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Revue internationale de philosophie

2002/3 (n° 221)



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1

The role of art has never been more contested than today. Whereas Plato could at least banish art from the polis with a clear idea of the rogue exile, contemporary aestheticians, art critics, and artists all seem so perplexed over the erosion and instability of aesthetic boundaries as to be unable to tell whether art has come to an end. Compounding the confusion is the uneven vitality of different arts. Whereas technological developments have spawned new arts, such as film and video, to which vast resources, talent and attention have been lavished, older, supposedly perennial arts have languished. Does this mean that certain arts have slipped irretrievably into the past, that somehow certain media are no longer capable of giving artistic expression to the self-understanding of our time ?

2

Sculpture might seem to be the living, or should one say, embalmed proof that, if not all, then at least some arts are dead. Although sculptors remain at work and political upheavals have put many a pedestal in need of a new occupant, the contemporary position of sculpture stands in stark contrast to the golden age of plastic expression, when no temple could be without its statue, no battlefield without its trophy, ( [1]  Santayana points to these instances of how it was natural... [1] ) and no artist more venerated than a Phidias or Praxiteles.

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Sculpture today may still provide the two satisfactions that plastic shaping can always offer. Simply by impressing matter with its most elementary form, spatial configuration, sculpture can furnish the juvenile pleasure of seeing our imagination and agency become the master of material. And, if the joy of making mud-pies is not enough, a purely formal, non-representative sculpture can always decorate, adding charm to architectural or natural surroundings.( [2]  Santayana points to these limited satisfactions as... [2] ) But if sculpture aspires to provide a plastic expression of some self-understanding fundamental to modern humanity, the possibilities are less obvious. If abstract sculpture is to rise above plastic gratification and decoration, it might aim at exhibiting the sheer subjective mastery of an artistry for whom no objective configuration retains any essential significance, much as abstract painting or serial music might do. Yet when art proclaims the superfluity of every sensuous shape, can it avoid diminishing the stature of its own productions ? When, by contrast, sculpture remains figurative, can it mold any form whose frozen surface gesture can be congruent with a modern subjectivity for whom an inner life of conscience, psychological reflection, and private concerns cannot be ignored ?

4

Two complementary considerations provide keys for answering these questions as well as for assessing the whole destiny of plastic art in modernity : first, the constitutive limits of figurative sculpture, and, second, the celebrated perfection with which these limitations are realized in the classical nude.

THE CONSTITUTIVE LIMITS OF FIGURATIVE SCULPTURE

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Given that fine art always achieves a unity of form and content, where the individual appearance of the work is expressive of its meaning, the tangible differences in media engender the possibility that individual arts may be differently able to configure the meanings reflecting distinct world views and the artistic styles that correspond to them. Among aesthetic theorists, Hegel has pursued this thought most thoroughly, arguing at length that architecture is uniquely suited to the symbolic styles expressing the self-understanding of the ancient Orient, that sculpture is particularly suited to the classical style purveying the world-view of ancient Greece, and that music, painting and literature are each privileged vehicles of the romantic style giving modernity artistic shape. Although Hegel does grant the other arts a stage in each of these styles, he views sculpture to be so fundamentally connected to the classical style as to have a development essentially undetermined by symbolic or romantic construal. ( [3]  HEGEL, G. W. F., Lectures On Aesthetics, 2 vols. Translated... [3] )

6

To confirm whether sculpture has any such stylistic predisposition, it is first necessary to isolate the constitutive resources of its plastic expression, excluding any features that incidentally attach themselves to particular statues. Although sculpture may be polychrome, may contain verbal markings, and may by kinetic, neither graphic design, nor words, nor movement are endemic to this most basic plastic art. What is essential to sculpture is the mute, immobile shaping of otherwise undifferentiated matter, independent of any of the functional demands to which architecture must submit its own arrangement of heavy masses.

7

Sculpture's three-dimensional molding might seem the most faithful vehicle for presenting a sensuous appearance confronting humanity with its own truth. Whereas architecture can at best provide an environment for human activities, music can only offer nonverbal alterations of sound, painting must do with the illusion of flat images, and literature is bound to words that can only communicate representations lacking actual corporeal reality, sculpture can present the real contour of human individuals. Yet, if the fundamental truths of humanity that art must address reside in ethical and religious affairs, where actions and accompanying thoughts and passions play essential roles, sculpture's restriction to the immobile, mute spatial form of the body seems especially confining.( [4]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 703. [4] ) Not only does the shape to which sculpture is limited comprise only one abstract aspect of the human body, ( [5]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 704. [5] ) but it seems to exclude the most revealing sides of rational agency.

