How to See Further than You Think You Can See
Does anyone know this famous painting, The Black Square? You heard of this one? It's a painting by a guy named Kazimir Malevich. He's a Russian painter. It's one of the most famous paintings in the world. And you might've forgotten about it because it is literally a black square. It's the thing that people make fun of. It's a square that is black. Like the frame goes around it and it is just a black square. So, this guy painted this painting in like or something like that, 1908, sometime around then. This basically crackpot Russian artist painted this thing and I was very curious about it because I read some reviews of it. I read a review in particular in The New Yorker where an art critic called it the most terrifying thing to ever happen to art. And then I read the related article where another art critic said that the experience of viewing the painting is ineffable sweetness and an essence of the sublime. I was like, "What?" Like it's literally a black square. Like, anyone could dr...
aw that. Literally kindergartners, he probably used a ruler. Like, why, it's not that hard. And so I drew this little mountain diagram. If you draw out the great art, the Sistine Chapel is like the best mountain peak. Statue of David is over here, you got some landscape paintings, The Black Square is over here. This is the kind of stuff that artist Kazimir Malevich said. Reality can be neither represented nor comprehended. Turns out his guy was nuts. He was crazy and he actually tried to make The Black Square like a religion. A religious movement that he called Suprematism. He painted some other stuff that was similar. He had like a red square, he had like a triangle. Um yeah, it's ridiculous. And this was at a time when everyone was like do we lock him up or not? Because art was supposed to portray something, right? And not just be a square, but he wanted this to be a religion. He said that Suprematism, his thing, was about finding the zero point of existence. He wanted to paint something that was the last thing that you could ever paint. It was like those maps where you go over the edge of the map and you fall onto nothing. That's what he was looking for and he thought that was the pinnacle of human experience was to be able to find that. And so spoiler is this religion didn't take off and he kind of went down in history as being nuts. So I went to Russian to look at this painting. And I was kinda planning a trip to Russian anyway, but I sorta planned my trip around going to the Tretyakov Gallery to actually see this. And I started obsessing over this painting. There's all these books and reviews of it about how like this is the most amazing painting ever. I just don't get it. Even my friends, who are like artists and art majors, were like yeah, I could've done that. I don't know why he's so famous. And so I went to Russia, went to the Tretyakov Gallery. And I went up the stairs, I went through this huge gallery, and then I found the room where it was and it's like on this display in the middle of the room. And it was a black square. So, I sit down and I just watch people, you know, interact in this room. Everyone just walks past The Black Square. Just walk past, like no one, they're like looking at all the paintings, looking and they're like, okay, it's a square, alright. And like that's what's going on. Sit there for a couple hours and just watch this. So, I went away, thought about it some more. I came back and it's still a black square. And then I sat there and I was just watching people and at this point I'd read some more of the biography and I was fascinated by this Kazimir Malevich guy and like his story and what happened to him. But finally, this college student, I'd surmised, she walks up, she walks in the room. She walks straight up to The Black Square. She gets a picture with it. She looks super happy about it and then she starts skippin' out of there and so I grab her and I say, "Hey, you're the first person "that I've seen really pay attention to this painting." And she's like, "Well, it's a very famous painting." And I was like, "I know that, but like most people "are like, it's not very entertaining. "Why do you care about this painting? "What's your deal?" And she's like, "Oh, you don't know the story." And I was like, "I know the story of the crazy artist." And she's like, "No, you don't know the story "of what this painting did." So the story goes like this. I'm gonna actually backtrack a little bit. Tell you about the story of graphic design. So graphic design roughly, the history, graphic design is basically using pictures and imagery to communicate, right? It's what we do on the whole internet. Everything from the Apple logo on Lara's laptop to every movie poster, right, that we have. Graphic Design is about communicating something visually. It's a big part of modern society. Graphic Design dates back to this school in Germany called the Bauhaus School where they kind of pioneered this thing. Before that, before graphic design, art was about portrayal. It was about taking something that was real and drawing it, painting