Sculpture and the Sculptural

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Transcript of Sculpture and the Sculptural

  • American Society for Aesthetics and Wiley are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

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    Sculpture and the Sculptural Author(s): Erik Koed Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Spring, 2005), pp. 147-154Published by: on behalf of Wiley American Society for AestheticsStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3700468Accessed: 28-11-2015 06:31 UTC

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  • ERIK KOED

    Sculpture and the Sculptural

    Pictures and the pictorial are the subjects of a burgeoning philosophical literature. Sculpture and the sculptural, by contrast, have received little attention. What recent philosophical thought there has been has focused almost exclusively on the nature of sculpture, rather than the sculptural, and has sought to under- stand the art form primarily in terms of the physical characteristics of art materials and the role of our perceptual and cognitive faculties in appreciation. I will argue that these theories fail to provide an adequate conception of sculpture, or its differences from painting and pictures. Instead, I develop a theory of the sculptural in terms of a distinctive way of using materials as an artistic medium. Such an account enables us to understand the sculptural features of artworks whether or not they are sculptures, painting, or other kinds of work. I build on this account of the sculptural to suggest that the category of sculpture can best be understood in terms of the relationship of works to a tradition of art prac- tice in which the sculptural use of materials is standard. This conception of sculpture and the sculptural, I suggest, has explanatory utility and is evaluatively relevant without being overly prescriptive.

    I. THEORIES OF THE NATURE OF SCULPTURE

    Physical three-dimensionality

    In its most basic form, this idea holds simply that sculptures are those art objects that are three-dimensional. The contrast here may be with a conception of the pictorial arts as being two-dimensional. Whereas painters and pho- tographers and the like produce flat objects,

    sculptors produce objects in the round. This typical commonsense thought is widely assumed in the philosophical literature. Herbert Read, for example, asserts that "the peculiarity of sculpture as an art is that it creates a three-dimensional object in space," whereas painting "may strive to give, on a two-dimensional plane, the illusion of space."' Similarly, F. David Martin maintains the traditional view that sculpture is basically three-dimensional and painting two-dimensional.2 Naum Gabo ("sculpture is three-dimensional eo ipso") and L. R. Rogers ("what basically dis- tinguishes sculpture from painting is...the mundane and marvelous fact that it extends three-dimensionally rather than two-dimension- ally") are among those sculptors who have made similar theoretical claims.3

    The problem with this idea considered in its most basic form is that all instantiated or embodied artworks, including pictorial works, are three-dimensional in their material construc- tion. It follows that the distinctive nature of the sculptural cannot lie in its physical three- dimensionality. Of course, sculptures may typically be less "flat" than paintings, but this neither grounds a distinctive sculptural nature, nor offers us the resources for explaining why sculptural works may generally be "rounder" than paintings.

    Robert Vance gives this idea a more sophisti- cated form. Vance claims that "sculptures are objects designed in three dimensions" and that "what counts for sculpture is real occupancy of space."4 But while the notion of design gives access to a way of distinguishing sculpted from natural objects, it cannot distinguish them from other kinds of artworks that are also designed and fashioned out of three-dimensional materials and for which the "real occupancy of space"

    The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63:2 Spring 2005

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  • 148 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

    matter. A similar approach would be to suggest that although pictorial works may be constructed from three-dimensional materials, only their two-dimensional surface properties are artisti- cally relevant, whereas three-dimensional properties are artistically relevant to our appreciation of sculptural works. But we have to be careful here, for there are a number of ways three-dimensional properties might be artistically relevant, and at least some of these ways seem standard to pictorial arts such as painting. As will be discussed further in Section II, paintings take their appearance and embody their two-dimensional properties in virtue of their three-dimensional construction, and this relationship often plays a role in our appreciation of them. An appeal to differences in the artistic relevance of the two- and three- dimensional in the pictorial and the sculptural cannot be explained simply by an appeal to the dimensional qualities of material.

    Perceptual modes

    A second approach to the question is to argue that the nature of the sculpture can be understood in terms of the essential role in appreciation of one or more modes of sensory perception, such as touch. Read, for example, holds that sculpture is "an art of palpation" that gives preference to tactile sensations.5 But touch does not have a necessary role in our appreciation of sculptural works, for there are many instances of sculptures that cannot or are not intended to be touched, and also for which touch has no role in appreciation. Think, for example, of most monumental statuary, Dan Flavin's Neon sculptures, Naum Gabo's flimsy and convoluted forms, or even Damien Hirst's animals preserved behind glass in formaldehyde, all of which are clearly inten- ded to operate and be appreciated primarily in terms of their visual effects. Further, a strong case has been made by Dominic Lopes for the possibility of "tactile pictures," on the basis of the ability of the blind to both create and interpret complex raised-line perspectival drawings (more on this in Section II).6

    Perceptual phenomena

    A third general approach appeals to the dis- tinctive phenomenal content of our perceptual

    experience. Read, for example, claims that our experience of sculpture has "nothing in com- mon with visual perception, i.e., with the visual impression of a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional plane," since sculptures (unlike pictures) utilize actual rather than illusory space.7 F. David Martin claims that the nature of the sculpture lies in the distinctive way it manifests itself in our perceptions, in particular a phenomenon he calls "enlivened space" or "impacting between" that makes the space around sculpture a perceptible part of the work in virtue of a sculpture's location in a space continuous with our own.8 Similarly, Susanne K. Langer argues that sculpture is characterized by a dis- tinctive variety of virtual space, understood in terms of the way our experience of space is structured or organized in our experience of the work. According to Langer, as distinct from painting, "a piece of sculpture is a center of three-dimensional space. It is a virtual kinetic volume, which dominates the surrounding space, and this environment derives all proportions and relations from it, as the actual environment does from oneself."9

    The space of sculptural works is often conti- nuous with our own space, but this is neither always nor exclusively the case, for it seems that the space of the work may be related to our space in a variety of ways in both painting and sculpture. The apparent space of either kind of work can seem continuous or discontinuous with our own; and the space represented in a work can be represented as located in or dislo- cated from our own space. Familiar arguments undermine the notion that picturing is a matter of illusion, although some kinds of pictures do give the illusion of space (for example, trompe-l'oeil paintings).10 Read's distinction between sculpture and painting in terms of actual and illusory space is undermined by the fact that spatial illusion may also be an import- ant feature of sculptural works. In George Rickey's Two Lines sculptures, for example, it is hard to judge from any perspective the length and angle of projection of the twin offset blades. Nor need spatial illusions be confined to vision-things may, for example, sound further away than they really are. With respect to Mar- tin's and Lange's theses, it should be noted that large abstract color-field paintings and trompe- l'oeil painting are examples of types of pictorial

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  • Koed Sculpture and the Sculptural 149

    works that create an apparent space that imposes itself on us in perception in this man- ner, or that forms a kinetic center around which our experience of the space of the work and its location is structured. Conversely, some very frontal sculptural works, such as statua