8

Because sculpture must always present three-dimensional shapes that stand on their own, it cannot concretely configure the surroundings of individuals in action, as painting can do through the infinite expanse of perspective, and as literature can achieve all the more fully with the resources of narrative. Hence, if sculpture is to evoke the situation of significant conduct, it must do so solely in virtue of how its figures' surface and juxtaposition reflect the context in which problems worthy of artistic treatment unfold.

9

Moreover, because sculpture is both immobile and mute, it must crystallize all the issues of human striving in a single, silent external shape of otherwise undifferentiated material. Although painting is similarly limited to a mute frozen moment, it can go beyond the effects of the shape and posture of figures by employing all the nuances of shade and color to communicate inner thoughts and feeling. And in contrast to sculpture's restriction to a solitary gesture, music, dance, literature, theater and film can all use the time at their disposal to present a whole series of appearances in which the fluctuation and development of passion, character and action can be manifest. Finally, whereas the silence of sculpture puts a muzzle upon how distinctly the thoughts, feelings and situation of individuals can be expressed, the verbal resources of literature, theater and film allow the greatest disclosure of the external and internal dimensions of human life.

10

These limitations define the possibilities that sculpture offers to artistic expression. Confined to free standing figures, sculpture can at most suggest the concrete setting of conduct as it is reflected in the placement and surfaces of its figures. Restricted to a motionless shape, sculpture can only present an isolated single moment, devoid of the progress of a living action interacting with the changing context in which it proceeds. And therein bound to one mute and colorless gesture, sculpture can only express what the paralyzed exterior of a body can convey. ( [6]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 703. As Hegel observes,... [6] )

11

All these constitutive features severely challenge sculpture's ambition to provide exemplary configuration to fundamental human truths. Although a statue may utilize its frozen moment to capture a fleeting gesture or incidental situation, sculpture's inability to contrast this shape to color differentiations, verbal meanings, other temporally distanced gestures, or a concretely configured setting risks eliminating the universal significance that enables its work to be more than a gratifying entertainment.( [7]  For this reason, Hegel claims that sculpture must leave... [7] ) Somehow, the one mute immobile figure must embody an indwelling character animated with some passion from which emanates a compelling dimension of human agency. Moreover, sculpture's suspended animation( [8]  Santayana aptly refers to the "suspended animation"... [8] ) must still retain the individuality of the figure, without reducing it to a metaphor or symbol, whose meaning can be just as well conveyed by some other configuration, eliminating the unity of shape and significance basic to beauty.

12

In a most immediate fashion, sculpture must here solve the mindbody problem, making manifest how the animating spirit of rational agency can infuse the most impoverished, minimal feature of physical externality, extension. The task might appear to have an easy solution, involving nothing more than appropriating the naturally given physique of homo sapiens or of any other natural species, terrestrial or extraterrestrial, possessing rational autonomy. ( [9]  In this sense, Hegel observes that the fundamental... [9] ) The anatomically perfect surface of the human body may, however, just as well be the lifeless shell of a corpse, the pod of a comatose human vegetable, or the blank exterior of a human animal, lacking intelligence and will. To express any unity of mind and body, sculpture must employ the aspects of physical appearance specifically communicating rational agency and subject the figure to an idealization replacing whatever natural features are incidental to the self-understanding of humanity at issue with external contours that fit its spirit.( [10]  This "idealization" may even take the ironic extreme... [10] )

13

Insofar as rational agency exhibits its strivings in how intelligence and will activate the body, the plastic configuration of character and conduct must center upon the expression, gestures and posture of the body parts specially used to communicate and act.( [11]  As Santayana observes, "sculpture is not a matter of... [11] ) This may vary from species to species, but among humans, the expression of the face, the gesture of the limbs and erogenous zones, and the posture connecting all together have a privileged role.( [12]  In this connection Hegel observes that although rational... [12] )

