Last week, a tall, dark intruder made his way onto the Yale campus. His presence did not go unnoticed for long. By Tuesday morning, hundreds of Yalies passing through Cross Campus were struck by an unfamiliar sight: a large, geometric black sculpture standing proudly in the grassy space behind William L. Harkness Hall. Ladies and gentlemen, meet “Habakuk,” the newest addition to Yale’s diverse collection of outdoor art.
Though “Habakuk” has been on campus for only a week, he has already caused quite a stir among the student body. There has rarely been a time that I’ve walked across Cross Campus without overhearing snippets of discussion about it, between students, professors and tourists alike. I’ve spent several long brunches with my friends debating possible ways to interpret the sculpture. And the conversation has even spread to Facebook — the popular page “Overheard at Yale” has become the scene of a fairly intense debate over the work’s meaning, with over 50 posts ranging from the humorous to the argumentative.
As an art history major myself, I could certainly give a scholarly response to this discussion. I could spend a great deal of time analyzing the possible symbolism of this piece. I could talk about its totemic nature, and draw parallels to African and Indo-Pacific art, and to the movement in postwar art to return to more simple and richly symbolic forms. I could delve into the use of the name “Habakuk” as a biblical reference — or deconstruct the work on a physical level, contrasting its darkness and weight with the way its slanted forms create an illusion of movement. And then, I would end with an analysis of the sculpture as a whole, what I believe to be the meaning that it conveys.
But, I’m not going to do that. Why? Because that’s not really the point. I have already heard my peers give a vast array of unique interpretations of “Habakuk.” Some have meditated on how it could symbolize hope even for the downtrodden. A physics major offered astute commentary on its embodiment of motion through tilted planes. One friend even compared it to the meerkat from “The Lion King.”
None of these are right — or rather, they all are. This is the beauty of sculpture, and of art in general. Each person comes to the piece with a unique perspective, and perceives and interacts with it differently. No two people experience a work of art in the same way — it evokes different emotions in each of us, awakening distinctive memories and associations. What is important is not that we feel one specific thing, but rather the simple fact that we feel anything at all. The power of art is that it pulls us out of the everyday, briefly transporting us into a world of emotion and symbolism.
This is not to say that intelligent discussion of the various ways that “Habakuk” can be interpreted is not valuable. It is always enlightening to hear a variety of different opinions and perspectives — hearing others’ thoughts can cause us to see a work in new and unexpected ways. But it is absolutely useless to argue about the “right” way to interpret this — or any — work of art. The idea that all answers are correct may be a bit foreign in this academic environment, where we are used to being told the correct interpretation, the right way to view a set of data or a historical document. But in the sphere of art, this is often not the case. Knowing that you have the ability to interpret something exactly as you perceive it can be a bit daunting — but it is also freeing.
So, the next time you walk by WLH, do so with an open mind. Take the time to look closely at “Habakuk,” and be cognizant of your response. Maybe it’ll just make you think of something silly. Maybe, in the end, you still won’t really like the sculpture that much. But maybe, it will pull you out of the rush of everyday life for a moment, bringing with it a reminder of the beauty and uniqueness of our environment. And that is meaning enough.
Emma Fallone is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at email@example.com.