August 9, 2011

Skepticism about the value of sculpture: "Carib art," as Baudelaire said, racistly.

Translated by Michael Kimmelman, the notion is that "even the suavest, most sophisticated works of unearthly virtuosity by Enlightenment paragons like Canova and Thorvaldsen were tainted by the medium’s primitive, cultish origins."

Kimmelman strips the poet's point of its seeming racism and restates it:
Sculpture does still bear something of the burden of its commemorative and didactic origins. It’s too literal, too direct, too steeped in religious ceremony and too complex for a historically amnesiac culture. We prefer the multicolored distractions of illusionism on flat surfaces, flickering in a movie theater or digitized on our laptops and smartphones, or painted on canvas. The marketplace ratifies our myopia, making headlines for megamillion-dollar sales of old master and Impressionist pictures but rarely for premodern sculptures.
Is this true? I would think that the sculpture we love is precisely that which retains a connection to "primitive" cultures and religious tradition. Even when that stuff is kind of bad, we may feel some emotion worth experiencing. It's all that bad modern sculpture, especially the stuff that clutters our path in the real world that makes us leery of the 3D concoctions of artists. At least paintings stick to the wall.
... Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist painter, notoriously derided [sculpture] as objects we bump into when backing up to look at a painting.
Nowadays, we may not care about looking at the painting either. We have our own goals and destinations, and the paintings stay humbly out of the way, to be looked at if we choose, but the bold efforts of the sculptors rudely occupy our space. The problem with sculpture is not that people today reject the aura of old cults and religions, it's that we are so over the boring, outsized egos of modern artists.

(This rejection of the ego of the modern sculptor was exemplified for all time by the "Tilted Arc" that enraged New Yorkers — what? were they not sophisticated?! — back in the 1980s.)

48 comments:

Fred4Pres said...

Serra's Tilted Arc conflicted with the expectations of the users of that building. Having been there to see it, all I could think it was a banal and boring building, the arc was not particularly attractive either, but the combination of the two sparked some reaction.

Fred4Pres said...

Skepticism about the value of sculpture usually comes from those who do not have the least ability to produce it.

bagoh20 said...

What would an art critic think of a sculpture of a man with a stick up his ass?

A: He wouldn't notice the stick.

Fred4Pres said...

McQueen exhibit in New York? Damn. I was hoping for this.

gerry said...

"...outsized egos of modern artist."

Indeed: Of his work The Tilted Arc Richard Serra said "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing" and "Art is not democratic. It is not for the people."

Ann Althouse said...

"Skepticism about the value of sculpture usually comes from those who do not have the least ability to produce it."

So? There are many things I can't make that I might still validly object to. My point is that sculpture occupies space that many people would prefer to be left open. These people can make *nothing,* which is all they want there.

What exasperates me is all the shit on the premises of public buildings, put there because is is legislatively required. Replace it with nothing!

Ann Althouse said...

"Of his work The Tilted Arc Richard Serra said "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing" and "Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.""

Click on my link at the end of the post for discussion of those quotes.

Ann Althouse said...

Discussion by me.

Fred4Pres said...

It is perfectly okay to criticize Serra's arc for being a waste of public monies. I do believe art , when it done well, elevates one. I will give that tilted arc one thing, it sure sparked some conversations. That does not mean I thought it was a particularly great work of art (it was not), nor do I think it should have stayed there aginst the wishes of most of the people working in that building. But dismissing the value of sculpture because of Serra's rusty wall of metal or other far more offensive and crappy works?

That makes no sense.

Fred4Pres said...

We should great great public and private buildings and art because they make us better. And because we can.

Banal soulless shells with crappy meaningless "art" will speak volumes to those who study us centuries from now.

Chip Ahoy said...

What was wrong with the giant teardrop memorial? Too overt? Too maudlin? Too uni-testicular. Too hard to climb on?

bagoh20 said...

"What exasperates me is all the shit on the premises of public buildings, put there because is is legislatively required. Replace it with nothing!"

I prefer something to nothing, but for me the problem is that the deciders of what gets put out always seem to have the same sensibility, taste and I bet political opinion.