14

However these physical elements be molded, sculpture must thereby concentrate its whole significance in the single frozen moment it captures, a moment that must exhibit what is fundamental to the rational agency in whose individual configuration something of universal human importance resides. This imperative applies generally to figurative sculpture and therefore seems to be a challenge to which every sculptural style can rise. The anatomical distortions, borrowings of animal features, and exclusions of individual personality by which much so-called primitive sculpture takes its bearings seem fully able to express in one gesture a self-understanding in which human subjectivity finds its essence in natural powers external to it. So, too, the tranquil Buddhas, whose idealized visage has absorbed all individuality into a relinquishment of self to a divinity for which rational agency is an illusory epiphenomenon, seem to face no artistic obstacle in sculpture's confinement to a largely isolated, frozen figure. Nor does this limitation seem to have prevented Medieval and Renaissance sculpture from expressing a human individuality whose own infinite worth transcends natural differences and retains an inner life whose significance is not compromised by its inability to ever be fully expressed in the external appearance of conduct. Medieval religious sculpture cannot be denied the success of shaping figures who retain individuality while giving expression to a life of the soul that transcends mundane, outer phenomena.( [13]  Nonetheless, Hegel claims that romantic religious sculpture... [13] ) Similarly, can Renaissance sculpture be denied the achievement of configuring a human individuality confident of its universal worth and inner depth ? And cannot the rote naturalism of a Segal or of a Duane Hanson,( [14]  Admittedly, Hanson relies on coloring and clothing... [14] ) exact in topographical detail but devoid of animation, employ the mechanical reproduction of the surface of persons to convey a modernist view for which every external appearance is equally indifferent to the independent freedom of individuality ? Color, perspective, speech, and a temporal narrative may all be absent in sculpture, but why cannot facial expression, gesture, and the whole carriage of the body be resource enough to give expression to the widest range of styles and corresponding self-understandings ?

15

If the above examples are to be believed, an abiding doubt can still be raised regarding the relative aesthetic perfection of the different styles of sculpture. Might classical sculpture give expression to a self-understanding so uniquely capable of exhausting itself in a plastic embodiment that the other possible styles of sculpture must fall behind in artistic rank, both in contrast to classical statuary and in comparison to the other arts in which these styles are realized ? This possibility, so confidently argued by Hegel and Santayana, among others, seems completely blind to the achievement of Michelangelo, not to mention Rodin, who can hardly be faulted for the deficit in individuality with which much of the preceding gallery of statues might be reproved. Yet, even if the greatness of Michelangelo's sculpture can hold its own against anything of Phidias or any Renaissance art in other media, the possibility remains that Michelangelo's David (or, for that matter, Rodin's Balzac) has its beauty thanks to a reappropriation of classical ideals, as Hegel suggests.( [15]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 708, II 789. Yet,... [15] ) Consequently, to settle the issue the alleged perfection of classical sculpture must be addressed in its own right.

THE AFFINITY BETWEEN SCULPTURE AND CLASSICISM

16

If classical sculpture has an aesthetic privilege, the constitutive limits of sculpture must have some special fit with the content endemic to the classical spirit. To establish any such affinity, some determination must be made limiting what kind of rational agency is susceptible of portrayal in a purely visible and spatial shape. ( [16]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, 11 710. [16] )

17

Because sculpture makes do solely with the bodily form of rational agency (which for us is the human figure), whatever subjectivity is meant to dwell within must spread itself out upon that entire surface, instead of focusing itself in some detached expression, as might be seen in the painterly flash of an eye. Such subjectivity cannot have a particularized emotion, as a series of actions could make manifest through the contrast of its different movements, nor comprise a character presented in all the vicissitudes of its practical engagements. Instead, the subject of sculpture is principally in repose, or at most, standing at the threshold of the first beginning of action, without any differentiated inner life.( [17]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 705-6. [17] )

18

Hegel, for one, takes this spatial self-repose of the plastic figure to signify that sculpture is a medium congruent with a stage of human development where rational agency takes its essential identity to reside in its bodily existence and in a universal substance, instead of having withdrawn into a self-aware subjectivity immersed in the particular motives and convictions of its own inner life.( [18]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 710. [18] ) Given its limitation to a single, isolated, mute spatial form, sculpture cannot properly give expression to the dimension of subjectivity that disdains the objective, abiding, bodily manifestation of conduct, to withdraw into a world of ephemeral inclination and caprice. Instead, sculpture is fit to capture the "objective", substantial, imperishable dimension of rational agency, which is as it appears on the surface once and for all.

