The Hedgehog and the Fox
Any Princeton student who has ventured to a football game during their time on campus (a rare endeavor at any rate), may be familiar with a certain sculpture which stands in the open space between the football stadium, Lewis Library, and Peyton Hall. The sculpture in question, Richard Serra’s minimalist work “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” consists of three towering sheets of billowing metal which curve in near-parallel with each other and create two narrowly navigable tunnels reaching almost 100 feet in length. The meaning of this work of art is opaque at best. I would doubt that any Princeton student, even the best precept-bullshitter, could at first glance come up with any sort of latent meaning behind this work. How can one extrapolate artistic truth from a series of three adjacent sheets of bendy steel? And for those who know of the name of the piece, this question becomes even more puzzling: what the hell do hedgehogs or foxes have to do with two funhouse-mirror-shaped metal hallways?
Part of this problem is that there is no easily graspable link between hedgehogs and foxes. In reconciling this fact, we go immediately to what is familiar. Perhaps the title itself is, in syntax, reminiscent of Aesop’s fables—we hear two distinct animal names joined together and endowed with the definite article and immediately we jump to the pithy stories of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” or “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” But upon sifting through that mental catalog, even the most adept Aesop scholar would come up short in their search for some moralistic story about a fox and a hedgehog.
Surprisingly, though, the jump to fables is not quite far off. Instead of from Aesop, the title comes from an author who lived approximately 60 years before him in the 7th Century BCE, the lyric poet Archilochus. Unfortunately, most of Archilochus’ work is lost and the extant material is fragmentary, surviving either on barely legible papyri unearthed in the Mediterranean region and stored (maybe unsurprisingly) at Oxford or in the form of quotations from ancient essayists, literary critics, encyclopedists, or grammarians who use the poet’s words to advance their own points. It is from one such fragment where we get the titular line. In assuming that English may be a preferable language of transmission over Ancient Greek, this proverb goes something like, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing.” The essential meaning of this line is that although the fox may have an arsenal of wily tricks, the hedgehog’s one great talent, rolling up into an impenetrable ball, is preferable and safer. Surely enough, this sentiment does make its way into a fable of Aesop, where although the fox brags about the number of talents he has and the sharpness of his wit, when hunters arrive in the forest, he panics in deciding what trick to choose and is captured, while the one-trick-pony cat instinctively climbs up a tree and is safe. The moral of the story is that no matter how many flashy and intelligent tricks you know, the reliability of one is much more desirable. Still though, how this 2500-year-old Ancient Greek lyric poem relates to the meaning or intended impact of a pair of steel pathways still remains out of reach.
Although I’d love to imagine the artist, completely out of ideas, scanning the Loeb Classical Library’s collection of Archilochus fragments in search of inspiration for his title, in fact, the transmission of this concept to the artist comes through Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 philosophical essay on Tolstoy entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The title of the book and use of the Archilochus’ line is central to Berlin’s point which, sparing you the details of the author’s critical analysis of Tolstoy, equates the hedgehog and fox to different methods of intellectual thought. For a hedgehog thinker, the “one great thing” they have is a specific and inviolable worldview curling into which they funnel all philosophical thought. The fox thinker, conversely, draws upon many fields and uses those wily tricks to formulate their ideas. Berlin concludes that Tolstoy is somewhere in the middle of the fox and the hedgehog. Regardless, we now have the literary context behind our sculpture’s title.
Serra seems to have co-opted Berlin’s idea of the paths of intellectualism when creating his piece. When walking up to the sculpture, a student is confronted with the two pseudo-tunnels created by the massive sheets of steel—a choice must be made. As Serra himself has explained: “It points to how scholars either become free thinkers and invent or become subjugated to the dictates of history. This is the classical problem posed to every student.” Through this lens, the piece presents a distinctly dichotomous view of academia, one in which an entrant must choose one of two irrevocable paths, either free thought or historical precedent, which will guide them along through twists and spit them out at the end. Further though, Serra adds a value judgement to the piece. As seen in the artist’s previous words, the message of the sculpture implies a bias towards the free-thinking, inventive fox. Clearly the path of the fox, whichever of the two that is in the actual sculpture, is the better one (the metal is even routinely hosed down so that the rust emulates the ruddy color of a fox’s coat). In true Princeton form, the generalist approach of the fox is categorically preferable and liberating, while those hedgehogs who are “subjugated to the dictates of history” are behind the times. However, in conflating the Fox’s original quality of having many tricks with being innovative, Serra’s thoughts on the piece become antithetical to the source of its title.