It's an aversion to anything traditional European or ancient. It often needs to be inorganic and indecipherable, unless hitting you over the head with a message about the plight of the underdog.

For me the wonder of sculpture is how something formless and dead comes alive and talks to you either in whispers or bravado, but not in either the voice of social studies teacher nor an incoherent lunatic with delusion of grandeur.

roesch-voltaire said...

I admit that good public sculpture is a challenge-for a bad example one only has to view the bug -dung pile of footballs that mark the UW football stadium. But he seems to make contradictory claims about sculpture as both literal and complex. I find this totem of simple and complex of hinting at something else can be powerful. I think of Yue Minjun's Contemporary Warriors who show the mindless happy uniformity of China, now showing at the Milwaukee Art Center, as a powerful example of sculpture.

Smilin' Jack said...

Skepticism about the value of sculpture usually comes from those who do not have the least ability to produce it.

One needn't be a hen to judge an egg.

mrkwong said...

By and large, I will take the work of the engineer over the work of the artist.

When the engineer has a sense of artistry, and can produce something that combines form and function in such harmony as the Boeing 727, the Ford GT40, or the Royal Albert Bridge, so much the better.

Carol_Herman said...

Bawdylair said that?

Sometimes, the ocean throws up art on the shore. On purpose, China used to mine this. (Or was it Japan?)

Very big boulders were thrown into the sea. And, 100 years later a grandchild would harvest this stuff. Seeing is believing. There was much to admire.

As to art, it's just like beauty. We've been tamed by the camera's eye. Before that, you depended on people who could draw. And, you judged them good if what they drew entertained your eye. And, even more bore a striking resemblance.

Heck, as much as America held in the way her captivating attributes pulled people onto wooden boats to get here ... The waves also went the other way.

And, in the 1800's the magic was Paris! (All cities were without flushing toilets. So don't ask me to tell you why anyone would go anywhere else to live.) But to Paris they went.

Before America had schools where you could learn to draw.

You know, they even tell a few stories about Harry S. Truman. (Actually, I'm pulling from work written by David McCullough) ...

Harry was so blind as a child ... he's the first kid in all of Missouri who was fitted with a pair of glasses, so that he could see. Then, he developed a taste to play the piano. Something else other kids wouldn't see. Harry Truman going to Kansas City once a week for a piano lesson. He played really, really well, too.

This forms the basis, for me, on how I'd just a parent to be very, very good. A kid that could draw is encouraged. A kid that wants to dance, ditto. And, a kid who wants to play an instrument ... there are real sacrifices parents make when the household has very little money.

Oh. And, they buy their kids books.

Today? Alas. That's stranger than fiction to most people.

Art will always remain in the eye of the beholder.

Carol_Herman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bagoh20 said...

I think that most public sculpture is some of the worse use of materials that our species produces. My cement driveway being superior to most. It's simple, useful and conveys a message: "Welcome, park here".

Oligonicella said...

"Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist painter, notoriously derided [sculpture] as objects we bump into when backing up to look at a painting."

That's because he couldn't sculpt.

madawaskan said...

I think sculpture is my favorite.

Of course you might have to define-"sculpture".

Sculpture is the best art out there.

It takes the greatest amount of skill in my opinion.


I'm talking about this-

Pieta

bagoh20 said...

"Very big boulders were thrown into the sea. And, 100 years later a grandchild would harvest this stuff."

I like that, and who would criticize the artist?

Does this practice have a name?

Pogo said...

Sculptures are for barbarians to topple, their ruins later puzzled over by the next civilization.

Oligonicella said...

Althouse --

"So? There are many things I can't make that I might still validly object to."

And, many times, you give just as succinct a line of reasoning, such as 'it occupies space'.

Ever see Monet's paintings in person? Friggin' huge. You have to be 30-40 feet away to view them properly **inside a 40x40 foot or larger room**.

Not so Rodin's thinker or a delicate gilded bronze of an early Hindi dancing goddess.

lemondog said...