19

This dimension is not devoid of self-consciousness, but the subjective element it contains does not need to be separately expressed. Rather, it is a subjectivity permeated by what is objective and substantive, enabling it to be expressed in the fixed bodily shape of rational agency that sculpture can deliver. ( [19]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 711-12. [19] )

20

If this "objective" dimension of rational agency is not merely an aspect common to each and every form of human individuality but rather the defining essence of a particular configuration of human life, then sculpture would indeed seem to be a privileged artistic vehicle for that constellation of humanity. Such an objective and substantive rational agency would be specially able to achieve an adequate self-understanding in sculpture due to several salient features.

21

First, by being an individuality whose own objective manifestation exhaustively contains its essential identity, this shape of rational agency would judge its mettle by how it appears for others in the public show of conduct, where what the body reveals is all that counts. While this outer manifestation includes public discourse, unexpressed feelings, doubts, convictions, and motives would not bear upon the ethical and religious concerns of an individual for whom everything merely subjective is as devoid of significance as beliefs investing divinity in subhuman forms or transcendent powers. Accordingly, rational agency would here find fulfillment in its own manifest being as a member of an ethical community, performing a public role in recognition of values already visibly embodied in the existing institutions such performance sustains. No inner tribunal of conscience would hold sway, for such an individuality would judge itself and be judged by others in respect to how adequately it fulfilled the public role that community membership involves.

22

Further, since each and every public manifestation of the individual is a particular phenomenon appearing to sense, the identification of value with what objectively appears entails that ethical and religious truths remain paradigmatic in character. Instead of exhibiting a universality that can be expressed solely in thought, apart from sensuous particulars, such truths must be defined by concretely given communities and exemplary figures whose identity cannot be reduced to law and abstract principle. As a consequence, such an individuality can only comprehend itself in a configuration that concentrates everything upon the particular external manifestation of the agent and locks the agent into a fixed appearance expressing the encompassing given values that are already commonly recognized and operative in the particular community and its religious pantheon. In other words, the agent in question is a plastic individual, whose character is all of one piece with its external appearance and its embeddedness in a particular public world with antecedently defined norms.

23

Such a shape of rational agency may well be particularly suited for sculptural embodiment, but this affinity does not immediately canonize that embodiment as either a generic rule for figurative sculpture or as an unequaled paragon of plastic art. What instead lies at hand is determining how such an individuality achieves sculptural expression. To the degree that classical art gives shape to the self-understanding of just such an individuality, this is a matter of conceiving how classical sculpture must mold the human figure to achieve the unity of form and content on which beauty in any medium rests.

FORM AND CONTENT IN THE CLASSICAL NUDE

24

Although classical sculpture historically does not make the nude its exclusive vehicle, the nude has a salient role, both for presenting the unity of form and content most directly and for exhibiting most starkly the elementary idealization with which classicism transfigures the human figure.

25

In several respects, the nude presents the most literal realization of the specific limits of sculptural configuration. Taken on its own, stripped of implements, clothing, and every other addition, the nude concentrates all attention upon the exterior of the body, as that upon which whatever is worth expression must be manifest. This surface must convey the substance of the individuality dwelling within, and do so in a single fixed configuration. These desiderata, of course, apply to any naked statue, leaving completely undetermined what type of agency is expressed and how the chosen moment relates to anything else, within or without the configured individual. Thus, although nudity can be a vehicle for celebrating the immediate unity of spiritual significance with the external reality of the human figure, the classical nude must involve much more than nakedness to fit the individuality of its distinctive spirit. Otherwise, it degenerates into the formalism of neo-classicism, where physical perfection gets detached from any matching spirit,( [20]  CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 26. [20] ) or into the rote reportage of naturalism, where subject matter recedes into indifference. Moreover, since the unity of body and spirit is preeminently visible in facial expression, gesture and posture, not all parts of the body must be unclothed to give expression to that harmony of inner and outer. ( [21]  As Hegel points out, although the nudity of the statue... [21] ) To be a paradigm of classical art, the nude must thus not indifferently sing the body electric, even if the Greek cult of nakedness expresses the conviction that the spirit and body are one.( [22]  CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 24-5. [22] ) The nude must instead focus upon exhibiting the permanent, essential substance of an individual for whom everything of fundamental significance falls in the sensuous, public reality of human conduct. Consequently, the nude, unlike other naked statuary, must employ some distinctive stylization of bodily shape to enable these classical commitments to show themselves.^ [23]  As Clark observes, the sculpting of the nude aims "not... [23] ) For this reason, Kenneth Clark can duly observe that the nude is not a subject of art, defined by a shape indifferent to meaning, but a form of art, in which the content and its treatment go hand in hand.( [24]  CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 5. [24] )

