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Sculpture as an Artform

Sculpture is an artistic form in which hard or plastic materials are worked into 3D objects. The designs may be embodied in freestanding objects, in reliefs on surfaces, or in environments that can vary from tableaux to contexts enveloping the spectator. An endless variety of material may be used, including clay, wax, stone, metal, fabric, glass, wood, plaster, rubber, and random “found” objects. Materials will be carved, modeled, molded, cast, wrought, welded, sewn, assembled, or simply shaped and combined.

Sculpture is not a fixed branding that applies to a permanently standing category of objects or set of activities. It is, rather, the name given to art that grows and is changing and continually extends the range of activities and evolving new types of objects. The scope of the term was much wider in the second half of the 20th century than it had been only two or three decades prior, and in the everchanging state of the visual arts at the turn of the 21st century, nobody can predict what its future extensions are likely to be.

There are certain features which in previous centuries were thought to be essential to the art of sculpture but are now no longer present in a large part of modern sculpture and so no longer form part of the definition. One of the most elementary points of these is representation. Previous to the 20th century, sculpture was seen as a representational art; one that imitated forms in life, mostly human figures but also inanimate objects, including game, utensils, and books. Since the dawn of the 20th century, however, sculpture has also included nonrepresentational forms. It has long been accepted that the forms of such functional 3-D objects as furniture, pots, and buildings may be expressive and beautiful without having to be representational. It was only in the 20th century that nonfunctional, nonrepresentational, 3D works of art began to be common practice.

Previous to the 20th century, sculpture was considered essentially an art of solid form, or mass. Though the negative elements of sculpture – the voids and hollows within and between its solid forms – have generally been to some extent an integral part of its design, but their role was secondary. In a large part of modern sculpture, however, the focus has broadened, and the spatial aspects have started to come out as dominant. Spatial sculpture is now a wholly acceptable area of the art of sculpture.

It was also taken for granted in the past ideas of sculpture that its components had to be of a constant shape and size and, except for works such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Diana (a monumental weather vane), would not move. With the contemporary developments of kinetic sculpture, neither the immobility nor immutability of its elements can remain to be regarded as inherent to defining the art form.

Finally, sculpture during the 20th century was not restricted to the two traditional forming procedures of carving and modeling, or to any traditional natural materials like stone, metal, wood, ivory, bone, and clay. As present-day sculptors use any materials and methods of manufacture that they decide to use, the art form can no longer be identified by any special materials or techniques.

During all this change, there is probably just one aspect that stays constant in sculpture, and it emerges as the foremost abiding concern of sculptors: the art is a part of the visual arts that is especially concerned with the creation of form in three dimensions.

Sculpture may be either in the round or in relief. A sculpture in the round will be a separate, detached piece in its own right, possessing a similar independent existence in the world as a human body or a chair. A sculpture in relief does not have this independant form. It is part of and projects from or is an innate part of some other object that might serve either as a background for it or a matrix from whence it emerges.

The actual 3-D nature of sculpture in the round restricts its scope in some respects in comparison with the scope of painting. Sculpture cannot conjure the illusion of space by simple optical means, or invest its forms with atmosphere and light as painting can. But sculpture does proffer a reality, a vivid physical presence that cannot be found in the pictorial arts. Forms of sculpture can be tangible as well as visible, and may appeal strongly and directly to the tactile and visual sensibilities. Even the visually impaired, including those who are congenitally blind, can produce and appreciate different types of sculpture. It was, in fact, argued by the 20th-century art critic Sir Herbert Read that sculpture should be regarded as primarily an art of touch and that the originating roots of sculptural sensibility can be traced to the pleasure one experiences in doing this.

All three-D forms are regarded as having an expressive character as well as solely geometric properties. They may strike the observer as delicate, aggressive, flowing, taut, relaxed, dynamic, soft, and so on. By exploiting the emotive qualities of form, the artist is able to create images in which subject matter and expressiveness mutually reinforce each other. Visual imagery will go beyond the simple presentation of fact and create a vast range of subtle and powerful emotions.

The aesthetic raw material used for this art is, so to speak, the total realm of expressive 3-D form. A sculpture might draw upon what we see exists in the endless worlds of natural and man-made form, or it may be an art of genuine invention. It has been mastered to express a deep range of human emotions and feelings from the most tender and delicate to the most violent and ecstatic.

All human beings, inherently involved from birth with the world of three-dimensional form, realise something of its structural and expressive properties and will possess emotional responses to them. This combination of intellectual understanding and reaction, also known as a sense of form, may be cultivated and refined. It is to the sense of form that this art primarily appeals.

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