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?
Washington at Union Square
The most striking feature of George Washington, especially when seen on-site, is its size. It stands nine feet tall atop a nine-foot pedestal. Even the horse’s hooves are above the heads of passersby, and to see the rider’s face we must stand yards away. The other immediate impression—and this one is obvious, even in a photograph—is the mood: calm, dignified, thoughtful.
I usually prefer to approach a sculpture “blind,” knowing nothing about the subject. Seeing how much I can gather about the subject from only the details included is an irresistible challenge to my power of observation. Since this sculpture is immediately recognizable as George Washington, however, and since our knowledge of him and his greatness is impossible to ignore, let us focus instead on discovering which facets of Washington the sculptor, Henry Kirke Brown, chose to include and to emphasize. Identifying these facets will lead us to the theme of the sculpture.
The theme is the meaning of the work—its message. It is a statement of the characteristics, actions, and/or events that the artist considers worthy of our attention. Identifying the theme of a purely visual work of art is like piecing together a fascinating puzzle. The key to that puzzle is remembering that a sculptor starts from scratch. He must make innumerable choices about pose, expression, proportion, costume, texture, composition. A good artist makes every choice based on whether a certain detail rendered in a certain way helps to convey his chosen theme.
Let us start solving the puzzle at hand by posing two different scenarios. We will look at the sculpture’s details for evidence of either one, and if neither fits, we will propose a new one that does.
So: Is Washington inspecting his crops at Mount Vernon or charging into battle? He wears military garb (epaulets, sword), which makes no sense if he is home on the farm. On the other hand, he does not appear to be in the midst of battle: He sits upright with military precision, face calm, tricorn tucked into his elbow, one hand extended in front of him. Although he is in uniform, Washington’s attitude suggests a ceremonial occasion; maybe he is greeting a crowd, instead of exhorting an army. If he were greeting one friend, we would expect the arm to be raised and waving. Perhaps he is in a parade, acknowledging the crowds around him.
Several details of the sculpture confirm that he is on parade. His uniform is perfectly arranged, not disheveled from battle. His sword is sheathed and hangs behind him, rather than within easy reach. The hat tucked under his arm would hamper his movement if he were fighting, but on a ceremonial occasion, removing it would better enable spectators to see him. Since removing one’s hat is also a sign of respect, Washington’s bare head further suggests that he respects the people who surround him.
Does the crowd he is acknowledging respect him? Surely they do: He has the bearing of a man who is being honored. Based on his upright posture and calm expression, we know Washington is self-confident, dignified, and recognized as such. He is also thoughtful rather than mentally passive, and he looks into the distance rather than tilting his head downward or toward something nearby. This thoughtfulness and far-sightedness suggest a man who leads by the force of his ideas rather than by sheer charisma, and they suggest that the unseen crowd appreciates him accordingly
In an equestrian sculpture, the behavior of the horse provides valuable clues to its rider’s character. What is Washington’s horse doing? Observe that it has only one foot entirely off the ground, so it is pacing, not galloping, certainly not rearing. Its tail is hanging down rather than flying out behind from rapid movement. Its head is gracefully bowed; the horse is not looking where it is going, which implies that it is moving slowly. Observe also that Washington is not struggling to maintain control. He is relaxed, holding the reins loosely in his left hand, his attention directed toward the people around him. In short, the horse, too, behaves as though participating in a ceremonial occasion.
Contrast is very useful when determining the significance of particular details. Try imagining a slightly different pose. What if all four of the horse’s hooves were flat on the ground? The horse would then be standing still, and we would assume that Washington (who is clearly in control of the horse) had paused, perhaps to revel in the crowd’s admiration.
We have looked at Washington’s face, posture, costume, weapons, and horse. It is time to attempt a statement of the sculpture’s theme. Is it: “A leader accepts the homage of a crowd after a victory”? That does not seem right; he does not look particularly concerned with what the crowd thinks. The focus is on the fact that he is thoughtful and far-sighted, a dignified military leader who is literally to be looked up to because he is atop a horse and the horse is atop a nine-foot-high pedestal. A more precise statement of the theme, then, is: “A thoughtful, dignified military leader acknowledges his followers.” Or perhaps not “acknowledges his followers”—that sounds a bit too much like the condescension of a dictator or a politician. Let us say: “A thoughtful, dignified military leader greets his compatriots.” That corresponds with the details we have noted so far.
