Sculpture’s location in the midst of the real

By Maarten Doorman

Art historians and other scholars in the field of art, like philosophers, seldom ask themselves the questions artists, devotees and collectors are suffering from. They are and have to be focussed on established academic traditions since there is an essential difference between the discours of their disciplines and that of the practices in which art is created, criticised, bought and estimated. This is the case for sculpture as well. Quite a few people in the field have great doubts about the identity of sculpture, its place in society and in this new era. Nearly every sculptor nowadays lives and works in an uncertainty that is different from the usual forms of doubt that belong to a subjective activity as art. In his inspiring Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (1999) the art historian and critic Thomas McEvilley presents a new view on the twentieth century history of sculpture, departing from the scepticism of Duchamp up to the postmodern works of the last generation.[1] He explains brilliantly how an age of doubt has defined the field of sculpture. Nevertheless, his book raises the question, where these doubts come from, and, not less important, if there are any answers to this uncertainty?

Sculpture has been unassailable for centuries. Literally and figuratively it has stood on a pedestal, elevated in such a way as to lend credence to the second of the Ten Commandments. What is it that gives us the right to create an idol, whether in the form of something from heaven above, the earth below or the subterranean waters? We have been in awe of sculpture for too long. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in Pushkin’s classic poem The Bronze Horseman (1833). The poem describes the fate of the poor young Yevgeny who is being chased by the impressive equestrian statue by Étienne Maurice Falconet of Tsar Peter the Great (1782) after a ruinous flood in Saint Petersburg:

About the Image, at its base,
Poor mad Yevgeny circled, straining
His wild gaze upward at the face
That once o’er half the world was reigning.[2]

In these lines from Pushkin, sculpture not so much evokes admiration as violently commands respect. For Yevgeny, in his frenzied state, it is as if Tsar Peter steps down from his pedestal:

All night the madman flees; no matter
Where he may wander at his will,
Hard on his track with heavy clatter
There the bronze horseman gallops still.[3]

If we view this horseman with his striking imperial presence as a symbol of sculpture far into the twentieth century, we can understand why this art form was so vehemently contested during that century: from Duchamp’s provocative urinal (1917) through to Edward Kienholz’s undermining of the official sculptural tradition with his Portable War Memorial (1968), Gilbert and George’s The Singing Sculpture (1970) in which they mimed to a recorded song and Jeff Koons’s porcelain statue of Michael Jackson with his pet chimpanzee (1988). Sculpture came under suspicion because for centuries it had symbolised the power of Church and State. Those who like picture rhyme will vividly recall statues of Lenin in Eastern Europe around 1990, or, more recently, of Saddam Hussein in Iraq being pulled off their pedestals as a way of settling scores with past oppression, and a rhetoric that now filled the iconoclasts with disgust. But there must be other, more intrinsic reasons for sculpture being thrown off its pedestal and threatened with being relegated to history.[4]

Of course this public debasing of statues can be interpreted as a manifestation of the culmination of what had happened in Western democracy, with its vanishing heroes and widespread suspicion of politics. It can also be seen as the result of a more global suspicion of the arts in general that emerged during the twentieth century.[5] It can even be understood as part of a much longer tradition of iconoclastic fury, that of the never-ending fight against the golden calf, as exemplified, for example, in Afghanistan in 2001, when the Taleban destroyed the colossal two-thousand-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas. But such an approach is too broad and too much focussed on religious preoccupations. More revealing questions to ask are what form this traditional iconoclasm took in Western art during the twentieth century, and what the state of sculpture is today. Has sculpture not paradoxically dissolved in today’s visual culture? Has the crushing weight of all the visual information and design not achieved precisely what the Taleban – and earlier sixteenth-century Protestant iconoclasts – accomplished with their passion for destruction? How can sculpture give satisfaction in the new millennium?

