#123. Tim Scott writes on “Why Abstract Sculpture” part 2

Content in Abstract Sculpture.

In arguing, passionately, as I have been, for a truly abstract future sculpture, one has to face up to the fact of the ‘content’ of such works being totally devoid of the sort of emotional visual reactions to it that all traditional sculpture had; i.e. recognition, illustration, naturalistic representation, power, glory, sexual titillation, religious feeling, and so on.

What has commonly been called ‘humanism’ in emotional content as conveyed by a work of art, has been erased from the canon of ‘modern’ sculptural form in favour of objective statements of physical fact as form, conditioned largely by the materials in which they have been worked. This has more often than not been achieved either by a vague ‘reference’ (in the forms) to a recognisable source, or most frequently in recent times, by the ‘borrowing’ and adapting to sculpture, of the physical context of other related physical forms, architecture, engineering and object making in general.

This latter overlapping of what sculpture ‘does’ in relation to what other physical forms ‘do’, has caused a sort of crisis in sculpture’s identity; in that the lack of the former humanism has alienated a large section of sculpture’s ‘audience’ in the general public from maintaining any sort of aesthetic empathy associated directly with sculpture. Tragically, sculpture, as an art form, has been, as a consequence, trivialised and marginalised.

It will be argued by many that ‘humanist’ emotion is an essential ingredient in the art of sculpture; and that, without it, it becomes emotionally barren.

This is probably indisputable as long as the sculpture referred to has some sort of referential subject matter in its make-up. Indeed, the qualifying judgement for sculpture has, historically, been the depth of its conveyance of just these ‘humanist’ attributes. A female nude, or a horse, can both evoke, as standard subjects in past sculpture, intense ‘human’ identification emotionally. But can the same be said of sculpture which has no such identification of subject? Has sculpture thereby lost its main appeal?

In the XXth C. sculptors attempted to tackle this quandary by introducing ‘suggestion’ rather than direct reference to humanist subject matter. the subconscious as well as observable reality were deemed suitable for the creation of non-naturalistic but nevertheless referential bases for sculptural form. The evocation of landscape, machines, other objects, in some quasi suggestive link was introduced as a substitute for the old humanist ‘ideal’ sources / subjects.

This enlarging of sculpture’s subject sources, and new methods and materials for working, led to the advocacy of a ‘modern’ sculpture which was considered to have advanced beyond the norms of the old humanist ideals by being perceived as a ‘progressive’ stance for the sculptor. This ‘ivory tower’ aesthetic for sculpture, in turn alienated a public not cognisant with ‘insider’ knowledge of developments. At the same time, it, ironically, spawned a body of ‘cognoscenti’, whose job had to be interpreting what sculpture was now ‘ABOUT’.

This has led to the present ‘condition of sculpture’ in which advocates of totally non referential and non-recognition sculpture, (abstract sculpture), have arrived at the point at which there is nothing identifiable as ‘content’ other than what is ‘there’. or which is posited (by intent but of questionable success) as a valid ‘non humanist’ alternative.

My thesis, then, is that the ‘ABOUT” of abstract sculpture has to be redefined for the present, if it no longer holds to the purveying of ‘humanist’ emotions to which the viewer has been accustomed historically, or any of the subsequent efforts to circumvent these with ‘alternatives’.

Which brings me to the analogy with ‘musical language’ that I have already mentioned (part 1).

I imagine that few, if any, music lovers would deny that, at its height, the production of musical sound from composer through instrumentation to the listener, can convey deeply felt human emotion on a par with any such conveyed by visual means (art); assuming, that is, that they are, equally, art lovers.

What I am speaking of here is not the totally differing methodology of music and sculpture production, but its INTENSITY. Music can achieve these heights through totally non-referential, non-descriptive, non-illustrative means, despite composers quite often claiming that a work does the opposite. We all know that the listener can happily make any piece describe something completely different to what was supposed by the composer.

