Experiencing the Humanities
A Web Textbook
The first photo above shows Rodin's
1910 bronze The Thinker.*
Chapter Thirteen of
by Richard Jewell
The sculptural arts are three-dimensional arts. They are arts that stay in one place in reality and that we can see, touch, and sometimes even walk in, on, or around.
Both of the above two pictures of sculptures show the musculature, skin, and both curving and sharp lines of their subjects. Sculptural form in sculpted bodies, natural objects, buildings, and pottery have abounded for thousands of years. These two sculptures contain beautifully flowing lines, a sense of unity and balance, and a tension. And as with most sculptural forms, these two invite us to walk around them, see them front and back, even reach out and touch them with our fingertips, our hands.
Sculptural arts are solidly rooted in physical experience not only because they are three-dimensional but also because they often appear, no matter how large or small, to invite a sense of touch, even of participating--imagining ourselves in the sculpture, being on top of it, or even walking with it. This sense of physical presence is true of dance, too--a sense of space, and a sense of the physical body or presence of the dancer. However, sculpture, unlike dance, is frozen in one instant in time. Even so, most sculptural art appears so flowing and so concrete, all at the same time, that we almost can feel it as if it were alive and moving. It is a stage performance frozen in one second.
The sculptural arts include any three-dimensional object made to be beautiful to our senses:
The following sections first describe how to aesthetically sense sculptural forms for best results. Then they discuss three ways of classifying sculpture: by medium, by craft vs. decoration, and by abstract vs. representational.
Sculpture as Touch
The key to appreciating these art forms is to interact with them using your senses. Often, with sculpture, the best (though by no means the only) sense to use is touch (or movement inside them). Here is a list of ways in which to get the most aesthetic pleasure in viewing sculptural forms:
(a) Look at the object from as many of the six sides as possible.
(b) Try viewing it from far and near to find the proper viewing distance (as with a painting).
(c) Once you have established a visual relationship with it, then close your eyes and touch it. Start with the most noticeable area.
(d) Then touch other areas with your eyes closed, running your hands over them.
(e) Feel both the overall object and individual elements or "grains" of each area.
(f) Then open your eyes and repeat the touching process to discover how sight and touch are related in the object.
(g) If the object appeals to more than sight and touch, then listen, smell, or taste it while touching and looking at it.
(h) If the object is an architectural form or large enough to enter:
1. View it from afar, if possible, at several different distances.
2. Walk inside it, going into different parts of it.
3. Stand in different parts of it with your eyes closed and then open.
4. Touch it inside and out as you go through it.
5. Listen to how sounds happen inside different parts and just outside it.
6. Stand in the middle of it with eyes closed, imagining it all, and ask yourself, "How do I feel when inside it?"
(i) If the item is on historical display, imagine being a person using the object, and how it would feel to your senses and emotions.
Of course, many museums and exhibitors do not want you to touch their art. Likewise, while some merchants at arts and crafts fairs encourage you to touch their art, others (depending on the merchant and the type of art) want you to keep your hands to yourself. Even if this a no-touch policy is sometimes necessary, it is especially unfortunate concerning sculptural forms, as sculptors usually imagine and make sculptural forms at least partly from their sense of touch. If you cannot touch the item, then imagine what it would feel like to your hands or other parts of your skin--for example, if the work of art is a cup, what would it feel like to drink from it? Where policies forbid touch, use fantasy to appreciate a sculptural object.
Mediums of Sculpture
Sculptural artists use many mediums, from some of the most simple and ancient forms such as clay, stone, and wood to industrial forms such as metal and plastic and to electronic forms such as three-dimensional light displays, 3D effects, and other electronic displays.
Sculptural art is defined, in fact, by its three-dimensional quality. It is different from painting and drawing in that they are art forms that exist in two-dimensional form, whereas sculpture always has three dimensions. Sometimes the third dimension may be very slight, as in "bas-relief" rock carvings of objects that are raised a few centimeters or more above the flat surface of a rock (because the rock around the object has been carved away). At other times, the third dimension may be so fully developed--as in early Greek and Roman sculptures of people and animals--that the sculptured object may look like it is alive with motion or even quivering with feeling.