Such questions only make sense when seen within the context of the great changes that the arts both underwent and initiated during the twentieth century. As such, we must look more closely at these changes. The avant-garde viewed them as beneficial – and they were, since they resulted in an impressive century of sculpture. But benefit in the long run often goes hand in hand with loss, a loss which, unfortunately, only becomes visible in retrospect, thus making the effects of the changes more difficult to assess. Let us take a brief look at four of the major changes that affected sculpture during the past century: abstraction, conceptualisation, crossover and loss of aura.[6]

Ultimately, most art historians will agree that the modernist view of twentieth-century history offers a limited perspective. Since 2004, the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York no longer takes the visitor chronologically past Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon through the subsequent highlights of art history. We don’t view art history through the eyes of the avant-garde anymore, understanding art works as milestones in history. But this does not mean there is nothing more to say about some important developments in the last century.[7] We can maintain, for example, that the emergence of abstraction in painting at the beginning of the twentieth century had an equally important effect on sculpture, though the transition to abstraction in sculpture may have taken place less abruptly than in painting, where Vladimir Kandinsky, the Constructivists and De Stijl, impelled by Futurism and Cubism, presented a completely different world within only a few years. Yet with sculpture such as Constantin Brancusi’s Bird (1912), Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s The Horse (1914) and Umberto Boccioni’s Horse + Rider + Houses (1915), a great step forwards – or sideways – was taken in establishing what sculpture can be or can achieve. Thanks to the titles of these works and to the Cubist and Futurist idioms of form, these works still seem to be images of reality, but there are few traces of iconic resemblance and so they will not incite iconoclasts.

But iconic resemblance was not what it was about. In a conversation about one of his most famous works, Bird in Space (1927), Brancusi said: (...) for forty-five years, I make birds. It is not the bird that I wish to express but its gift, its flight, its élan’.[8] In those days, the shiny piece of copper was not even recognised as a work of art by customs officials when it was imported into the United States; they wondered whether it was a kitchen utensil or a piece of hospital equipment. Apparently the work had dispensed with its task of depicting and therefore with being identified, thus rising above and escaping its earthly origins.[9]

This is not to say that all abstract sculpture had become incomprehensible. Examples of what Clemence Greenberg in 1949 called ‘New Sculpture’ illustrate a new optical approach in which sculpture is understood by sight and intellect and not by ‘bodily presence’ only.[10] They made it clear that the quality of ‘non-recognition’ was relative. Those who have seen Louise Bourgeois’s The Blind Leading the Blind (c. 1947-49, Becon Collection Ltd, New York) – a work as beautiful as it is abstract – will immediately understand that the black and red legs stand for two groups of blind people, that the shapes of painted wood are suggestive of the stiff and groping movements of the sightless and that the horizontal elements are a reference both to their helping each other and to their shared imprisonment. However, the abstraction of minimalism, which followed a few years later, was a source of discomfort, especially when it manifested itself publicly. In 1989, Richard Serra’s metres-wide, not-rustproof steel sculpture Tilted Arc (1981) was removed from the Federal Plaza in New York City and demolished: in the eyes of many, the abstract sculpture represented nothing at all; moreover, it was considered hideous.[11] Here, abstraction obviously no longer convinced, at least not in the public space; it missed expression and urgency.

Not only did sculpture abandon its direct reference to the visible world, it also relinquished material. That is to say, it became increasingly conceptual, with, in the end, the focus often being more on making a statement or reflecting a theory. What you saw or what was actually physically present was no longer very relevant. The American philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto has articulated this most clearly. He explains how the visual arts gradually failed to book any progress in achieving their original goal – that of depicting the world – once photography and film became so successful in doing so. Nor could any progress be detected in the expressive function of art, so that, in the end, art could only develop along conceptual lines.[12] This conceptual development began with Marcel Duchamp, who upset all existing definitions of art with his bottle rack, bicycle wheel and urinal. Making art from trivial objects created confusion about the difference between art and non-art. But, according to Danto in The Madonna of the Future (2001), this confusion is something entirely different from misjudging art by mistaking it for an everyday object, as the customs officers did with Brancusi’s sculpture.[13] Danto sees Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) as a decisive moment in the development of conceptualism: without a theory, such a work can no longer be seen as art. Objects themselves become redundant and art becomes philosophy. This, he states provocatively, means the end of art or, rather, of art history.[14]