I said that an artist selects details in order to convey a theme. How does he choose the theme? According to his values: what he considers important. Every artist says, in effect, “Pay attention to this: this is the sort of person who matters, the sort of virtues or actions that matter, the sort of events that matter.” What does Henry Kirke Brown say is worth noticing and focusing on? By Washington’s bearing and expression, Brown stresses thoughtfulness and dignity. That is not all, though. The manner in which Washington acknowledges the crowd around him—calmly but with his hat tucked under his arm—is another crucial element. It implies that he is not only a thoughtful and dignified leader, but an equitable one.
In the context of Washington’s life and personality, we can also say that because Brown chose to represent Washington this way, Brown considered Washington’s thoughtfulness, dignity, kindness, and fairness of greater value than, for instance, his fierce temper, his courage under fire, or his gracefulness on the dance floor.
“Quoting” the Romans
One art-historical sidelight on Brown’s sculpture is particularly interesting in view of the way Washington greets his compatriots. Washington is closely modeled on the equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius that has stood in Rome since the 2nd century A.D. Both figures are in military dress (Roman military dress was a tunic, not the lavishly draped toga). Both figures have their right arm raised, palm down. Both ride well-mannered horses, and the position of their horses’ feet and tails are similar. One difference appears minor but is in fact very significant. The emperor’s head is bowed, as though he is deep in thought; he is not greeting those around him. He does not consider the members of the crowd to be worthy of his attention.
What did Brown achieve by making Washington resemble Marcus Aurelius? He gave Washington status by association. The Father of Our Country is compared with one of the most renowned and intellectual Roman emperors. Placing Washington on a horse atop a high pedestal raises him above the crowd in a literal sense. Associating him with Marcus Aurelius elevates him metaphorically as well. Although Brown’s statue is perfectly comprehensible to those who have never seen Marcus Aurelius, for those who have, the similarity adds another layer to the understanding and enjoyment of Washington.
Historical Background of Washington
Washington at Union Square honors a specific event. In 1776 the British invaded New York. On November 25, 1783, more than two years after the Revolutionary War’s final battle at Yorktown, the last British troops rowed away from Battery Park. Later that day Washington led his troops down Broadway to officially reclaim the city for the Americans. In the moment commemorated here, Washington was greeted by a delegation of New Yorkers near Union Square before he proceeded south to the city center.
While such historical facts are fascinating, we can grasp the theme of the sculpture without knowing them. Sculpture is a visual art, and its message must be conveyed by visual means. Grasping that Washington is being honored as a thoughtful and dignified military leader does not require that we know details of the British evacuation of New York. But such historical knowledge can add to our appreciation of the work.
The Cid at the Hispanic Society
Let us move on to a very different equestrian figure, one far less familiar to most Americans than Washington. He is known as the Cid. For the moment we will maintain our relative ignorance of his character and deeds, and ask instead: What kind of man does this sculpture show? What virtues and actions has the sculptor presented as worthy of our attention?
As with Washington, the most immediately noticeable feature of the Cid is its size. The bronze stands sixteen feet tall and is positioned on a pedestal—which, here, is all of sixteen feet tall. The Cid is easy to observe, however, because its pedestal sits in a sunken courtyard, so that the Cid himself is at eye level for visitors to the patio that faces him.
What part of the sculpture catches the eye first? It is always wise to note this, because chances are that this element is what the artist intentionally emphasized. If we later propose a theme that does not prominently feature this part, we will have to rethink that theme.
A good way to determine which part is emphasized is to stand back and block out various parts of the sculpture with one hand. Which part do we miss most when it is covered up? For the Cid, the area that catches and holds the eye is the Cid’s head, framed by the triangle formed by the Cid’s arm, lance, and pennant. That puts the emphasis on his expression, his right arm, and his largest weapon.