So important in much of sculpture is this idea of movement or feeling that one can argue that sculpture often is like frozen dance: people, animals, and objects caught for an instant in their flight of motion through an instant in time. Sometimes sculpture is, in this way, like an instant snapshot by a camera, freezing the "dance" of its subject as it moves. Often the instant of "frozen dance" time in a sculpture is a moment of great beauty, tension, ugliness, or other extreme feeling.
In fact, the history of sculpture often is a history of feeling. The very earliest sculptures we have of people and animals from early civilizations often had less feeling to them and were more like a snapshot of an average or typical person, animal, or object at that time. If, for example, the sculpture was of a king or queen, it was of a typical king in his typical activities, even if his face was personalized to show a specific individual. However, as "sculptors"--those who make sculptures--became increasingly more talented in ancient times, they developed the ability to show movement and, more important, emotion in their subjects. The result was something like the difference between a poor class photo for a yearbook vs. a dynamic sports page picture of someone arching in the air while hitting a ball. Good sculpture tells a story--the story of the event, the feelings of the subject, and the feelings of those who may be viewing the subject. Great sculpture often goes one step further. It shows conflict: a problem, tension with need and a hope for a resolution. This storytelling capacity that often exists--or is subtly implied--in well done sculpture is much like that of the art of storytelling in literature. (See the chapter "Literature: The Language of Art.")
Each type of medium affects this story, this tension, differently. Here, for example, are some of the emotional affects of different sculptural mediums:
wood -- Wood often is known for being a warmer, softer medium, especially when compared to stone.
stone -- A harder, often cooler or even cold medium, emotions in stone partly depend on its color.
clay -- This earth-based material is a more flowing--thus emotionally smoother and varied--medium with medium to high warmth.
metal -- Metals have very different properties: copper, for example, is much warmer than steel; aluminum is very shiny/reflective.
glass -- Brittle by nature, it conveys more delicacy and brittleness emotionally. Clear glass conveys an airy tone; other tones depend on color.
light -- Alive with energy, sparkling and attractive in tone, its colors and movements (circling, pulsing, darting, etc.) convey a wide range of emotional tones and tensions.
water -- Fountains are forms of water sculpture. Water suggests slippery, transparent, bubbly emotions, but its color can change this dramatically.
flower garden/design -- Flowers in sculptural form often convey bright, joyful emotions because of their strong colors.
wood, brick, clay, stone, metal, and glass as building materials -- When used in architecture, these sculptural mediums usually convey solidity and protection (in part because this is what people expect of substantial buildings), with other qualities depending especially on color and shape.
The medium--or type of material--often is the most easily noticed part of a sculpture. This may be why medium also is the first method of categorizing and analyzing it.
Practical Versus Decorative
Another an important and well known division in sculpture is between the purely decorative vs. the practical. The decorative is pure art for arts' sake--to touch and to see for aesthetic pleasure. But the practical--even though it embodies all the same values as the decorative--has an additional quality: it is also for common use, like pottery, silverware, buildings, or an artistically designed clock or lamp. Here are examples of each:
sculpture of a person in a park
Craft vs. Art
Yet another way of classifying some sculptural and other art forms is by "craft" vs. "art." "Art" is something made to be beautiful and usually made just once (though copies of it may later be made by dealers in art). A "craft" item, however, usually is an artistic piece that is made expressly for--or is--a reproduced item in exact or similar form for regular sales. Often craft items are three dimensional, hence their reputation for being sculpture or related to sculpture.
Popular examples of crafted items include pottery, woven baskets, designer clothing, carved canes, silverware, et al. But while most crafted items tend to be practical, this is not always so. At craft fairs across the world, one can see not only the items just mentioned but also groups of similarly made items of paintings, art prints, jewelry, stained-glass windows, wind chimes, and many other items that, though made in exactly the same way or in similar ways, are primarily art. Thus no hard and fast line exists between art and craft: most good craft items are intended to be art. However, with crafted items, usually at some point the question of economic value--how many can one sell to make a living--comes into play. Thus "craft" and "craftsperson" (as opposed to "art" and "artist" becomes a designation for those who sell repeatable units of their art: such people are both artists and craftspeople, playing two roles in their lives to make a living.
Abstract vs. Representational
A third way of classifying types of sculptural forms is "representational" vs. "abstract." While it is useful to understand these two opposites in other art forms, in the sculptural forms they are not only absolutely necessary but also much easier to understand and even appreciate. Reviewing what representational and abstract art are, first, will help you develop a better understanding of how they exist in the sculptural arts.
