Interpreting the MLK sculpture in Boston
To avoid verbal disputes, let's start by defining "X is a figurative sculpture" to mean "all components of X and their configuration look like the components of familiar objects and their configuration," where "object" is understood generically to include the human body.
Thus, Michelangelo's David and Rodin's Thinker — indeed, all sculptures made before the 20th century — are figurative in this sense. The arms, legs, torso, and head of many of these masterpieces look like parts of the human body; their configuration is also that of the human body.
It follows from the above definition that "X is not a figurative sculpture" means "some components of X or their configuration (or both) do not look like the components of familiar objects or their configuration." The term "abstract" is sometimes used in this sense.
Thus, many Henry Moore sculptures are not figurative in this sense. While some of their configurations look like those of the human body, components taken singly do not. A good deal of cubist sculpture is not figurative in this sense. Many David Smith sculptures contain familiar geometric volumes, but their configurations do not look like anything we know, so they are not figurative sculptures.
For present purposes, the above is close enough to help us get a handle on the MLK sculpture recently unveiled in Boston, which has been met with disapproval and incomprehension.
So is this sculpture figurative or not?
The answer boils down to whether all components of the MLK sculpture and their configuration look like the components of the human body and their configuration. From one point of view, we do see a couple of arms combined in a sort of embrace, but figurativeness ends there. The MLK sculpture is not figurative according to a reasonable definition of "figurative."
So far, so good.
We should ask, next, what interesting or important concepts or ideas the figurative approach is less able to express or express fully or adequately that would justify or motivate a non-figurative approach.
In many (but not all) cases, the question has an easy answer. For example, Alexander Calder's mobiles, which hang from the ceiling and move with air currents, are a reminder of the fact that there are forces in the universe far beyond human control (like climate, hint hint). Cubist sculptures are a reminder of the fact that there are aspects of our universe that resist easy explanation. Such sculptures also signal that, in a sense, art is otherworldly — or, as Shakespeare put it, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
So the MLK sculpture is a reminder of...what? My five cents: the power of love.
We should ask, finally, whether the MLK sculpture is at least as effective at expressing the power of love as famous masterpieces such as The Kiss by Rodin (1882) and The Kiss by Brâncuşi (1907). This is where I exit stage right and invite the reader to ponder.
A frequent contributor to American Thinker, Arnold Cusmariu retired from the Intelligence Community in 2010, where he worked as an analyst, analytic methodologist and analytic tradecraft instructor. His book Logic for Kids is forthcoming from Jenny Stanford Publishing this summer. Also a sculptor, Cusmariu's publications explaining his working aesthetic are available at www.academia.edu. An article titled "Art and Turing Machines" is scheduled to appear in the journal Symposion in April.