Discussion Notes for Friday AM Discussion Group | (the A.M.s)


April 2, 2021


It may be easy to laugh at the grandiloquence of claims directed at objects which on occasion resemble giant earplugs or upturned lawnmowers. But, instead of accusing critics of reading too much into too little, we should allow abstract sculptures to demonstrate to us the range of thoughts and emotions that every kind of non-representational object can convey.        p78

Look: Go to this website and look at the sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.

Question: What do you see?


In viewing the piece, we are witness to a tender and playful relationship, rendered majestic through the primordial medium of polished white marble…If the sculpture touches us…it may be because we unconsciously understand it as a family portrait. The mobility and chubby fullness of the sphere subtly suggest to us a wriggling fat-cheeked baby, while the rocking ample forms of the segment have echoes of a calm, indulgent, broad-hipped mother. We dimly apprehend in the whole a central theme of our lives. We sense a parable in stone about motherly love.     p82

Question: What do you think of de Button’s comment on the Hepworth piece? Does it make you rethink the way you look at it?


In an essay…the psychoanalytic critic Adrian Stoke’s…directs us to two ideas. First, that it doesn’t take much for us to interpret an object as a human or animal figure. A piece of stone can have no legs, eyes, ears or almost any of the features associated with a living thing; it need have only the merest hint of a maternal thigh or a babyish cheek and we will start to read it as a character. Secondly, our reasons for liking abstract sculptures, and by extension tables and columns, are not in the end so far removed from our reasons for honouring representational scenes. We call works in both genres beautiful when they succeed in evoking what seem to us the most attractive, significant attributes of human beings and animals.     pp82 & 84

Once we start to look, we will find no shortage of suggestions of living forms in the furniture and houses around us. There are penguins in our water jugs and stout and self-important personages in our kettles, graceful deer in our desks and oxen in our dining-room tables.         p84

From page 84 The Architecture of Happiness

Questions: Why do you suppose we do this with inanimate objects? Do you do it? Tell us about an object from your home and what you see when you look at it?


If we can judge the personality of objects from apparently miniscule features (a change of a few degrees in the angle of the rim can shift a wine glass from modesty to arrogance), it is because we first acquire this skill in relation to humans, whose characters we can impute from microscopic aspects of their skin tissue and muscle. An eye will move from implying apology to suggesting self-righteousness by way of a movement that is in a mechanical sense implausibly small. The width of a coin separates a brow that we take to be concerned from one that appears concentrated, or a mouth that implies sulkiness from one that suggests grief…The wealth of information we are attuned to deducing from living forms helps to explain the intensity of feelings generated by competing architectural styles. When only a millimeter separates a lethargic set of the mouth from a benevolent one, it is understandable that a great deal should seem to hang on the different shapes of two windows or roof lines. It is natural for us to be as discriminating about the meanings of the objects we live among as we are about the faces of the people we spend time with.              pp87-88

Questions: De Button is attaching the meaning we find in relationships to the meaning we see in objects and architecture. Is meaning something we give or get? Is it something we generate and give to things or is it inherent to our humanity? How do objects of creativity – whether art, architecture, or the simple household items, de Button mentions fit into this point?

**All content from The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton unless otherwise noted. Compiled by Kirk Irwin