26

The distinguishing features of the classical nude have been noted for centuries, but few observers have focused upon how these features are connected to the significance they express. This reflects the persisting formalism among art critics, who so often analyze style in reference to either types of configuration or types of meaning, neglecting the central aesthetic problem of how shape and significance join together. Among aesthetic theorists, Hegel has gone farthest in disclosing the unity of form and content in the classical nude, presenting a catalogue of congruencies that have found their echo, albeit in a much more limited treatment, in Kenneth Clark's analysis. If we follow in the path of Hegel and Clark, the stylization of the classical nude becomes transparent, setting the stage for considering whether sculpture is dead and sculptors in modernity are zombies.

27

Given how, independently of language, color, sound and motion, rational agency can still visibly animate the surface of the body, it should come as no surprise that the idealization of the classical nude concentrates upon the face, the gesture of the limbs, and the unifying posture of the whole figure.

28

The face of the classical nude might seem a secondary, almost dispensable appendage, an archaic vestige peculiarly devoid of the vitality and independent spirit penetrating every other part of the body. After all, do any of the headless nudes, from the Elgin Marbles to every lesser example, seem to lose anything essential by terminating at their broken stumps ? In fact, do not the complete nudes lose something by having a blank, placid, impassive, utterly shallow youthful cranium stuck above a fluid, dynamic, yet supremely controlled torso ? Can any unsentimental critic escape admitting that whatever greatness the classical nude possesses begins from the neck down ? ( [25]  Clark not inappropriately speaks of the "expressionless,... [25] )

29

Such nagging doubts are not without a basis, but they ignore precisely how the limits of the classical head are one of a piece with the beauty of the classical torso. Indeed, to discard the face and privilege the decapitated figure would be to ignore the very stylizations that bring to a head the specificity of classical individuality and its incompatibility with the modern self. Nothing confirms this unity of classical face and body better than the jarring anomaly of those Hellenistic, Roman, and modern ceremonial statues that set a portrait head on top of an ideal nude torso.( [26]  CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 49. [26] )

30

To begin with, the head of the nude shares certain basic idealizations with the rest of the figure. First, the surface of the face has the same absence of blemishes, scars, wrinkles, and other irregularities to be found throughout the nude. This departure from portrait like verisimilitude is not simply an accommodation to the technical limits of marble, for even if stone were resistant to capturing such details, the question would still need to be raised as to why stone should be chosen as a material. Yet, the facility with which classical sculptors succeed in capturing the supple flow of flesh and bone, not to mention drapery and hair, indicates that Phidias had no technical ground for not giving plastic expression to the anatomical detail of a Philip Pearlstein or Chuck Close. The abstraction from particular irregularities instead stands at one with the spirit permeating every aspect of the classical nude : the spirit that treats the externality of the body as the perfectly adequate expression of rational agency. To convey this unity, the body must be purged of every contingent detail that is indifferent to the public embodiment of mind and will. Only if rational agency were understood to have an essential inward dimension to which no embodiment would do justice, could every last physical detail be left in place in testimony to the indifference and independence of individuality from every particular given.

31

In addition to this exclusion of insignificant physical idiosyncrasies, the treatment of the face joins that of the rest of the body in embracing a stage of physical prime where the individual has reached a healthy maturity without yet entering a period of physical decline.( [27]  Although the eternal youth of the classical nude might... [27] ) Once more, the departure from mimetic fidelity fits the unity of body and spirit, where nothing in the exterior should be unresponsive to the aspirations of mind and will, just as rational agency should have no pathos for what cannot be realized in public action. Accordingly, from head to toe, the nude must be free of physical imperfection, as measured by the demand of giving expression to an individuality fully in control of its body and seeking no further satisfaction than what can be attained in physical exertion.

32

The particular molding of facial features serves the same ambition.