Is the Cid, like Washington, riding in a parade? Surely not. He is standing in his stirrups and brandishing a weapon. But why is he scowling and twisting to look behind him? Is he perhaps fleeing from the enemy?
No: He is straight and tall, showing no signs of cowardice, fear, or panic. A more likely scenario is that he is at the head of his troops, turning to encourage them to rush forward as he himself is about to charge into battle. Since heading the charge puts him in an extremely vulnerable position, we can assume that the Cid is not only a leader, but a courageous one.
Based on these details, my first attempt at a theme is: “A courageous warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle.” But there are more details to consider. Let us see if we can add anything to that.
The Cid’s costume serves two purposes: It tells us he is a warrior going into battle, and that he lives in the Middle Ages. The chain mail provides protection for his torso and thighs, but falls back to expose his right biceps as he brandishes the lance. The muscular arm emphasizes that he is not a leader solely by virtue of his charisma or intelligence. His physical strength is crucial to his rank.
Over his chain mail, the Cid wears a surcoat, a leather tunic that protects his armor from rain and dirt and keeps the sun from heating the metal to skin-scorching temperature. Usually the surcoat bears the warrior’s coat of arms, but the Cid has none—only a crucifix hanging around his neck.
Are we to think of the Cid as a pious man, because the crucifix is the only symbol he displays? On the one hand, the crucifix is unobtrusive. In the main view of the sculpture, we see it only at an angle and have to squint to make it out. On the other hand, since it is included, it is clearly significant in some way. We will keep an eye out for other indications of a religious bent and then decide whether the crucifix refers to the Cid’s deeply held personal beliefs, or whether it indicates something less significant, such as that he happens to be fighting for the Christians against the Muslims.
The one item notably missing from the Cid’s military gear is a helmet. Without such protection, the Cid is much more vulnerable to enemy blows. Why did the sculptor not include it? We cannot answer that question definitively unless the sculptor commented publicly on it. Instead, let us ask: What would the effect have been if the Cid were wearing a helmet? Answer: We wouldn’t be able to see the Cid’s expression. His fierce countenance as he charges into battle would literally be obscured. Given that, it makes perfect sense that the sculptor did not provide the Cid with a helmet. Exact historical accuracy in a portrait sculpture is less important than conveying the desired theme.
Our first tentative theme was: “A courageous warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle.” From studying the Cid’s costume, we added that he is physically strong (the brawny biceps), that he lived in the Middle Ages, and that he is either a devout Christian or fighting on behalf of Christians. A “warrior for Christ” makes a statement about the Cid’s religious beliefs that seems too specific, given the dearth of evidence. A “leader of Christian troops” makes a very specific statement about men who are not represented here—so why should we describe them? Perhaps “medieval Christian warrior” is sufficiently ambiguous: It can imply that the Cid is a devout Christian, is leading Christian troops, or both.
Modifying the first tentative theme based on this, we get: “A strong and courageous medieval Christian warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle.”
Now let us turn to the objects the Cid holds. Over his head he raises a lance—a common medieval weapon that enabled a warrior to strike an enemy without engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Here, however, the lance functions as a staff for a large pennant. The pennant tells us that the Cid, as a leader, understands the need for his men to see him. It also indicates that he is not afraid to be highly visible even if that makes him the target of enemy attack. I am reminded of the scene from Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in which the Comte de Guiche relates how he saved himself from capture by discarding the white scarf that signified his military rank. Cyrano replies:
Does not lightly resign the privilege
Of being a target. Now, if I had been there—
Your courage and my own differ in this—
When your scarf fell, I should have put it on.2
The Cid’s conspicuous pennant, then, helps emphasize his courage and leadership.
A short sword hangs on the Cid’s belt. Unlike Washington’s sword, which hangs straight down behind him, the Cid’s sword is ready for use—at the front of his belt and slanted so he can easily draw it. On his left arm hangs a small shield. What does it tell us? That the Cid needs protection but is confident enough not to lug a huge shield—he expects to be on the offensive. (Notice that the sculptor placed the shield on the Cid’s left arm, where it is visible but does not block our view of his torso or limbs.) The fact that the shield is hanging off to the side and the sword is still in its sheath tells us that the Cid is not yet in battle—that he is rousing his men to follow him to meet the enemy.