The ‘ABOUT’ of music is simply a collection of sounds (abstract), but put together in such a way as to, magically, unveil deep human feeling. It is precisely this sort of oral ‘ABOUT’ that abstract sculpture needs to seek to emulate for its own visual ‘language’ to project; i.e. a collection of forms, totally non-referential, but put together in such a way as to, magically, unveil intense human emotion. If and when that is achieved, sculpture will be truly abstract and truly also ‘humanistic’ in its expressive power.

9 comments

  1. And regarding the comparison to music – I think that you could easily substitute the word ‘music’ for ‘sculpture’ in the paragraph:

    This latter overlapping of what sculpture ‘does’ in relation to what other physical forms ‘do’, has caused a sort of crisis in sculpture’s identity; in that the lack of the former humanism has alienated a large section of sculpture’s ‘audience’ in the general public from maintaining any sort of aesthetic empathy associated directly with sculpture. Tragically, sculpture, as an art form, has been, as a consequence, trivialised and marginalised.

    Also, when talking about the general public, wouldn’t you agree that the more ‘general’ the public, the more ‘recall’ is required to be emotionally meaningful, in both art and music?

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  2. Nicholas Ashton – I am not a practitioner, only a lover, of painting. Therefore I hesitate to draw parallels, if only because the ‘illusionism’ of painting is so very different to the physical ‘reality’ of sculpture.
    I would perhaps surmise that abstract painting too has to confront issues of ‘content’; often for much the same reasons, though, equally, I am sure that there are many totally differing considerations.
    I would, of course, be very interested to hear painter’s views on this subject.

    Marty Xray – I was not COMPARING sculpture with music (at least that was not my intention). I was attempting to use the fact that music transfers itself to the mind emotionally through ABSTRACT means; and that this fact could be an exemplary model (of intent) for sculptors struggling to evolve a purely abstract (totally non referential- non referral) making for sculpture that has equal power of feeling.

    If you make the substitution you suggest in the passage you quote, it would imply that music too has the same problems of content and public appreciation would it not ? I am not competent enough in musical knowledge to make such an assumption, but I would very much like to hear more on the subject.

    Re the ‘general public’, I would agree, if I am understanding you rightly, that the lack of ‘recall’ (of familiar themes in music – tunes ?) probably alienates large swathes of them !
    As far as sculpture is concerned, I have been trying to argue that there is an alternative.

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  3. Abstract sculpture today ( most of it ) does not strike me as being real . Its three dimensionality is also not real, or we would be looking at an object and therefore not abstract .
    It seems to me this gives illusion a higher role than just the mere fact that movement in any group of stuff is not actually moving , but is implied. It is an illusion.
    This could be a big advantage for abstract sculpture.
    When the build, how it is constructed, is up front and literal , this illusion seems to be dampened. The flow of meaning is broken .
    Flow and illusion, go hand in hand because sculpture that is relational ( made into things ) will kill the illusion and of course the abstract. All the elements of sculpture , blended together for particular purpose, would overcome the literal reality of the material and move the sculpture into a more imaginary world. What I am trying to describe here is in its infancy. But it is happening ,and I feel it will be one of many ways forward exploring this abstract world ofsculpture.

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  4. Tony – Whereas painting DEPENDS on a created illusion as an a priori fact of its existence, sculpture does not, since the reality of its material is ITS fact of existence.
    However, illusion (which is in old sculpture too), MUST be apart of making for ABSTRACT sculpture in which any reference / source / subject / recall is invisible., and the material DOES something MORE than BE.
    Is your ‘illusion’ synonymous with my ‘intensity of feeling / emotion ?

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    1. TIm
      I am wondering whether it is a false charge
      that feeling has been lost?
      How does anyone know in the short term where any level of feeling and intelligence are playing out their combinations.?
      Hopefully they are wrapped up in their own newness and inevitable temporary invisibility. ( we all know the one about the sculpture that looked great and at the end of the week had nothing to say for itself).
      The problem with arriving somewhere , in a non literal world , is that it is only a hope that you are somewhere ,and if you think for a moment that it is ,of substance, you will immediately move on to find the next uncertainty .Because you are not looking for completion.
      We have to keep going.

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      1. Tony – I am an optimist by nature. However, part 3 is on its way so maybe i’ll wait until you have absorbed that too beforecommenting.

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