33

Although contingencies of natural species and ethnic/racial subgroups play a role in how face and figure get shaped, the idealization by which facial anatomy unites with a particular self-understanding involves a departure from the ethnic/racial given to which naturalism is slavishly devoted. Consequently, as much as the classical Greek nude retains features specific to the physiological particularities that may be assumed to have prevailed among the ancient Greeks, what makes the classical face aesthetically distinctive are the modifications by which the ethnographic material is transfigured for artistic ends. Here what is conceptually necessary is that the unity of body and spirit be made manifest in relation to the features of the face in the same way in which the idealizations of physical perfection apply to the overall surface and contour of the body. Insofar as different facial features play roles of varying importance to the conduct of rational agency, their shaping should here reflect the fitting of the body to the demands of mind and will. Those parts of the face that serve purely natural functions should be subordinated to those facial features that are central in discourse and action. In the case of humans, the eyes, ears and mouth take priority as facial vehicles of conduct, and do so in the configuration that turns them away from physical necessities and orients them to human interaction. Thus, whereas animals can have snouts emphasizing the subordination of physiognomy to the natural functions of obtaining food and drink, the independent projection of nose and mouth is virtually eliminated in the classical profile, where the plane of the eyes, the forehead, the mouth and the chin all fall in a line, whose continuity is emphasized by having the bridge of the nose come straight from the forehead, with the eyes deeply set on either side, highlighting even more the projection of the forehead.( [28]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 727-8, II 734. [28] ) Moreover, the lower lip is characteristically fuller than the upper, giving the mouth a form free for speech, but not subordinated to alimentary functions like the animal muzzle.( [29]   HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 736. [29] )

34

Although these stylized arrangements give emphasis to the theoretical and ethical affinities of the face, while relegating the purely natural elements to the background, two other salient features restrict the scope of mind and will in ways that frame the limits of classical individuality and set it apart from a modern sensibility. On the one hand, the eyes are left without any differentiated articulation of pupil and iris that could express the concentration of an internal feeling and conviction distinct from the general bearing of the exterior of the body, or the internal reaction of the agent to what is seen.( [30]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 731-3. Although,... [30] ) On the other hand, the face as a whole is generally devoid of any expression that would reflect particular moods or thoughts or contexts of action. ( [31]  Exceptions to this lack of expression are found only... [31] ) Instead, the blank eyes and stolid cast of the face present a self-repose in which the individuality of the figure exhibits a permanent fixity of character and a lack of inner division. To a modern eye, these coordinate features give the face a lack of depth; yet this shallowness expresses precisely the unity of body and spirit, of inner and outer, of individual and given ethical community, by which the classical subject is distinguished. It is the exact counterpart of the physical perfection that pervades every other part of the figure.

35

From neck to toe, the same form of rational agency achieves expression. In contrast to the stiff, flattened shaping of Egyptian and archaic torsos,( [32]  Hegel analyzes at length the distinctive flatness and... [32] ) the classical nude contrasts the line of the shoulders and that of hips in a fluid balance that expresses at one and the same time the effortless, unimpeded animation of the body and the independent repose in which that animating spirit dwells. Replacing rigid symmetry with a dynamic alternation of body planes, crystallized in the cuirasse esthetique, the accentuated band of muscles joining thighs and torso,( [33]  CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 35,40. [33] ) the classical nude remains internally balanced, so as to support and retain its own position, instead of presenting a fleeting spectacle or a contortion due to external force. Just as the face has a fixed gaze in which nothing lies hidden within or before or after, so the vital balance of the figure presents an animating spirit, fully expressing itself in the body it masters, striking an abiding pose in which its complete, universal character shines through. To avoid injecting a division of body and spirit, the posture of the figure appears unforced, as if the body assumed its own position in effortless harmony with the agency within. ( [34]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 740. [34] ) No passage to any hereafter or any inner tension is intimated. Instead, the figure gives all that is to be had in the one frozen exterior. In this way, the resources of sculpture are fully utilized, giving expression to a self-understanding that can pack in everything it has to say in the confine of a nude statue. Whether the figure is a god, a hero, or an unheralded mortal, the type of individuality is the same and the pervading idealization of the nude can remain constant.