While discussing Washington, we noted that in an equestrian sculpture, the horse’s behavior reveals a great deal about its rider. Look at the Cid’s horse. It has powerful muscles, shown not only by their shape and size but also by the veins Huntington has carefully traced on the surface, which carry blood to the bulging muscles.
The horse twists its head to the side, its mouth open to neigh. Not only is it strong, it is spirited. The swishing tail is further evidence of this; compare it to the tail of Washington’s sedate horse. The fact that the Cid can control such a horse with only one hand on the reins, when his mind is clearly on his troops and the coming battle, reinforces the idea that the Cid is physically strong as well as authoritative.
Let us look at the position of the horse’s feet. The right foreleg is angled slightly forward, as though the horse is straining to move. Since the horse could not hold such a pose for long, we are further encouraged to think its rider is about to rush headlong against the enemy.
Our last tentative theme was: “A strong and courageous medieval Christian warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle.” Looking at the props, we have noted that the Cid is brave (the pennant), about to fight (the sword position and the horse’s right foreleg), and powerful and authoritative (his control of the horse). The same theme still works.
The sculpture’s color and texture also have an impact on the theme. One of the best ways to understand their effect is (as always) comparison. Imagine the Cid in precisely the same pose, but carved out of white marble, with the stone meticulously chiseled to show the hairs on the horse’s hide. The weapons would have to be added separately, in metal, because marble cracks if carved into long, thin shapes such as the lance. The metal weapons would stand out from the marble figure by their color and texture, and to some extent our attention would shift to them, away from the Cid’s pose and expression.
The smooth textures of Washington help create an after-the-battle mood of serene triumph. In contrast, the Cid has far more varied textures: the tousled hair, the circular links of the chain mail, the plated shin-guards, the horse’s curling mane and tail, the veins on the horse’s skin. Separately, these textures help convey specific details: the horse’s strength and spirit, the Cid’s readiness for battle. In combination, they make the Cid visually intriguing and further reinforce our latest tentative theme.
The Ensemble at the Hispanic Society
We have been looking at the Cid as an independent sculpture, and it certainly can stand that way. In San Diego’s Balboa Park, in fact, another cast of the Cid does precisely that. In Manhattan, however, the Cid is part of a much larger ensemble. At the corners of his pedestal (down in the sunken patio) are four larger-than-life-size sculptures of semi-nude primitive warriors, dressed in skins and carrying shields and swords. Their presence emphasizes the Cid’s martial character.
Right and left of the pedestal are towering flagstaffs sculpted by Huntington, each ringed with densely packed friezes of battling warriors and horses, monks, and elegant medieval gentlemen. The flagstaffs’ figures reinforce the idea that the Cid is a warrior and that he lived long ago. The presence of the monks suggests a connection with Spain, whose centuries-long battle with the Moors made it one of the most religious countries in Europe.
On the wall behind the Cid tower two twenty-four-foot high reliefs: one of Boabdil, the last Moorish king to rule in Spain, the other of Don Quixote, Spanish literature’s melancholy superstar. The back (north side) of the pedestal bears a sonnet by Archer M. Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society of America and husband of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington.3 Flanking the reliefs and the patio stairs are six groups of animals native to Spain. Like the monks on the flagstaffs, these help set the Cid’s geographical context. The Cid’s central position in this ensemble leads us to assume he is a heroic and important figure.
We have looked carefully at the details of the Cid and at his setting. Before we settle on “A strong and courageous medieval Christian warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle” as the final theme, let us double-check it by looking back at what first caught our eye when we looked at the sculpture: the triangle formed by the Cid’s arm, lance, and pennant. That area includes the Cid’s muscular arm, his largest weapon (the lance), the pennant indicating his leadership, and his scowling, intent expression. All these fit our tentative theme, as do other details from the flick of the horse’s tail to the position of the Cid’s sword.
