Protesting the establishment is commonplace on college campuses. But protests against a sculpture by Henry Moore, who himself protested the establishment, is unexpected. Moore’s works have long stood at schools of higher #Education without incident, including Princeton University and Chicago University.

Yet a student group at Columbia University is nearly apoplectic over a campus installation of Moore’s famed “Reclining Figure.” A semi-abstract of a female at rest, the figure exemplifies Moore’s rejection of the classical ideal of beauty in favor of ancient sculpture’s attention to the inner spirit. 

The pinnacle of a career gets pooh-poohed

Moore considered “Reclining Figure” the pinnacle of his career. Six casts were made. One is held by Tel Aviv Museum of Art. A working model stood at Lincoln Center from 1963-65. Apparently unaware of Moore’s renown, the protestors denounced the work in an op-ed for the school paper Columbia Daily, calling it variously “hideous,” “ghoulish,” a “monstrosity,” an “ugly hunk of metal,” “a desecration of our home,” and an “arrogant middle finger to the world.”

“An arrogant middle finger to the world”? Really? What world would that be? Moore’s abstract figures stand in parks and plazas around the globe. New York alone boasted 25 of his bronzes installed in the ‘80s throughout the five boroughs.

Size matters

Not that there isn’t precedent for disliking abstract art, and when viewed on a large scale (“Reclining Figure” is near 8 feet long),” naysayers have a lot to dislike. Moore understood this in part. British art historian Katherine Hoffman has quoted him saying, “Appreciation of sculpture depends upon the ability to respond to form in three dimensions. Many more people are form-blind than color blind.” Probably people are blind to abstract art, too. By the protesting students’ description of “Reclining Figure,” it’s the abstraction that bothers them the most.

But here’s the thing, Moore didn’t see his work as abstract. As he said, “Each particular carving I make takes on in my mind a human …and a personality, and the personality controls the design.”

The heart vs. the mind

The student protestors are plainly convulsed by the “what-is-it” question. A University of Rome study could help. The study, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts in 2011, asked students for their reaction to both abstract and classical art. Their response? Modern works stirred their hearts while traditional art served as an intellectual exercise. The emotional reaction of the Columbia University protestors suggests that the intellect had little to do with it.  

Of course, public art has been known to prompt protest even when the art isn’t abstract. Installation of the stone lions flanking the grand stair of the New York Public Library had a rocky start. In 1910, the New York Times alluded to all the griping about the lions this way: “If their faces show a combination of melancholy and ennui, that is natural enough in the circumstances.”

The “circumstances” were the city-wide outcries at the idea of placing African lions at the door of their prized library. What’s the protesting students’ excuse?