Henry Moore, Family Group, 1949, cast 1950–1, bronze. Creative Commons
License. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/moore-family-group-n06004. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
This famous sculpture, Family Group by Henry Moore, combines elements of both representational art and abstract art. What are the representational or "real," identifiable elements? What has been abstracted or made "unreal"? How do the abstracted parts or elements emphasize, symbolize, or identify the feelings of the represented figures?
Most of us are generally aware of the difference between "representational" or recognizable subjects in art on the one hand and, on the other, abstract or "nonrepresentational"--not recognizable--art subjects. The highly representational is, as we might expect, art subjects that are immediately and easily identifiable: faces in ancient sculptures and in medieval and renaissance portraits, for example; statues of historical personages in town and city squares; photographs of real events; and music with a regular, repeating melody, chorus, and certain emotional feeling. Most of what we think of as "public art"--art seen and appreciated by large numbers of people--is highly representational art.
At the other extreme is the entirely abstract. It is not recognizable as any particular real object: rather, it is an "objectless" group of lines, colors, or other artistic elements that don't seem like anything in reality. Instead, abstract art often creates a feeling of some kind in its viewers (if it creates anything at all--many viewers find nothing worth seeing in entirely abstract art). Examples of entirely abstract art are paintings that have nothing but a swirl or splotch of color or lines, musical pieces that seem to have no harmony or direction, and statues more often in larger cities with unidentifiable curves, points, and spaces.
The middle ground between these is an area that is composed of partly representational and partly abstract art. Most people consider such art to actually be representational--or real enough to understand--even though they also contain abstract elements. One example of partly representational and partly abstract art is the famous paintings of the impressionists such as Van Gogh (said to be the most popular painter in the world), Cezanne, Gauguin, and many others. If you view such paintings from the proper distance (anywhere from five to thirty feet), it is usually easy to see real objects--people and things--in them. However, if you view them from a few inches or, sometimes, a foot or two away, they are just a layering of colors and lines that mean nothing. In other words, the details are abstract, but the whole--the overall elements of the paintings--resolve into recognizable subjects.
Likewise, jazz music is a mixture of representational and abstract. It often uses repeating, recognizable melodies, harmonies, and choruses; however, it also often has elements of discord and anti-harmony in it that sound and feel like disturbed or uncontrollable emotions. Such music mixes elements of both representation and abstraction.
A third example is in dance. Many dance performances tell stories, especially those performed by modern and classical ballet companies. If we are given the story ahead of time--either by a title or a description in a program for the show--then sometimes we can follow the story. An excellent example of storytelling in dance is The Nutcracker; another famous work is Swan Lake. Each has a distinct story line with distinct plots, characters, and sub-plots. However, individual movements of limbs and of dancers moving with and against each other often are determined by artistic license--by the artful decisions made in advance by the company performing the ballet. These movements are not individually identifiable as a particular object, event, or action by the audience--they are abstract to the audience, conveying symbolic or emotional meanings.
However, the overall result--in a well done performance--is an
enhancement of the main story line and an emotional portrait of the characters
and events in that story. These examples all demonstrate that much of art
is not completely representational nor completely abstract but rather something
One of the great open secrets about the sculptural arts is that many of them lie between these two extremes or actually exist more as abstract art--and yet people of all cultural types are very comfortable with sculptural forms' abstractions. Perhaps the most important reason is that all of nature--not to mention human-built forms--are, basically, abstract sculptural forms.
That is, the trees, skyscrapers, houses, arching bridges, playground equipment, landscaping,
and many other forms we see every day--and which we sometimes think about in
terms of their beauty (or lack of it)--are abstract sculptural forms. On
the one hand, when we view paintings or listen to music or experience other
"serious" of "official" art, we tend to think easily and quickly about the
degree or amount to which we like or dislike abstraction. However, when we
view nature, buildings, and other such forms, we do not think in terms of
abstract vs. representational. Instead, nature and buildings are what they
are. And we have become accustomed since childhood not only in viewing
such things but also in deciding for ourselves--or feeling intuitively and
emotionally--whether we like or dislike them, how they make us feel, and whether
we like to be around them. So, in important ways, we are very accustomed
to perceiving sculptural forms as abstractions with which we are
comfortable--and about which we make aesthetic judgments without even
considering whether we "like" or "dislike" abstract art.