That artists today have the freedom to create anything they like without having to consider the era in which they live would seem to be a comfortable pluralistic deduction. But even disregarding this apparent randomness, Danto’s views have another disadvantage: they suggest that all art seems to have become conceptual. What is more, in cases where objects may have the right to exist by virtue of their pronounced use of material and space – as in the minimalist sculptures of David Smith, Carl Andre or Donald Judd – the commentary has become more essential than the material itself. As Hilton Kramer put it: ‘The more minimal the art, the more maximum the explanation’.[15] And so, for Danto, the pressing question arises as to whether a work of art is necessary at all. Seen in a Dutch television documentary walking around Warhol’s Brillo Boxes in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Danto observes how strange it is that the filmmakers have travelled all the way from Amsterdam to Philadelphia via New York just to see Duchamp’s Bottle Rack and Warhol’s boxes.[16] There are so many similar bottle racks in Europe and what’s so special about boxes of soap pads anyway? According to him, if you see them merely as a philosophical problem, you don’t have to see them in reality anymore. In this aesthetical tradition Richard J. Williams can write in his After modern sculpture (2000) that ‘(T)he ideas, the manifestos or articles, published in Artforum and elsewhere, are not treated as supplements to the sculpture. In many respects they are the sculpture.’[17]

So why continue making sculptures and building new museums when all you have to do is philosophise in your own room?[18] If art is merely theory, it ceases to be art, or, in the best of cases, it becomes something temporary that can be disposed of at the end of the exhibition or the performance. Many people saw the disposal of Serra’s Tilted Arc as an integral part of the work. In the case of Christo’s wrapped-up buildings, the bureaucratic preparations that precede the wrapping are considered as much a part of the work of art as the visible, temporary result. After the sculpture is unwrapped, nothing remains but that which was already there in the first place, together with a voluminously documented bureaucratic procedure. This conceptual approach echoes a view about sculpture in public places often heard today: namely, sculpture is about the project, the idea, the performance, the communication, or, even better, the process. Such an approach makes anything possible, including the reality that sculptures themselves may no longer be visible as such, or that sculpture as an art form may disappear altogether. But whoever is afraid of this must first know what sculpture is – because how do you know what you’ve lost if you don’t know what it was in the first place?

This is a difficult question to answer for those who are not easily satisfied with dictionary definitions. Take, for instance, Gilbert and George’s The Singing Sculpture (1969). In this work the two sculptors stood on a table dressed in suits and mimed to a music-hall song, taking turns coming down from the pedestal to re-start the tape recorder. They denied that the work was a parody of sculpture, and, of course, the discourse of a gallery differs from sculpture in the public sphere. And metaphorically it might even be suggested that, as a living sculpture, it ultimately breathed new life into the art of sculpture itself, as in Yevgeny’s frenzied dream.. The titel told us it was sculpture, but was it sculpture, or was it rather a performance? Were Bruce Naumann’s video installations – they were, after all, three-dimensional works of art – sculptures? And what about Dan Graham’s small pavilions, or Per Kirkeby’s brick structures? Were they not just examples of architecture? When, if at all, did Frank Stella’s later paintings become sculpture? And why are Lawrence Weiner’s word pieces often considered sculpture?[19]

The question arises as to whether it really matters if something is seen as sculpture or another art form. For those reflecting on the present state of sculpture, the answer is that it does. Of course we can say there are no longer boundaries between the visual arts, that this is merely a problem for the art historians and philosophers with their scholarly need for clarity. This is precisely why so many contemporary works of art are simply called ‘objects’. What does it matter if sculpture is no longer distinct from painting, performance, open-space planning, design, furniture, installations, philosophy, architecture, choreography, ideas, pop music or ‘process’? It is too easy, though, to shrug off this question, which, after all, preoccupies museums, sponsors, the public, critics and artists alike, all for different reasons. By not posing the question, you also run the risk of missing a clue to sculpture’s future direction, because the mixing of genres and art forms – today called crossover – is as old as Romanticism at least.