Can we eliminate any of the words in this theme on the grounds that they mention points not stressed in the sculpture? “Strong” and “courageous” must stay; they were both emphasized by several details in the sculpture. “Warrior” is also crucial; a politician leading his followers at a rally would not have the same life-and-death urgency.
“Medieval,” on the other hand, does not seem essential. Like “Spanish” or “baroque,” it has too many connotations to be useful here. The period at which the Cid lived is much less significant than the sort of man he was.
The fact that he “rouses his troops” is important, because it shows he is a leader. The fact that he is encouraging his men to follow him, rather than urging them on from behind, is closely tied to his courage and leadership. The phrase “into battle” helps convey the urgency of the situation and the energy of the figure.
We have seen no additional references to the Cid’s piety, so I am inclined to think the crucifix identifies him as fighting for the Christians, rather than as a deeply pious man. Let us, therefore, delete “Christian” from the tentative theme.
Condensing the statement of the final theme down to its most essential elements, we have: “A strong, courageous warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle.” This explains and incorporates the specific objects and attributes we have noticed on the Cid, as well as the overall effect of the sculpture.
Now, suppose someone disagrees with my statement of the Cid’s theme. How should we resolve the matter? The proper way to deal with disagreements about art—and the only way to discuss art objectively—is to look at the actual elements of a work and to specify their effects. I have listed the details that support my view and have stated what effect they have. If someone disagrees, he can point to the details in support of his view and explain the effects these elements have. In this way, our discussion will remain firmly based in the perceptual facts of the sculpture, and won’t degenerate into a shouting match based on groundless assertions or free associations.
The Historical Cid
Now that we have looked at the Cid in some detail, let us consider how Huntington’s interpretation tallies with what is known of the historical Cid. Rodrigo Diaz (1040–1099) played a crucial role in the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Middle Ages. His exploits earned him the title “Cid,” Arabic for “lord.” The Encyclopedia Britannica (1910) comments disparagingly:
Whatever were his qualities as a fighter, the Cid was but indifferent material out of which to make a saint—a man who battled against Christian and against Moslem with equal zeal, who burnt churches and mosques with equal zest, who ravaged, plundered and slew as much for a livelihood as for any patriotic or religious purpose. . . . The Cid of romance, the Cid of a thousand battles, legends and dramas, the Cid as apotheosized in literature, the Cid invoked by good Spaniards in every national crisis, whose name is a perpetual and ever-present inspiration to Spanish patriotism, is a very different character from the historical Rodrigo Diaz.
Huntington could have shown the Cid as an idealistic hero or a thug, a fearless warrior or a scheming power-luster, a good Christian or a turncoat, or some combination of these. Instead, she showed him as a strong and courageous leader, an inspiration to a much broader audience than the historical Cid would be.
Art and Attitude
We have been studying two sculptures for the purpose of enhancing our ability to enjoy our favorite works of art. In addition to providing enjoyment, however, art performs a more subtle intellectual function. Immersing yourself in a particular artist’s world can literally change the way you think. You have probably felt this effect if you have ever watched a few episodes of a favorite television show in one sitting. After hours of a forensics show, for example, you might feel rigorously analytical, primed to observe details and deduce what they signify. After a reality-show marathon, you might feel extremely competitive.
Why does this kind of psychological change occur, without any conscious decision on our part? Because art (including television shows) not only conveys certain values; it also conveys the fundamental assumptions that underlie those values. For example: Huntington’s Cid is clearly a man of courage. But the existence of courage assumes that there must be values for which it is worth facing danger, and that man has the ability to recognize this fact. If man can choose to fight for his values, he must have free will. If fighting is a viable option, then the world must be the kind of place where values can be achieved. Such assumptions are so fundamental that they apply, in one way or another, to all men at all times. They are what Ayn Rand called metaphysical value-judgments. (“Metaphysical” is used here in the Aristotelian sense of “pertaining to the nature of reality”—not the improper modern sense of “pertaining to the supernatural.”) This concept is essential to the very definition of art, which is, as Ayn Rand put it, “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.”4
Metaphysical value-judgments are basic convictions about the nature of reality and man’s relationship to it. Is reality a stable, causal environment, in which things happen according to natural law—or is it an anything-goes, causeless place, in which inexplicable miracles occur? Does man have free will and thus the ability to steer the course of his life—or is he predetermined to act as he does and thus incapable of directing his actions? Is the world conducive to man’s success and happiness—or is man doomed to failure and misery? Discussion of such issues is the province of philosophy, which deals with the widest abstractions about man and the nature of the world. In art, though, a multitude of such ideas can be implied in a single visual image.
