How Many Angels Can Dance on the Point of a Needle?
How many angels can dance on the point of a needle? These words are literally and conceptually embedded in Brian Dailey’s austere sculpture, engraved four times around its cylindrical granite base in every orientation of north, south, east and west. Capped with a stainless steel needle tapered to a fine point, the sculpture echoes the formal quality of the missiles displayed in the photographic tableau—Station Six of 14 Stations of the Crossroads—inspiring the Lamentations series.
The riddle-like question about the number of angels who theoretically can dance on the point of a needle or head of a pin evokes an equivocal answer: it depends. It is either an infinite number—because angels don’t occupy space—or else none, because they supposedly have no feet. Variations of this philosophical query have evolved since the late middle ages to signify the conundrum of such pointless scholastic debates.
In modern usage, the question has served as a metaphor for wasting time arguing over issues of little practical value or intellectual consequence, while more critical concerns amass. In its contemporary context, as manifested in Dailey’s sculpture, the phrase is often used in debate among Western nuclear weapons experts about the futility of planning for nuclear war due to the inevitably apocalyptic nature of the outcome. As General Lew Allen, the US Air Force Chief of Staff from 1978-1982, testified when asked about the concepts of “tenuous parity” and “essential equivalence” to describe Soviet-American nuclear balance:
“The difficulty, I think, comes in trying to put a precise term on a concept which is measured in a number of different ways. . . . I think in many cases the description we attempt is largely a theological one. That is, we are arguing a little bit about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is an interesting point and an important discussion, but it tends to obscure reality.”
Taking this ubiquitous expression as its title, Dailey’s sculpture ironically turns the nuclear delivery system into a symbol for the mantra of futility. The work also challenges the viewer to ponder the consequences of dismissing planning for the possibility of nuclear war as irrelevant, especially when it appears that this perspective is one not universally shared by adversaries of Western ways of thought.
And what remains in a post-nuclear apocalypse? The origins of the cardinal directions around which the sculpture’s granite base is oriented: air, fire, water, and earth.