The word “object” can be associated with art through three related, though differing, meanings.
For this essay, I use it to mean first and foremost, the actual work of art itself. The term will also employ the second, and related meaning, to mean the “goal” of art; what does art strive to accomplish? Third, “object” refers to the psychological dimensions of how people relate to other people, events, and things in the world as “objects.” This meaning as well, encompasses art.
Brent Kington, (1934-2013), Icarus, 1981, Mild steel, polychrome, Collection of Cedarhurst, Museum purchase with matching funds from the Illinois Arts Council, 1987.1.01
From Cedarhurst’s permanent collection comes the art object Icarus by Brent Kington. As we will see, the artwork exhibits an aesthetic complexity which animates an ancient wisdom.
The story of Icarus centers on his father Daedalus. A talented craftsman, Daedalus built a labyrinth for King Minos, but later fell into disfavor and was imprisoned by the king on an island. To escape the island, and with his son, Icarus, Daedalus, as is well known, built wings for them. He cautioned “Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them.” As we know, Icarus did not follow instructions and perished. There is more than one moral to this story, but the one that Kington chose to depict was that of moderation or balance.
The sculpture’s forms suggest movement, a forward motion.
Kington constructed his work of art with precision. The head of the figure features a colorful bird-like countenance. The head evokes a tribal ceremonial mask. The tapering limbs stretching out from the head suggest forward motion and perhaps flight. At the precise position where the sculpture rests on its base is the point of articulation where the heavy steel sculpture sits in perfect balance. The large and heavy head counterbalances the lighter limbs. Kington put all his energies into having the heavy steel sculpture balance perfectly on the smallest point possible.
The point of articulation and balance.
Form follows function here, and Kington’s artwork functions to convey the myth of Icarus in an aesthetic and materially physical way that facilitates easy remembering of the tale’s moral.
The “meaning” of Kington’s sculpture is significant, but not nearly as much as the sculpture’s form which first had to be constructed in the first place in order to signify.
Art is an object used to think with. The art object can be a sculpture, movie, song, or poem. Each art form poses its own ways of contemplation. Art objectifies life events for further study.
Art is a conversation. We create art to objectify our thoughts and share with others for feedback. Paintings and sculptures have a role to play in these conversations but it is more likely these days that the art we share is found in songs, movies, and novels.
Counterbalance as both form and content.
Any art—song, poem, film—is at its most dynamic when it is both aesthetically challenging and challenging in message. Ambiguity or abstractions or realism can all be appropriately challenging. No art worth its salt is one-dimensional, engaging art is never only about aesthetic form or only about message. Art becomes Art when Message so merges with Form that one cannot be discerned from the other.
The artist-songwriter-filmmaker is part of the process, but never the final word on what or how their artworks may signify.
The experience and interpretation of an artwork involves the viewer actively bringing her viewpoints into critical and thoughtful engagement with the work of art.
Meaning in artworks may evolve over time. Artworks that stand the test of time continue to evoke, provoke new meanings, new nuances, new insights for new generations.
Interpreting works of art can follow no single ethical purpose by which to define a work. Each work of art must be evaluated on its own evidence, its own merits. Interpretation is based on what is there, what is said, how it is said. Each work of art will, in a sense, guide its own critique. A reader (interpreter) must be open to a work of art’s aspirations, its form (style, materials constructed with), its mood, its function in society, its implied personal and social values, and move out from there to the historical period in which it is created, in order to weigh it fully and thereby know the object of art.