When Huntington selected the details that would most explicitly and memorably convey courage as one of the Cid’s distinctive characteristics, she indicated not only what is worth noticing about the Cid, but also that courage is a characteristic of great importance in our own lives. Simply recalling the image of Huntington’s Cid can remind us that courageous leadership matters, that perserverence pays, and that we have the ability to choose our actions and direct the course of our lives.
Of course, a reaction to an artwork is no substitute for conscious knowledge of reality. Observing art is no surrogate for observing the world, or for thinking, or for choosing our goals, or for figuring out what principles we ought to live by. Art is not a substitute for philosophy. An artwork that reflects our values, however, can provide, in a split second, a reminder of what is worth our attention amid the innumerable matters vying for it every minute of every day. Because art expresses highly abstract philosophical ideas in the form of visual concretes, it can inspire us to reaffirm our conscious ideals, to think more clearly, and to live better lives. As Ayn Rand put it:
Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.5
Needless to say, spending time in the world of forensics shows, reality shows, the Cid, or Washington will stylize your consciousness in radically different ways.
This connection between art and man’s most fundamental ideas explains why art predates written language by tens of thousands of years, and why ancient art can still have a powerful emotional impact. It also explains why most of us still get a thrill from representational art, even though critics decree we ought to prefer paintings that look like drop-cloths and sculptures that look like trash-heaps. Real art—representational art—is crucial to man, because it presents values and ideas in a way that can be grasped immediately and viscerally. We cannot live happily without that sort of shorthand guide to running our lives, any more than we can live happily without explicitly knowing what we want to achieve.
Having studied the details of the Cid and Washington, and having identified their respective themes, let us now take the next step and evaluate them—that is, judge them as works of art. This will enable us to rank them in relation to other works of art, and, if we judge them favorably, it will help us find similar works to savor.
Art can be judged in many different ways, each of which has its own methods and standards. For Washington and the Cid, we will consider the following: emotional reaction, content, style, ethical or political evaluation of the subject of a portrait sculpture, and art historical evaluation.
Emotional Reaction to a Sculpture
An emotional reaction is the first and most immediate way to judge a sculpture, and often the only judgment we bother to make. We usually react to the sculpture’s theme and to the fundamental ideas it implies long before we can put those into words.
Yet if an emotional reaction depended only on the sculpture’s theme, everyone ought to share the same reaction. Why do people respond so differently to the same sculpture? Because each viewer brings his own context to the piece—his own knowledge, experiences, and values. While I might react negatively to a portrait of an ancient Roman because it reminds me of a sadistic high-school teacher, you might react positively to the same portrait because of a different association. Sometimes a situation at work or home affects our reactions. And not only do we each bring our own context to a piece of art; our context itself changes from time to time, thus changing the kind of art that will suit us on a given occasion. If I were organizing a major project, the Cid charging into battle would have a strong appeal. If I had just finished a task and were inclined to rest on well-deserved laurels, Washington might be more attractive.
When we find a sculpture that agrees with our most basic premises and our current preoccupations, we have an invaluable means to reaffirm, in an instant, what we stand for and what we want to pursue in life. In this way, art provides crucial emotional fuel. As Ayn Rand noted:
Since a rational man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one’s own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one’s ideal world.6
Even your closest friend will not react to a given work exactly as you do. No one else has your context, because no one else has thought your thoughts, undergone your experiences, chosen your values—in short, lived your life. On the other hand, if you make the effort to explain which aspects of a sculpture appeal to you, your friend may see the work from a new perspective. One of the great delights of learning to look at art carefully and discuss it objectively is that you will come to understand both your own and your friend’s values more thoroughly.