A relative wrote to say how disgusted she was with the
Marilyn statue
. She got all hoity toity about it being in the same Chicago air space of Picasso, Miro etc. I laughed at the snobbery and alerted her to the fact that the now iconic Chicago Picasso was heavily derided when first unveiled (and I’m still not certain that Picasso wasn’t haven’t his little joke at Chicago/middle America expense.) I view most current art as a mark of the times and move on.

I like the work of obscure artists, that is, obviously talented persons but for which there is little or no info, other body of work or context, leaving one to wonder who were they and why no other work. If I had money I would scour the planet for such work.

Once in a while I find a piece on ebay.

Sixty Grit said...

My children's first cousins' grandfather made 600 million dollars in the sculpture racket. Too bad that stingy old bastard left it all to his "foundation". Could have chipped off a mil or two for the rest of us, right, redistributionists?

Palladian said...

"My point is that sculpture occupies space that many people would prefer to be left open. These people can make *nothing,* which is all they want there."

This explains your Obama vote. You wanted nothing over something.

I'm a sculptor, as well as a painter, by the way.

...

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone...

madawaskan said...

This explains your Obama vote. You wanted nothing over something.

Cha-ching!

ricpic said...

The Greeks solved the problem by painting their sculpture...in quite garish colors by the way.

And calling Baudelaire's great insight racist doesn't scare me...or Baudelaire. Anyway Baudelaire made up for it in the sack with his black amazon.

Martin L. Shoemaker said...

I love sculpture, whether it's abstract, modern, representational, or surreal. It speaks to me in a way that painting seldom does (with the notable exception of Van Gogh).

And maybe Fred4Pres is right:

Skepticism about the value of sculpture usually comes from those who do not have the least ability to produce it.

While I wouldn't call myself a great artist, I've done some nice sculptures with clay. Maybe that's why sculpture appeals to me; or maybe cause and effect are reversed there.

My favorite sculpture collection is right here in Grand Rapids.

Sigivald said...

See, the problem with Newman complaining about sculpture is that he's ... not exactly a painter of things people want to look at.

I'm no enemy of abstract painting, and I'm sure his works are impressive enough in person, but they're artsy self-aware crap at the basic level.

Any plain depictive painter of workmanlike skill can create a painting both more pleasing and more emotionally active than anything Newman ever made - and that's the very thing the abstract Modern Artist* doesn't like, I find.

(*Well, the hacks - the good ones don't care, because they're not trying to win a popularity contest.)

Fred4Pres said...

"... a race-automobile which seems to rush over exploding powder is more beautiful than the 'Victory of Samothrace'."

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist Manifesto, 1909

See my McQueen post above. I am surprised none of you got it.

Lucius said...

Pre-modern artists *earned* their giant egos.

Palladian said...

"Pre-modern artists *earned* their giant egos."

...by generally having assistants do much of the hard work.

Synova said...

They seem to have been going all out in beautifying Albuquerque, particularly around the roads. There are enormous clay pots in a Native style (which may count as "Carib art", who knows) and trees down the median of the freeway at this end of town. The pots were gawdawful expensive from what I've heard, but they really do look nice. The pieces that are more properly "sculpture" are more hit-and-miss. There is a lot of use of colored lights to illuminate the pilings of overpasses on the freeway and they light geometric elements of the landscaping around those, which I think is pleasing. I actually got distracted by a new installation last night and had to break a bit hard. The colored neon lights (they put them around the bottoms so they don't show, only cast a glow upward) illuminated clusters of not-square adobe rectangles that looked a lot like the paintings of pueblo structures that are popular here.

I doubt that Serra would be impressed.

Ann Althouse said...

"...by generally having assistants do much of the hard work."

Nowadays they send their designs out to be manufactured by outsiders.

Synova said...

Every time we go into town we pass the Robotnik Spore (The Aluminum Yucca). It looks better in this picture because in real life it seems (to me) to be on too small a scale for it's location. We also pass the Hand of Friendship, which is rather ugly, IMO. I've been trying to figure out what the hand is holding. There is the Native American "sun" symbol, and I think there is an atom, but there is a third thing I can't quite make out.

