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? . . .
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Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto. New York: New American Library, 1975. Ayn Rand’s presentation of her profoundly original esthetic theory.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Penguin, 1973 (paperback). Chapter 12 is on art.
———. “The Survival Value of Great (Though Philosophically False) Art.” How does a work of art serve a philosophic purpose even when its philosophic content is thoroughly untrue? Dr. Peikoff examines the means by which the four elements of literature—plot, characterization, theme, and style—teach man to use his consciousness. Available through the Ayn Rand Bookstore, www.aynrandbookstore.com.
Sures, Mary Ann. “Metaphysics in Marble.” The Objectivist (bound reprint), Feb.–March 1969, pp. 602–8 and 618–24. A historical survey of how sculpture reflects the philosophical trends of its time.
Durante, Dianne. Forgotten Delights: The Producers. New York: Forgotten Delights, 2003. Describes nineteen sculptures of businessmen, engineers, explorers, and so on, with sections devoted to the work as art and to the person represented. Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide, forthcoming in 2007 from New York University Press, applies the same approach to fifty-four sculptures (including ten from the previous book, substantially revised).
———. “The Human Form in Greek Sculpture.” The Greeks developed an amazing proficiency at depicting the human form. They also showed man as a dignified, confident being, capable of achieving his goals in this world. Concentrating on life-size human sculptures executed from 600 to 100 B.C., this lecture surveys important developments in Greek art and demonstrates how they ultimately reflect intellectual developments in philosophy. Audiotape available through the Ayn Rand Bookstore, www.aynrandbookstore.com.
1. George Washington, 1856, is at Union Square, Broadway and 14th Street. The Cid, 1927, is at the Hispanic Society of America, Broadway at 155th Street. Call 212-926-2234 before visiting to be certain the gates are unlocked.
2. Act IV, scene 4, translated by Brian Hooker.
3. Since the poem is not visible until the viewer descends the stairs and walks behind the sculpture, we can assume it is not essential for an interpretation of the sculpture. The poem reads:
Renown hath flung her argent portals wide
To greet the star-eyed souls of Destiny,
And framed in light heroic majesty
Reveals its sumptuous panoply of pride.
These horsemen of the Scroll of Valor ride
Across the sands of Time’s encrimsoned sea.
What splendid yearning, what high ecstasy
Turned them from commonplace unglorified!
From shadowed hours they gazed upon the sun,
The burning fields of visions dared to tread,
And laurelled courage hath achieved its lot.
Masters, needs we serve ye one by one;
As moving torches are the flaming dead
To light the paths for souls that are forgot.
4. “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” The Romantic Manifesto (New York: New American Library, 1975), p. 19.
5. “Art and Cognition,” Romantic Manifesto, p. 45.
6. “Art and Sense of Life,” Romantic Manifesto, p. 38.
7. For more on discerning fundamental premises, see Ayn Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” Philosophy: Who Needs It (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), pp. 14–27.
8. Riverside Drive at West 93rd Street, Manhattan.
9. Riverside Drive at West 72nd Street, Manhattan.
10. MartÌ is at Central Park South and Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue), Manhattan.