Judging the Content of a Sculpture
Judging the content of an artwork requires identifying its theme. The first question is, therefore: Does the sculpture have a theme? Unfortunately, lack of a theme is more common than one might expect.
Many animal sculptures are simply decorative arrangements of line and texture. Unless they translate somehow to human experience—as, for instance, might a sculpture of a doe guarding her fawn—such works do not convey a theme.
Inexperience or incompetence on the part of an artist can also lead to an artwork without a theme. A novice or a mediocre portraitist may concentrate on accurately reproducing the subject’s physical appearance at the expense of highlighting the subject’s most important characteristics.
An artwork may also have a theme that is virtually impossible to determine. Historically, some artists have intended their work to appeal to a very specialized audience. The Italian Mannerists of the late-16th century (including Rosso Fiorentino, Bronzino, and Pontormo) produced paintings based on arcane theories and stories that were geared toward the avant-garde intellectuals of the time. Today many of these paintings are hopelessly perplexing.
If a particular sculpture has no theme, or if the theme is too abstruse to identify, then we obviously cannot evaluate its content. If a sculpture does have a theme—as the Cid and Washington clearly do—then evaluating its content requires considering the ideas it depicts and implies, all the way down to the most fundamental level. Ask: If your own life on this earth is the standard of value, will the ideas conveyed by this particular work advance it? The Cid’s theme, “A strong, courageous warrior rouses his troops to follow him into battle,” implies that strength, courage, and leadership are crucial when facing any serious challenge. Underlying that theme are the ideas that the world is a place where the achievement of values is possible, and that man has free will and can fight for their achievement. Such ideas are clearly life-promoting, and when they are delivered at the perceptual level, via powerful art, they can move us to live more fully.
As an exercise in philosophical detection, see if you can identify the fundamental ideas that underlie Washington’s theme, “A thoughtful, dignified military leader greets his compatriots.”7
Judging the Style of a Sculpture
Judging style means focusing on how a sculpture is executed, rather than what it says. Art’s function, we have said, is to present a view of what is important in the world in a single, vivid image. Hence the first question when judging style is: Is the artist’s theme conveyed clearly, so there is no question what he is trying to say? If an artwork does not convey a message clearly, at best it is an attractive but meaningless decoration. At worst it is pretentious junk. The Cid and Washington both provide numerous unmistakable clues as to the nature of the respective men, what they are doing, and what the sculptors consider their dominant characteristics.
The second question when discussing style is the obverse of the first. Is the work well integrated, without extraneous, distracting details? Imagine the Cid carrying an AK-47 instead of a lance and sword, or Washington with a medieval helmet rather than a tricorn hat. Details that do not contribute to the theme are seldom so blatant. If, however, your attentive study of a sculpture reveals details that seem inexplicable, eventually those details will distract you. Such distraction diminishes an artwork’s emotional and intellectual impact. As soon as you start wondering what an artist was thinking when he included that inexplicable detail, you are no longer in his world, “hearing” his message. You’ve crossed from the world of art into the realm of psychological speculation.
Moral Evaluation of the Person Represented in a Portrait Sculpture
It is interesting if not irresistible to do a philosophical or moral evaluation of the person represented in a portrait sculpture. What is this person famous for? What principles did he live by? What values did he defend? According to your standards, is he good, evil, or mixed? Judged by the standards of his own time rather than by yours, how does he fare?
In this type of evaluation, we would note that Washington was a Founding Father of the United States, the commander-in-chief of the American forces during the Revolutionary War, president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and first president of the United States. On all counts he was a man of unimpeachable integrity and courage. Contemporaries and later generations transformed him into an almost mythical figure. Modern revisionist historians harp on his flaws, such as his ownership of slaves and his lack of interest in abstract philosophy. Which of these facts most affects your judgment of George Washington depends on your own ethical and political standards.