In the Romantic order, the creative urge of the artist became paramount, though this conflicted with the traditional rules that had existed until the eighteenth century (though these rules, too, were subject to change). With Romanticism, the artist began looking for boundaries that could be crossed. In his Fragmente, Novalis wrote that music, the visual arts and poetry are synonymous.[20] This is just one formulation of many that denies the existence of boundaries between the different art forms and between art and the world. Paradoxically, at the same time and with the same purpose, boundaries were also articulated, because those seeking boundaries to cross had to set new boundaries in order to be able to cross them.[21]

This is why so much has been written on art since Romanticism created this dialectics of crossing borders: both the artist and the critic need to explain what it is the artist does, and which new, self-imposed boundaries need to be crossed. It is in this dialectic interaction – between the crossing of existing boundaries and the creating of new ones – that the deeper root of conceptual art lies. Not only is reflection required; in the end, reflection is incorporated into the art itself, notwithstanding the equally romantic cliché that states that art is an expression of feeling. The Romantic order, which persists to the present day, sees any art form as hybrid from the outset. According to Friedrich Schlegel’s famous Athenaeum Fragment 116 (1798), in which ‘poetry’ can be taken for art in general, Romanticism has a programmed desire to ‘to reunite all the separate genres of poetry and to put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric … to fuse poetry and prose, genius and criticism, the poetry of the educated and the poetry of the people.’[22]

With such an aspiration, and, above all, given the success of this aspiration during the past thirty years, it would seem that a robust form of sculpture, in the material sense – in the tradition, say, of The Bronze Horseman – is scarcely possible anymore. To formulate the hybridisation even more suggestively: do Gilbert and George’s living sculptures contribute to the vitality of sculpture as an art form, or do they promote the death of the same genre by eroding its very identity?

The idea that a work of art is unique has been under attack for years. All great works of visual art are available in reproduction – as photographs, or, for about a decade now, simply through the click of a mouse. And those who wish to see the ‘real’ work of art can do so thanks to air travel, credit cards, car rentals and sometimes even Google Earth. Walter Benjamin’s perception that works of art have lost their aura because of mechanical reproduction has been endlessly repeated, thereby losing some of its own aura, but it cannot be overlooked in this context. The demystification of art is still in full swing.

The vast quantity of images imposing itself on us today has unquestionably diminished the value of many traditional works of art forever; these are increasingly being marketed as articles for consumption: Mona Lisa key rings, Brueghelian ‘Peasant Wedding Feast’ placemats, Mondriaan mugs, Rembrandt pens, books and CD covers, and so on. Further, new works of art are also appearing at a faster pace every day and are increasingly readily available. Owing to the spectacular increase in the quantity and the vast improvement in the quality of reproductions, scarcely anything remains of the magical aura paintings once had in a world that was virtually devoid of images. The impact of seeing a painting in Rome after a hazardous journey of many months or of seeing a patron saint in a stained glass window pierced by rays of sunlight when not a single image had been seen for weeks, is a situation we can hardly imagine today in our ubiquitous visual culture.

Of course there is a difference between painting, photography and film on the one hand and sculpture on the other: the latter is three-dimensional. While works of art of the first three genres can be made accessible – and endlessly reproduced – in magazines, on the internet and television, and in an ever-improving quality due to the increasing number of pixels and size of digital memories, this is not the case for sculpture. However, replicas of sculptures have been made since ancient times, and in the eighteenth century making sculptural replicas developed into a small industry. When Goethe travelled through Italy and saw a sculpture that impressed him, he had a plaster cast made of it. Today, via the internet, we can order copies of Michelangelo’s David to scale, for just $24.99 a piece (excluding postage), and of many other famous pieces of sculpture.

