Icarus – Lessons From An Ancient Myth

Seth Godin’s new book ‘The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?‘ has garnered a great deal of publicity lately, and rightfully so. It’s a good book by an impressive and visionary author. Quite aside from the content (which is great) the story of how the book came to be is a story in itself. Seth wanted to change the publishing paradigm that places enormous risk on the author and publisher by funding books before fully understanding the ultimate demand for them. He used the traditional publisher, but did so after he used Kickstarter to test the market among his followers (his tribe) and activate his fans long before the book was published rather than at the time of publishing as is traditionally done. It was a huge success. The goals of his Kickstarter project were met within a few hours and within days over $250,000 was committed. By launching the book as a Kickstarter project he was able to prove its viability. That is how the book came to be. What is the book about? Creating art. I want to talk about the art in this painting and what it tells us about life and the art we can create if we look around.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

This painting, attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (although now thought to be a copy of an earlier work of his), has held my interest since I first studied it in college, I think in the typical undergraduate elective called ‘Appreciation of Art: 101’. At first glance you cannot tell that a man is drowning in the foreground. There… look by the boat. That’s Icarus, and as we know from the account by Ovid in Metamorphoses, he flew too close to the sun and fell from the sky, drowning after the wax holding his feathers melted.

For me, the story of this painting has always been how the world carries on without noticing the suffering and calamity that can be so close. Here the farmer plows his field, a fisherman waits for the pull on his line, and the sailors pass by.  All are oblivious to the plight of Icarus. This is a situation that we are not unfamiliar with today in our lives, in our time, and it is clear that this is a human situation that was understood by the artist.

I think Seth may say that all the characters in the painting were creating their own art and were focused in on it. As he says in his book, “what you are engrossed in isn’t nearly as important as the fact of being engrossed.” However, he goes on to say “you can’t accurately see until you abandon your worldview.”

In other words, you have to lift your head and look around once in a while to better see the world.  It will help your art. It may have saved Icarus.

The story of Icarus inspired this painting which, in turn, inspired poetry, an art form of writing. My favourite is Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Have you figured out by now that Seth’s book on art is not boxed into the traditional thinking on what ‘art’ is.  Art is all around us.  It is in all we do.  In a way this blog is my art.  What is your art?  Do you know what it is and are you practicing it…putting it out there bravely to see what the reaction will be?  What’s holding you back if you are not?  Find your art.  Fly.

I look forward to your comments on what your art is, and on the book if you have read it.

I live in the Cayman Islands and I'm married to Christina. We have two incredible children, Ryan, attending Northeastern University in Boston, MA, and Taylor, attending Trinity College School, in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. I own several businesses in Cayman. My list of 'pasts' include past chairman of the Cayman Islands Special Economic Zone Authority, past president of the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman, and past president of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce.

Please note: I moderate comments and reserve the right to delete or edit those that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “Icarus – Lessons From An Ancient Myth

  1. Dear David

    I have been trying to tell you we are surrounded by art, that we feel and respond, since I was about 10 years old, and you – 11+. At that time you had your nose firmly into something you were breaking apart (your Apple IIC computer, your radio, an old walkie-talkie) often with William Hollingsworth fully engrossed in said activity with you, or Gerard Pereira understudying your work.

    Art is all around us, I thought. So why is his head inside of a pulled-apart electronic device again?

    At that time I wondered why you took things apart and put them back together again, sometimes to work as they did before, sometimes to be used in a different function, but always you were engrossed in the flow of what you were doing.

    Flow. That was your art then, and now you surprise me day in, day out, with your marketing art, writing art, entrepreneural thinking art, cooking art, and such like. When you weren’t doing breaking/putting back together you were thinking. Creatively. Quietly. Observing. Absorbing. I however, thought you were being dry, uncreative, bored. How wrong I was.

    All the time I thought you were as “dry as dust” you were perculating towards a lifetime off of the creative scale – my equal scale according to Dr Hammerschmidt’s hoojamachalit exercise.

    Seth’s book, the Icarus thing – yes we are all artists – each and every one of us. Some more than others. The most creative experience things to heightened levels employing full throttle all the senses – smelling (as Joseph Hart explained in your previous blog), touching, tasting, seeing, hearing the world around us. Sometimes it is quite exhausting responding to all the senses – but I know you know that. Sometimes it is disappointing when you respond to the art all around us in what is a normal reaction (to the creative) and to so many who do not “look around once in awhile” your response in what you say, create, is labelled quirky, weird.

    Since I was about 10 I have been responding to “the suffering and calamity that can be so close.” From activism to fundraising, education to just plain being irritating, I think creatives as a matter of their make up can relate to seeing, feeling, responding.


    PS Icarus in that painting is in the middleground x

  2. as a water person, I assumed “icarus” was diving for the anchor of the ship. I definitely saw it through my own world view!

    • Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it. The cool thing about your note is that it fully illustrates how people can see different things depending on their background and worldview.