The Cid, too, was a leader and a warrior, but in other respects he was radically different from Washington. Living in the Middle Ages, when life was nasty, brutish, and short, the Cid switched sides from Christian to Muslim and back to Christian in order to survive and win riches and fame. Over the next thousand years, legend transformed the Cid into a devout Christian, a staunch patriot, and an invincible hero. By the 17th century, Pierre Corneille, one of France’s greatest dramatists,†could write a drama in which the young Cid, just setting out on the road to glory, kills the father of the woman he loves to avenge an insult to his own father’s honor. Huntington could have chosen to represent any of these aspects of the historical or legendary Cid in her sculpture. Knowing the possibilities she faced makes her final choice a more revealing expression of her own values.
Evaluating a biographical figure on moral and political grounds is emphatically not the same as evaluating a sculpture’s content. Why? Because a sculptor may decide to emphasize aspects of a subject that were not prominent in the subject’s life. I could easily name half a dozen people with whose guiding principles I disagree profoundly, but whose portrait statues I admire because of what the artist chose to highlight. Huntington’s Joan of Arc8 is one. Although Joan is a Christian saint, in Huntington’s sculpture she is not a long-suffering martyr, but a woman solemnly dedicating herself to fighting for what she believes in. Another example is Penelope Jencks’s Eleanor Roosevelt.9 I detest Roosevelt’s politics, but the sculpture of her in Manhattan represents a woman deep in thought, not a crusader for welfare programs.
Art-Historical Evaluation of a Sculpture
Art-historical evaluation of a sculpture requires extensive knowledge of other sculptures, plus the sort of comparisons that can be made only with reams of photographs. For example, to evaluate the Cid’s importance in the history of art, we would have to compare major equestrian sculptures from ancient times to the present. Does the Cid offer any major innovations? Is it similar to other works produced in the 20th century? Is it merely a copy of another sculptor’s work? Does it (like Washington) “quote” an earlier work, thus adding a layer to its meaning?
Some quick research on 20th-century sculpture would tell you that Huntington was one of the most highly regarded American sculptors of animals. Her human figures are well done, but her horses (including the Cid’s) are magnificent. Although she did not introduce radically new subjects or style, in equestrian sculptures such as the Cid, Joan of Arc, and MartÌ, she managed to make the behavior of the horses contribute substantially to our understanding of their riders.10 Huntington’s Cid did not redirect the course of American sculpture, but Huntington’s contribution to American sculpture was nevertheless distinctive and respectable.
After considering all these ways to judge art, perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed—as if you shouldn’t talk about a sculpture unless you’ve gone over the piece with a magnifying glass, evaluated it in five different ways, and blocked out two hours to discourse on it. Relax, and remember that you’re studying the sculpture primarily to increase and prolong your own enjoyment. If you wish to discuss it with others, do it in the way you would talk about a restaurant. You might say, “The food is excellent, the service mediocre, the dÈcor ugly”—or simply, “You must go there.” Summarizing a sculpture you might say, “The Cid is inspiring and well executed,” or simply, “I like it.” Anyone who is intrigued will ask for further details. In the ensuing discussion, you may notice features you had completely missed when examining the work on your own.
A positive judgment of a sculpture in any respect is an excellent reason to search out artworks similar in that respect. If you like the fact that Washington shows a Founding Father, look for other portrayals of the Founding Fathers. If you admire the Cid’s courage as he rushes into the fray, look for other statues of heroes charging into battle or fighting for what they believe in. If you love the spirit and precise anatomical detail of the Cid’s horse, look for other well-executed equestrian statues.
I have often been asked whether looking at a sculpture in minute detail and thinking about it intensely will ruin a person’s ability to react to it emotionally. If this worries you, think back to your answers to the questions at the beginning of this essay. On a scale of one to ten, do you now like or dislike Washington and the Cid? Do you see meaning and relevance to your life that were not obvious when you first glanced at them?
Chances are that your understanding of and appreciation for both sculptures has increased. For most people, greater knowledge means greater interest. Learning to look carefully at a favorite artwork allows you to extend your enjoyment of it to heights you probably never suspected you could achieve, and promises even more delights in the future as you find other works that appeal to you.