If you recall the fable, the cat (and by transfer, the hedgehog) is able to evade capture due to the reliability of its “one great trick” while the fox is left dumbstruck by the possibility of choice. Through Archilochus’ succinct words we understand the benefit and comfort of a tried-and-true method. We can extend this idea to include the conceptualization of the two literary works discussed here. Sometimes, faced with a pressing issue, instead of looking towards new interpretations or inventions, we can benefit from falling back on what we know and consulting centuries of lived human experience. In this way, Serra seems to have faltered in the explanation of the piece in the same way as he does in his interpretation of both Archilochus and Berlin’s words. Instead of considering the original Greek source material, the artist took inspiration from Berlin’s modern take on the proverb which intellectualizes the physical realities of the animals in question. Drawing from that context, Serra further applies the modern bias of ‘innovation > retrospection/tradition,’ resulting in the idealization of the path of The Fox. In short, his choice to utilize the modern telling of the proverb is indicative of his bias towards the innovation of the Fox.
In response to that, I would try and do what Serra did not and pursue a mixture of both readings. In an interpretation which itself draws from both the “dictates of history” and the modernization of such a thought, I say that while the sculpture may present a dichotomy of paths, what is important about them is that regardless of the path that a student chooses to take, they still emerge in the exact same place. In this way we see that there can be a harmonious mixing of not only the ancient and modern texts, but also of the intellectual approaches of these two creatures—but sometimes we have to curl back into the safety of the past in order to fully understand that message.
New Artist on the Block: Yinka Shonibare
Hold a piece of cloth by its corner in front of a fan. Let it blow and shift in the wind. The curves and movement in that cloth is materialized in Princeton’s newest sculpture, Wind Sculpture (SG) IV by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Traditionally a textile and installation artist, Shonibare specializes in using Batik cloth in his work, clothing central installation figures in it. The Batik cloth is an originally Indonesian cloth that was imported to African colonies during European control and became a symbol of independence when colonies began to produce it themselves.
It is this symbolic cloth that is represented in the Wind Sculpture. A pale green with bright white, pink, blue, and yellow accents, the sculpture itself symbolizes the movement in migration. It takes on a dynamic form, thoroughly twisted and curling into a permanent breeze. It stands at 7 meters tall and fans out at the top of a coiled body. Combined, the cloth and movement speak about African identity and history as well as the effects of globalization past and present. Shonibare himself is an immigrant from Nigeria who trained and developed textile skills in Britain, shaping his artwork to voice the uniqueness and suppression of African culture.
Other popular works by Shonibare is The Swing (After Fragonard) and The Last Supper, both of which take popular paintings featuring white muses and shifts it into a dramatic commentary on colonialism culture and economy. Although the Wind Sculpture does not have a direct commentary onto infamous works of art, it continues the theme of building African heritage and showing pride for culture in Western worlds.
Jacques Lipschitz, “Song of the Vowels”
Fifteen feet tall, and taller due to its wide platform, the cast-bronze sculpture asserts itself amidst the grey stone architecture of the plaza it inhabits. The silhouette is indelicate. A large columnar pedestal tapers slightly and is topped with two hollow wings that branch into a narrow V. From the east, that V is a ribcage with three ribs, stomach down. From the south, that comprehensible corporeality is complicated by various misplaced body parts: two arms pull across what had looked like ribs and now might be harps, the front now looks like a woman’s bust, a headless, legless angel in flight. It changes as you move around it, commands space and defines context. The plaza is poorly lit at night, though, and then you can only see the bronze glinting.
Described as a the “Princeton University blob,” I empathize. A metallic figure-eight resembling a crushed Fruit Loop. The statue comfortingly constant. Turquoise swirls that followed me on walks home. I still like sending a coy glance A passing hello at a friend I met during frosh week, acquainted but with welcome distance.
OVAL WITH POINTS
Oval with Points: a bronze sculpture modeled after an elephant skull, created by Henry Moore between the years 1969 and 1970. It is turquoise, but marbled by patches of darker blue, bruised by bodies, weather, and time. The sculpture is circular in many ways—its overall shape more rounded than square— but it is also jutting, most drastically at its center where two jagged teeth try to touch. Students and tourists sometimes curl below the tusk-like prongs, into the bottom dip of the structure as if it were a hammock, but it proves to be a hard, uncomfortable perch.