An aesthetic of dolphins and rainbows
Why are dolphins and rainbows so wonderful while pictures of dolphins and rainbows are so dreadful?
A few years ago, I was at the beach at Carmel and saw dolphins playing in the surf. There were at least three of them because I saw three fins at the same time there, and they played there for hours. And I sat on the beach and stared at them through my binoculars, also for hours. Because, apparently, I just do not get bored staring at dolphins.
It was only my third time seeing dolphins in the wild. The first time, I saw them off the shore at Ocean Beach when I was walking down from the Sutro Baths parking lot. They were moving quickly and by the time I reached my friend at the Cliff House to tell her to look, they were already gone.
The second time was at Baker Beach on a foggy day when I was walking along and imaging how much I might like to live in a world where gendered clothing and behavior had become as antiquated as the class customs and sumptuary laws of the middle ages and where people might dress up as genders for fun, like historical reenactors dress up as medieval burghers and peasants and get details slightly wrong. This was before Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning came out where exactly that scenario plays out. Anyway, I was having you know, a perfectly normal one, when suddenly in the misty, choppy waves I saw fins. At first, I thought they were sharks, but they were moving along the beach in this way that made me think no, these are dolphins. And other people noticed them too and pointed at them and said similar things. These dolphins were there for long enough for many of us to notice and feel excited about them, but they were also soon gone.
So seeing dolphins play and leap in the surf for hours off the coast of Carmel was amazing. I couldn’t get enough of it. They’re so beautiful, so incredibly moving, and they just lift up your soul as you watch them do their flippy thing.
So, you might see that and think: I want to make some art about it. Indeed, lots of people do. And as a rule, it’s terrible. Around Carmel, there was a lot of dolphin-themed art, and it was shit. I can understand why you would want to make art about them because the experience of seeing dolphins at play is downright numinous. You see that and you think that is amazing. I want to celebrate that, capture it, have it with me all the time, and share it with others. Yet, it doesn’t work. And not just for the same reason so much love poetry is bad–that is, not just because the experience is so powerful that even otherwise artistically untrained people are moved to make art when they experience it.
No, I think there is something specific about dolphins–and I mean wild dolphins, not imprisoned performing dolphins–that makes representations of them fail as art.
Rainbows are like that too. You see them; they lift your soul; they are objects of wonder and awe. Then you photograph them, and even if you succeed, the photograph doesn’t have that quality that you wanted to keep. Why?
The thing you want out of your representation of a rainbow or a dolphin is something that by definition you can’t have from a representation.
Rainbows and dolphins appear by surprise and they are beyond your control. Even if it’s been raining, and you know the angle of the sun is right, and you know to look for the rainbow, it’s still always a bit of a surprise. Even if you know there should be a rainbow, there might not be a rainbow. And even when there is a rainbow you don’t know how good it’s going to be. It could be exquisitely vibrant, or a double rainbow, or just sort of faint and OK.
Inevitably disappointing simulacra #
The surprise of spotting it is part of the pleasure of seeing a rainbow. And similarly, I would argue, of seeing a dolphin. Moreover, when it comes to dolphins, even after you spot them, you might just see that one leap and then they swim away. Or, you might get lucky and get to watch them play for hours. Each time you see them surface or leap might be the last one, and maybe they just show a fin or maybe they do a full jump into the air, and each time they return and leap again, again, and again, it’s still a surprise. It does not wear out.
Because it feels amazing to witness, you want to have that feeling, or a reminder of that feeling. But you can’t.
When you have a picture of a dolphin, you possess it and control it. You can look at it anytime you want and there’s absolutely no surprise. It’s hung up above your toilet or wherever it is you hung it, and it’s there all the time. There is no feeling of discovery. There is no feeling of visitation. Of being touched by a force of sheer beauty outside of your control. You can’t have that in an object you own. Even the most masterful representation of a dolphin or rainbow can’t give you that feeling. You can only experience it in the wild, fleetingly, by grace.
About the header art
The header is a close-up crop of my ink on paper word art. The crop is the border decoration from the piece "Dead people don't need their stuff."