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.