My favorites are some of the mosaics they've done for sound walls. This one undulates for at least a full city block going from "sun" to "water".

Blue@9 said...

So Polykleitos and Rodin were a bunch of primitives? Not to mention Michaelangelo? Put those names up against Barnett Newman: Not sure if I'd credit his opinion much.

Palladian said...

"Nowadays they send their designs out to be manufactured by outsiders."

99% of metal sculpture, historical and modern, was manufactured by "outsiders". Do people think Rodin was shaping those things out of molten bronze with his bare hands?

I manufacture (in the original sense of the word) all of my sculpture. Lovingly, by hand, of fast-polymerizing plastics.

Lincolntf said...

I've spent a bunch of time in art museums, both foreign and domestic, and I prefer sculpture (in the broadest sense) over paintings most of the time. My personal preference is always a natural history museum, but the wife seems to have a vote worth more than mine in such cases. In Boston I feast on the Peabody while she saunters through the Gardner, but elsewhere we usually have to pick one or the other. Is it the Met in NYC with the massive Egyptian "room" reconstructed in an atrium? That sort of thing is worth a week of the Rijksmuseum to me.

Palladian said...

"Is it the Met in NYC with the massive Egyptian "room" reconstructed in an atrium?"

Yes, but it's actually a massive atrium with a piddly little Egyptian shed reconstructed in the center. If you find that mostly empty room more interesting than the Rijksmuseum (which contains sculpture and decorative art as well as painting), I question your judgment.

Lincolntf said...

No, you question my preference. Tastes aren't always values.

Lincolntf said...

When I look at that "tiny shed" (actually a temple/chapel type building) I see all of the human product that went into it. And of course it only seems "tiny" to those who have never (and probably could never) pricisely shifted and carved and joined and finished and balanced and set the stones used in it's construction. When you walk along the "outside" (on your right if you're looking at it from the atrium entrance) there are a bunch of distinct chisel marks. If you know what you're looking at, you can see why they are where they are, what mistakes, flaws, etc. they were trying to deal with in the leveling and smoothing.
I've made those same marks, those same mistakes, hit the same flaws in the material, etc. during my masonry days, and can see the somewhat brutish artistry from a mile away.
I have great respect for great artists of any genre, whether they were grubby little apprentice stonecutters (with the threat of beatings or worse hanging over their heads if they were to create a crack or knock off a corner) or coddled princelings coccooned in a life of creative luxury.

Lincolntf said...

Mangled syntax aside, you get the drift. (I don't know what's wrong with my typology these days, but it blows)

spool32 said...

Nearly all your image links in that 2004 post are broken now. A shame.

ricpic said...

I don't see how Rodin was cheating. He modeled the big complicated many figured Burghers of Calais in clay by his own hand and then they were cast in a foundry.

PhaseMargin said...

We had an reception for the unveiling of a piece of sculpture for the college of electrical engineering while I was there. When I asked by the Dean about my impression I allowed that I wasn't pleased. He asked why. I responded, "If this had been dumped on the lawn by a drunken class of Welding Engineering students you'd have had a fit and be calling the police rather than spending $250,000. And to be honest, I think the drunken Welding Engineers would have done better work." Certainly the quality of the welds would have been better at the least.

Sixty Grit said...

ricpic, it is well known that some of the most interesting parts of the Burghers of Calais, such as the hands, were done by Camille Claudell.

WV: bulstrat - either a really large Fender guitar or a pat shaped cloud.

warlocketx said...

When the Wall came down, one of the things the Germans spent money on was "public art" for the poor deprived Easties. For instance, in the city square of Jena they put up steel girders welded into random shapes, usually directly in the middle of the paths people wanted to use.

A friend who lives there used part of his newfound Western wealth to have stickers made: "Achtung! Kunst!" These he slapped on the Art.

It made the local paper, and the city council was obliged to pay to have the stickers removed "with due care to preserve the artistic value of the pieces".

Too bad. Most public art, here and there, could use such labels. That way people would know why there isn't yellow tape around the site of the accident.

Regards,
Ric