In Manhattan’s Union Square, a 150-year-old equestrian sculpture of George Washington presides over throngs of students, commuters, shoppers, and protesters. Few glance at it, much less scrutinize it. Yet although I’ve passed through Union Square thousands of times, I always pause to view it, and it always makes me smile.
Why? Because Washington reminds me of ideas and values that are crucial to the way I choose to live my life. Time after time, the sight of this sculpture provides me with vital emotional fuel and great pleasure.
Favorite artworks play a very special role in our lives. They provide us with enjoyment and inspiration. They help us to recall important events of the past and to project our course of action in the future. They help us to relax when the time is right and to exert ourselves when appropriate. Art, in short, helps us to live and makes life more enjoyable—which is why we value our favorite works as we do.
Given the vital role of art in our lives, it is worth asking: Are we getting the most from the art we love? Are we extracting all the pleasure we can from these wonderful works? Or are we missing something—perhaps something crucial—that would make them even more meaningful, more powerful, more life-serving? There is usually much more to a work of art than one can glean in a passive viewing, listening, or reading. To get the most out of a work of art, we must approach it with an active mind. In the case of a work of visual art, such as sculpture or painting, we must study its details, ask the right questions, and identify its meaning or theme. Heightened awareness gives rise to heightened enjoyment—and the reward is well worth the effort.
In this essay we will study Henry Kirke Brown’s George Washington at Union Square and another Manhattan sculpture, Anna Hyatt Huntington’s Cid.1 Before we start, take a moment to examine the photographs of these works (on pages 107 and 113) and note your reaction. On a scale of one to ten, do you like or dislike each? Does either of them seem particularly meaningful to you, or evoke a strong emotion? . . .