About six weeks ago, the Greater London Authority announced that a giant statue of a hand in the “thumbs-up” position would occupy Trafalgar Square’s famous “fourth plinth” in 2016. The statue, called “Really Good,” will be 30 feet high, according to The Guardian, which furthermore quotes artist David Shrigley as cheerfully indicating his hope that the piece will “dissuade social unrest, help the economy and decrease rates of absenteeism in state schools … On the one hand it is kind of ridiculous to suggest that this giant sculpture will bring an upturn in the economy. At the same time, maybe it isn’t.” Who knows? Maybe a big thumbs-up is just what the British economy need these days.
A few months earlier, another giant hand had been unveiled in London. Entitled “Hand of God,” the piece was installed in front of the Royal Exchange. Says one website of the enormous statue, “Hand of God is a visually symbolic piece representing a life journey filled with all kinds of strong emotions. Created by Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn, the large-scale public installation features a giant hand reaching out from the ground and supporting a slouched, possibly downtrodden, figure resting atop the palm.” Quinn (son of the actor, Anthony) has made the human hand a particular focus of his work. As he has said, “I wanted to sculpt what is considered the hardest and most technically challenging part of the human body. The hand holds so much power – the power to love, to hate, to create, to destroy.”
These giant hands, it seems to me, all probably owe their ultimate origin to the enormous Mano de Constantino in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. This large marble hand was originally part of a 40-foot high statue of the first Christian emperor, erected in the fourth century AD. Constantine may well have espoused the humble faith of Christ, but his public image was one of imperial grandeur All that remains now, however, are the emperor’s colossal feet, head, and hands. As emperor, Constantine was at the very summit of political power; his statue now is a reminder only of mortality. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair, the fragments might well be saying.
The Might and Despair emanating from the remains of Constantine’s colossus seem to inspire another statue of a giant hand, this one by Maurizio Cattelan now installed in front of the Borsa, Milan’s stock exchange. What’s significant about this statue is that the middle finger is prominently raised. As one Milanese mayor candidate has remarked, “It’s an open criticism of the international financial management that led to the great crisis of 2008.” There are other elements implicit in Cattelan’s enormous “flipped bird”: not only is it certainly an allusion to Constantine’s hand–which it resembles somewhat–but also a veiled critique of the notion of the free market’s “invisible hand,” perhaps even a reference to Vanni Fucci’s fig aimed at God from the Eight Circle of Dante’s Inferno. But above all, it is a statement of genuine anger about the irresponsibility of the banking world in the early 20th century, and as such, is much more honest than either the ironic Really Good or the propagandistic Hand of God. Let’s hope the financiers, seeing it each day, get the point.
Postscript, April 7: Two other things occur to me. First, the other fingers are broken off, not curled up. The middle finger is what’s left, so it’s not so much an intentional curse as a result of depredation. Also, the hand itself is cut off–perhaps a reference to the traditional punishment of thieves in the Arab world?