David and the monolith

Unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, you are probably familiar with this rock:

Photo by me. Statue by Michelangelo.

In our hyper-visual world, I had seen images or references to Michelangelo’s David countless times: in books, on SNL, and as the victim of ice sculpture assault in a rom-com I was, unfortunately for pre-teen me, watching with my parents.

But when I finally had the opportunity to view the statue “in the flesh,” I understood that I had never really seen it. I know, I know, such an epiphany, right? The detail, how the light moved across it, the scale, the history of the piece… I can’t say anything about it that hasn’t already been said by any novice art student or travel blogger.

This epiphany didn’t come from viewing the finished sculpture, but rather the unfinished ones that line the entrance to David’s gallery:

David’s slightly less attractive brothers

As impossible as the David is, the unfinished limbs and faces of those stone blocks document exactly how impossible it is. That iconic image, the one so easily distributed on t-shirts and Instagram posts, conceals the genius that went into creating the original. The artist himself is said to have said:

“If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius.”

Michelangelo, straight-talker

This week, a mysterious monolith was found in the Utah desert.

It has already become a pop culture phenomenon with its own hashtag and everything. The creators left no explanation of their artistic process (and none of their logistical process for transporting and installing it way out there, either). Was it aliens? The ghost of John McCracken? We may never know.

I admit that I’ve given more thought to the backstory of the Utah Monolith than I ever did to David’s before my trip to Florence. Like half of the world, a literal shiny object has captured my attention. That would probably annoy Michelangelo, wouldn’t it? On the surface (the shiny, shiny surface), the monolith doesn’t offer even a hint of genius. Nothing worth comparing it to one of the greatest works of humankind, surely.

Michelangelo could look at a block of stone and see the sculpture within. I wonder what he would see if he were to look upon the shiny object du jour. Maybe he would repeat his own words, spoken at age 87:

I’m still learning.

Michelangelo, humble genius