Sunday, February 7, 2010

Weekend Musings: The Appeal of The Walking Man

The sale of Giacometti’s Walking Man I for a record $104 million was the main “art” news of the past week. The picture of the sculpture made the front page of the major papers, including the Wall Street Journal. Tout le monde was talking about it. So many that I did not know the art appreciation bug had bitten so many.

There was no word on the buyer. Rumors that he was a financier, probably a hedge fund manager, made sense. Only the financiers have that kind of money to throw around. I know of some hedge fund managers who buy masterpieces wholesale.

But lest we forget, for the “hegdies” the acquisition of art is strictly a matter of investing and capital appreciation. Working hand in glove with the gallery owners and auction houses, these merry men of finance accumulate art based on venture capital or takeover model. They either buy the works of relatively unknown artists and then promote them so the works would automatically appreciate – that would be like investing in a start up and taking it public – or do downright acquisition of established companies (artists) in the hope that the ensuing publicity will bring even higher bidders later.

Yet, the expensively acquired piece demands a commentary. What was about it that attracted the attention of a hedge fund manager or a takeover artist? Why this sculpture and not some other?

According to the Wall Street Journal, “the six-foot-tall bronze depicts a wiry man in mid-stride, his right foot jutting forward, his head erect and his arms hanging at his side.”

This description just about sums up the understanding of the art establishment of artworks. It is a description of an auctioneer, of a clerk taking an inventory, which, by the way, is how art is generally taught and interpreted in the West. It is not per se wrong, but irrelevant. It cannot help us understand the work or the secret of its appeal.

Walking Man is an abstract statue. The walker is skeletal, bereft of any particular characteristics. In that regard, he is the universal man. But the height could not be abstracted away. At 6 ft tall, it could not be that of a Chinese, or a Middle Eastern, or even a Latin man. In 1960, when it was created, only the Western man could be represented as being 6 ft tall.

What is about this Western man that attracts our attention?

Look at the pose of the Walking Man and compare it with the poster of a movie that came out the very same year, in 1960.

If you strip away Burt Lancaster’s gun, take away the rifle in his left hand, air brush the woman who is at his feet, strip him of his clothing and eliminate the vengeful expression on his face, you will get close to Giacometti’s Walking Man. In both cases, the upper body is bent forward, indicating a forward motion. And both stare at not what is under their feet but in the horizon.

We readily understand the poster’s message because conveying a succinct message is the function of posters. They do it by creating a context. So we know that Burt Lancaster is hell bent on shedding blood. It is probably revenge; surely the other guy must have started it. Pursuing that righteous fury, he will not heed the cries of the weak Audrey Hepburn trying to stop him. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. In this way, the poster defines the context of the picture.

Returning to construct the context of the Walking Man, we have several problems.

One is the matter of bent right leg. Lancaster’s forward leg is bent because he needs support, as he is dragging Audrey Hepburn.

The Walking Man’s forward leg is not bent, indicating that he is not carrying any load which he indeed does not. But then why bend forward? No one walks like that, certainly not a slender figure with long strides.

Then, there is the matter of hands and arms. When we walk, the left (right) arm and right (leg) leg move forward in unison. Such synchrony is dictated by gravity and the laws of dynamics. But the Walking Man's arms do not follow this rule. They are hanging beside him with a little forward lean. This posture is in contrivance of the laws of dynamics, which is why we feel the statue's pose is somehow not right.

Why would anyone assume such a posture in “mid stride”, as the Wall Street Journal describes the pose?

The answer is that no one would; maybe a robot, or an automaton, but our subject is a man.

The only way to explain the suspension of the laws of dynamics is to realize that the laws do not apply because there is no motion. The Walking Man is not walking at all. He has just stopped, almost suddenly, because he has seen something on the horizon. His look is without any expression, almost as if he were a cretin, but what is on the horizon is sufficiently worrisome to make even cretins pause in the mid stride and take note.

The name is not a tease. The sculpture we see is that of a walking man. Any other name would be incorrect. It is just that we are seeing a walking man at the instant of coming to a halt.

The Walking Man is Hank Paulson realizing that “the world is falling apart” and rushing to call his wife. He is Dick Fuld on the eve of Sunday, September 14, 2008, realzing that Lehman was doomed. He is Alan Swchartz, learning suddenly that cash hemorrhaging of Bear Stearns cannot be stopped. He is Alan Greenspan, realizing that everything he knew was wrong. And Sandy Weill, half-understanding that all was vanity and for naught.

The Walking Man is the cocksure man of finance. You will see him confidently talking in cocktail parties, with his mistress, as the special guest in MBA seminars, charity fund raisers and the Congressional hearings. He puts on a brave front day and night. But he knows that one day, something will appear on the horizon that will make him stop cold.

The Walking Man speaks to that uncertainty. That is its appeal to the hollow men of modern finance.