So, adding the development of abstraction, conceptualization, and hybridization to this loss of aura and uniqueness, the question about the place sculpture occupies in today’s world can again be asked. Then in the first place a distinction must be made between sculpture and painting, photography and cinema: much more than these art forms, a sculpture is an object that occupies space. And as well as occupying space, it carries with it the meaning that this genre-in-the-third-dimension has accrued during its entire history. Put differently: a sculpture stands in a particular place, and though it does not always necessarily dominate that place – as it did in the case of The Bronze Horseman in Saint Petersburg or Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York – it does make a difference, especially when the place is public or semi-public . In that case the sculpture inevitably has a relationship with the world outside that of the art institutions. It becomes politically relevant and evokes public discussion. It may even be offensive to a particular segment of society, say immigrants, children, religious groups. If it is, what might the consequences be? Who determines this, and why? How do we relate to the traumas or mistakes of the past? What defines the task of the artist and how much freedom does he have? Is sculpture meant to offer reassurance and bring joy, or can it do the opposite, and alarm or even provoke?

No other art form has such a fascinating role to play. Two-dimensional art, enhanced by the possibilities of reproduction, once became dominant and displaced sculpture. But it is precisely because of this development that sculpture has suddenly been revivified. Mechanical reproduction, which reduced the once celebrated art of painting to a more or less marginal genre, has affected sculpture, too, but to a far lesser degree. Sculpture has always been about material and space. Painting, on the other hand, as American critic and art historian Thomas McEvilley argued, has always been about illusionism. Painting, he writes, in the end ‘means escapist phantasy; sculpture means direct dealing with the material world.’[23]

In the era of modernism and universally accepted certainties, this did not present a problem, but in today’s world of omnipresent visual culture, dominated by complete and utter disbelief, the whole genre is under review again. Painting, McEvilley wrote, ‘was a part of the nightmare of history; sculpture was a way out of it. For perhaps the first time in their long association, sculpture, with its location in the midst of the real, gained the ethical upper hand’.[24] Today, it is almost a juvenile academic reflex to reject modernism in favour of the hopeful-sounding voice of postmodernism. But that ‘location in the midst of the real’ deserves the attention that the postmodernist can scarcely bring himself to give because of his scepticism towards representation in general.

During the course of the last century, the problems raised by abstract art sometimes disappeared again due to conceptualisation. Figurative art returned, or rather, survived because it no longer had to incorporate what in retrospect is relatively simple reference to an unproblematic reality. For any art work now plays a role in a conceptual context as well: even The Bronze Horseman, as far as we still understand it as a work of art.

At the same time, the opinion that all new art is merely theory or philosophy has proved too simple. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes may not be images of boxes of soap pads – that is, they may be of no interest as such – but they do refer to a reality. In a cheerful pop-art manner, they refer to the culture of what was called the ‘consumer society’, as well as to ideals of hygiene and purity. They are also a form of expression, as they represent states of mind dating from the 1960s, that of ironic distance or, possibly, of a Nietzschean Bejahung (‘saying yes to life’) in contrast to the asceticism of Modernism. Moreover, the arrangement of these colourful boxes indisputably has some formal qualities. In other words, it is ill advised to reduce visual or any kind of art to something simple, to a mere representation, expression, philosophy, concept or theory; a good work of art is all of these things at once.[25]

So one might argue that abstraction and conceptualisation do not undermine the vigour of sculpture in the end, so long as it is clear what sculpture is. But what makes sculpture particularly fascinating in this intriguing development is that the problems of the dissolution of a genre and the loss of aura are less applicable here. This is at least true for larger sculptures, especially when they are located in public spaces. The possibility of mechanical reproduction, to refer once again to Benjamin’s formulation, is, in this case, as minimal as the possibility of the loss of aura. In this sense it would seem sculpture has caught up with the other visual arts. Despite sculpture’s drawbacks – sculpture is, after all, difficult to reproduce and sell because of these features – it has gained in popularity and vitality.

The fact that sculpture occupies space makes it an even more powerful genre. Three-dimensionality guarantees a presence in itself so that the once-important pedestal becomes redundant. Moreover, because sculpture consists of things that occupy space, it can fulfil a need that other art forms rarely can: that of lieu de mémoire, of a monument, of a statement in a public space. Sculpture can function as a beacon in that space, as something that renders meaning to its surroundings, thus also fulfilling the need for social relevance, something other art forms often struggle to achieve. This feature is not exactly what local councils and administrators in many European countries always have been looking for or financing in recent years: their focus often has been on ‘creating’ something together with the people of the community, preferring ‘the process’ rather than the result of an artwork that meets the standards of nowadays art criticism.

