where we do not forget so easily, absolute painting is necessary. Watercolor feels like the right medium for the future — there’s no erasing a wayward drop or stroke. But then again, a mistake in the present may just be a moment of serendipity lurking in the shadows. Failures are our escape hatches from “common sense.”
A world with shared memory (and, forgive me, blockchains) may leave more failings and mistakes in the history books, but that’s not a bad thing. Each medium demands its own art. Watercolors demand absolute painting. Our future may instead demand forgiveness, for each other and for ourselves. When we forget the missteps we’ve taken in the past, we lose track of how far we’ve come along the way. We belittle things we don’t understand, like the ant. When we remember what has come before us while embracing that failures are necessary in the path of living, we get to play in the wondrous maze of all that we do not yet know, like the hawks of our dreams.
We don’t judge. Instead, we’re curious.