For this reason, too, the sculptural forms can provide an excellent introduction or entry into the concept of abstraction in art. If you think about why and how you enjoy natural and human-made abstract sculptural forms, examine what you consider beautiful, what not, and why, then it is much easier to develop an appreciation for two-dimensional abstract art such as paintings and drawings. Another step or direction is then to consider dance in all its abstract and semi-abstract forms, and let yourself learn to respond to its movements as you might to a beautiful tree, flower, or building. And...once you've learned to respond to the abstractions of dance in this way, the next step might be to consider abstract music, especially if you start with the music that almost always accompanies dance. From dance music it is then a simple step, in experiencing art, to starting your appreciation of the varieties of abstractions in music.
Architecture deserves a special mention in sculptural form because it is uniquely different from most other sculptural forms. One difference is that buildings--and the act of building them--has existed for tens of thousands of years as a primarily practical activity. However, it is natural, perhaps even instinctual, for humans to also want their buildings to look nice, whether they are simple sheds or grand skyscrapers. Another difference is that the great majority of architectural achievements--whether they are blueprints for mass-produced garages or basic brick-on-brick multistory buildings--are usually first considered in terms of their practical uses. Only secondarily, if at all, are they considered for their beauty.
Sydney Opera House, Australia. Photo: semuthutan. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/45c38cd9-9e72-4acc-ab2b-497f7c122c86. Retrieved 1 Apr. 2020.
This night photo of the Sydney Opera House dramatizes its unusual roof. Each "sail" has many windows, letting in top-floor light. The Opera House shows how architecture can join the practical with the beautiful.
Yet even if most people look upon architectural works for their practical uses, architects themselves almost always consider some aspect of beauty (or lack of it) in their planning. The reason is simply that, at the least, a building will be acceptable or not acceptable to people because of their perception of its beauty or ugliness. In architecture involving a building or even a landscaping or similar activity of any size, the art happens mostly in the planning.
A first consideration in architectural planning is the cultural setting. A "beautiful" building usually is one that seems to fit in to its location and society, and like other forms of art, the definition of beauty and ugliness varies from culture to culture and age to age. A mud shed in an African desert village and a sheet metal shed in a South American rainforest village would be considered unacceptable by both societies if they were exchanged, partly just because of the weather conditions in each place. But some of the differences between these two sheds and their locations would be associated with what the villagers are used to seeing: if the sheds were exchanged, the result in each village might be like dropping a wildly abstract building from a modern city into the middle of the orderly buildings of ancient Rome: the strangeness of it would make many people feel uncomfortable, so the building would be considered ugly. Architecture, more so than many other art forms, must carefully consider the culture in which buildings will be built.
A second consideration in architectural planning is the materials, and a third is the physical location. Yet another is the needs that the materials and location--the building or other architectural piece--must serve. All of these must be taken into consideration. For this reason, architecture is a particularly demanding art form, as much as or more so than practical sculpture, which also must withstand the test not only of beauty but also of function. Even so, a great architectural work is, in itself, a form of great sculpture--a type of "frozen dance"--that hovers or squats before us, becoming one with earth, sky, or nearby landscape, or resisting them in an artistic counter tempo.
In conclusion, to most appreciate sculpture, you should touch it, run your hands over it, and feel its movements and angles--if you are allowed, in order to feel the power and beauty of it. In addition, you may appreciate it more if you imagine it before and after the minute of its being "frozen" in time: what did it look and feel like before its "freezing"; and what would it look like if it continued to move? Third, how does it fit into its surroundings--most sculptures either are made with their surroundings in mind or are, at the least, chosen after their making because they so well fit into their surroundings, whether in terms of their flow and look, or in terms of their symbolism.
Finally, imagine you are the artist. How and why might you have made your choices in the way you formed it? Appreciating sculpture with your hands, your eyes, and your imagination will help it come alive in your mind and in real life for you.
Images in Chapter Title—Two Rodin sculptures:
*First Image: The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, modeled ca. 1880, cast ca. 1910, bronze. www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/191811. Retrieved 1 Apr. 2020.
**Second Image: Horse, early 8th cent. CE, unknown artist, China, e https://collections.artsmia.org/art/790/horse-china. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
Most recent revision of text: 17 Mar. 2020