Considering the new context of sculpture, a fruitfull approach today cannot without the so long criticised standards of the golden calf. All being well, it has the power to evoke admiration, confusion and adoration and to comfort and provoke. Sculpture is essential for the commemorative representation of disasters: think, for example, of the Holocaust Monument by Peter Eisenman unveiled recently in Berlin. [ Before this goes to press there is a refernce in the forthcoming Sculpture Journal (vol.16.2 2007] to this, to which you could perhaps refer... if you could send me the article I’ll have a look on it but probably there’s no time for this and I can’t judge how important the reference would be ...]  But sculpture no longer has to be dominating [preponderant?] like the latter monument or like The Bronze Horseman. It can fill space in lighter, more personal and frivolous ways, even in cemeteries. New technologies offer exciting possibilities. Sculpture can also dominate street life, as it does in Daniel Buren’s Les Deux Plateaux (1985-86) near the Palais Royal in Paris, or it can appear both very subtly and profusely in a tree and be shocking and cheerful at the same time, as in Thomas Schütte’s Tauzend Zungen (Thousand Tongues), exhibited in the Middelheim Museum, Antwerp, since 1993 (fig. 1). Here, the red ceramic tongues are a beautiful example of what sculpture can do: they appear to be the result of something horrible, something that has silenced so many people, but the longer you look and the more of them you see, the more they become birds that might rise up out of the greenery at any moment, as the countless voices through which sculpture will be heard when old sculpture have fallen silent.

[1] T. McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, New York, 1999.

[2] A. Pushkin, ‘The Bronze Horseman’, in Waclaw Lednicki, Pushkin's Bronze Horseman, Berkeley, 1955, pp. 140-151.

[3]  Ibid., p. 150.

[4] A. Causey, Sculpture Since 1945, Oxford, New York, 1998, pp. 16 ff. For an explanation of the literal disappearance of the pedestal see J. Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture. The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century, New York, 1987, pp. 19-48.

[5] For this argument see G. Josipovici, On Trust. Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, New Haven, London, 1999; McEvilley, as at note 1, pp.  3-30.

[6] A. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Princeton, 1997; M. Doorman, Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde, Amsterdam, 2003; M. Doorman, De romantische orde, Amsterdam, 2004; W. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn, New York, 1968; O. Paz, Children of the Mire, trans. R. Philips, Cambridge Mass. 1974; H. Read, Modern Sculpture: A Concise History, London, 1987.

[7] Doorman 2003, as at note 5, pp. 115-146.

[8] Quoted in A. Danto, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, Berkeley and London, 2001, p. 179-180.

[9] Ibid., pp. 178-185.

[10] Causey, as at note 3, pp. 62-71.

[11] Causey, as at note 3, pp. 214-217.

[12] A. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, New York 1986; see also Danto as in note 5.

[13] Danto, as at note 8, pp. 180-184.

[14] Danto, as at note 9, p. 115.

[15] E. Strickland, Minimalism: Origins. Bloomington (IN) 2000, p. 278.

[16] Plaatsbepalingen, Documentary (dir. S. van Schaik), VPRO, 1995

[17] R.J. Williams, After modern sculpture. Art in the United States and Europe 1965-70, Manchester, New York 2000, p. 3.

[18] Doorman 2003, as at note 5, pp. 122-129.

[19] Cf. McEvilley, as at note 1, p. 46.

[20] M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp. Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. London, Oxford, New York 1971, p. 94.

[21] Doorman 2004, as at note 5, pp. 149-174.

[22] Friedrich Schlegel, Schriften und Fragmente, E. Behler (ed.), Stuttgart 1956, p. 93.

[23] McEvilley, as at note 1, p. 42.

[24] McEvilley, as at note 1, p. 41.

[25] Doorman 2003, as at note 5, pp. 124-125.