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.
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.