it, sculpting it, making something that looked like it. And artists that really got into trouble were the ones that they would do that, but they would like twist things a little bit, like Picasso. He'd paint a person and then he'd like make them look weird. It was all about portraying, saying something, by portraying something. It wasn't about communicating. Well the Bauhaus School, it started as doing a whole bunch of different art things, but they took in a bunch of refugees, Communist refugees from when Stalin started bulldozing artists work and putting artists in jail because he was worried about them kind of causing a ruckus. So, a hundred Russian refugees left Russia and they brought, it was basically avant garde artists. Brought their sort of weird stuff to the Bauhaus School and the Bauhaus turned that into graphic design essentially. Now sort of the chief of these Russian refugees was a guy who, his name was El Lissitsky. He was kind of a pioneer of this thing called Constructavism. So El Lissitsky was the pioneer of Constructavism. He was basically hired by Lenin and his cronies to help do the propaganda campaign. When the Bolsheviks took over, is this minority group that helped overthrow the government. They're a small portion of the population of Russia. And they knew that they were at risk of losing power so they had to get the whole country on board basically, even though they're a minority group. So they hire El Lissitsky to make posters and his gang of avant garde artists to make these propaganda posters to help convince people that the Bolsheviks are right. And so he had all these great posters. Like there's this one that was called Defeat the Whites with the Red Wedge and it has like this triangle of like piercing this white circle and all these Russian characters that I can't read, but basically it's this thing that's like hey this is what we're trying to do. We're this small minority group, but we're in the right and we're gonna defeat the bad guys or whatever. So they had all these posters that were a smash hit and really helped solidify power. And this is sort of the first proto graphic design, but then these artists when Stalin got worried about them, they imported to the Bauhaus School which then became real graphic design. I'm telling you all this because El Lissitsky was the prize student of Kazimir Malevich. He was basically the only person that paid attention to this Suprematism thing and actually meaningfully explored it. I'm sort of telling the crude version of the story, but Malevich did not have a whole lot of followers. But Lissitsky was one of his students and he actually took this Suprematism thing seriously. And he was the first person to say, you know The Black Square is nothing, this is your point of art, religion thing is not real, but there's something interesting he's doing because he's making art that isn't portraying something. Maybe we can say something with art instead of just show something with art. Instead of just painting the tree, maybe we can say something about what we should do to the trees or whatever. In this case, the government. So what El Lissitsky found was while everyone was saying art should be pretty and realistic. In between this black square saying reality is never comprehended or whatever, and what we thought of as art is this huge mountain that became graphic design. So just by being curious and exploring this crazy thing, he helped pioneer this thing that's literally changed the world. And I love this story, so I then I went back to The Black Square after that and I felt like maybe I had a small spiritual experience when I saw the painting that third time because understanding the impact it's had on the world. And I think that maybe some of these New Yorker critics are like full of it when they say there's ineffable sweetness or whatever. But I do think that it's awesome that someone took this risk and believed this thing that maybe most people is crazy, but maybe was actually really pivotal and really important to pay attention to. So Einstein likes to talk about how the difference between him and a regular person was when someone found the needle in the haystack, they would quit. But he would look through every needle in the haystack. He'd look for what else is in there until he was done going through the entire haystack. So Einstein would basically march up and down the entire mountain range forever and he would explore things that most people dismiss, that they thought were crazy. Just like El Lissitsky did, that actually changed the world. So I think when you think about Einstein and the haystack, you look at the pattern of creative geniuses that have made breakthroughs in history. They're the ones that connect dots that have never been connected before. They not only take in a lot of content. They not only are well-read and sort of more broadly learned, but they're the people who are willing to obsess over things that no one else will obsess over. Which is kind of how we describe insanity, right? Someone who obsesses over something that doesn't matter. But that's also how Einstein described genius.