36

The result certainly has a special harmony. The classical nude gives expression to an individuality in which body and spirit can be united, because the self views nothing that sets it at odds with the external, public world of conduct to be essential to its being. Inner feelings, convictions and turmoil need not be denied. Achilles can sulk in his tent, Oedipus can be tormented by his outrages, and Socrates can doubt the knowledge of his peers. Yet nowhere is conscience given an independent standing, nowhere is rational agency determined apart from all particular embodiment, nowhere is ethical community freed of given traditions that set the stage for irreconcilable, tragic conflicts with ethical associations of competing customs. The good of the individual is still nothing but the good of the community, knowledge and virtue are inseparable, wisdom is an object of love, and truth and beauty go hand in hand.

37

These may be the parameters of a world to which sculpture can provide essential insight, but do they represent the only form of humanity for which sculpture can be a living art ?

SCULPTURE AND MODERNITY

38

Those, like Hegel and Santayana, who treat sculpture as a fundamentally classical art, commit a basic oversight. They assume that the limitations of sculpture to an immobile spatial figure only allow for art's unity of form and content when the meaning to be shaped comprises a self-understanding that locates everything essential in the exterior of human conduct. How the classical nude achieves its exemplary melding of shape and significance, however, already suggests that other possibilities are available. For to be a vehicle of the classical spirit, the nude must idealize the human figure, removing imperfections, freezing facial expression into a depthless self-repose, posing a body in its prime in a dynamic balance. Insofar as the nude's achievement of artist success rests on a particular transfiguration of the human form, why cannot different types of transfiguration convey different forms of individuality ? ( [35]  Hegel himself acknowledges these options and their... [35] ) Gothic sculpture, for instance, must still make do with molding the exterior of frozen figures, but it can employ a stylization with a very different balance, gesture, and visage to fit an individuality whose inwardness and withdrawal beyond secular affairs takes center stage.( [36]  See Clark for a description of how the facial expression,... [36] ) Similarly, a secular romantic sculpture can discard the unblemished eternal youth of classical construal and bring back the whole gamut of the human condition, in all its imperfection and with a face and bearing evoking the inner tension of conscience and personal conviction. Contrary to Hegel,( [37]  HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 733. Hegel here states... [37] ) the particular expression of the eye, for example, can be treated in plastic terms, provided the sculptor is consistently expressing an individuality whose inner depths are not matters of indifference.

39

Accordingly, elevating classical sculpture, or indeed classical art in general, as an unapproachable paradigm of beauty involves the same blunder as treating the Greek understanding of tragedy as a hegemonic paradigm of ethics. The current communitarian wave leans in this direction, with everyone from Rorty to Nussbaum urging a turn away from systematic philosophy to seek instruction in art, as if the unconditioned universality of ethical principle can never be upheld because action (not to mention knowing) is always caught in overdetermined, conceptually opaque contexts, leaving agents prey to the "moral luck" of fate and the clash of irreconcilable ethical frameworks so perspicuously portrayed in the ancient epic and tragic drama. Yet just as the classical nude gives perfect sculptural expression to only a particular constellation of rational agency, so ancient literature fits but one form of individuality, that same shape of humanity in which the given particularity of the external public sphere is the exclusive and fully adequate home of mind and will.( [38]  As Hegel observes, the anthropomorphism of classical... [38] ) If conduct were forever confined to the polis, then perhaps we would have no choice but to take our bearings from the exemplary representations of classical art. This would amount to abandoning the modern agenda of freeing conduct from subordination to particular foundations, a liberation to be positively achieved by enacting property, moral, household, social and political relations of self-determination, where the hold of given tradition has been supplanted by the institutions of freedom. If conduct can attain such autonomy, wherein the household, social and political associations of ethical community attain a definite structure determined by the concept of self-determination, then the truth of ethics is no longer overdetermined and only to be encountered in the sensuous exemplars of art. Then, by the same token, art will need something more than the classical style to be a living testimony to human possibilities. The examples of sculpture that have supplanted the perfections of the classical nude are harbingers of what still calls to be done.

40

These examples of how sculpture can accommodate a plurality of modes equally signal that the individual arts can avoid collapsing into the styles of art, averting the category confusion into which Hegel and Santayana fall by identifying individual arts with particular styles. This escape does not save sculpture from the common fate of art in modernity, where the fundamental options of style may have already been played out and where every media must struggle to prevent the arbitrariness of form and content from undercutting art's own significance. The stylistic openness of sculpture does, however, raise sculptors from the dead and bring them before the common challenge of modern art, a challenge giving figurative sculpture the task of configuring a humanity that can no longer be at home in its body. ( [39]  See SANTAYANA, "Sculpture", 108, who remains sceptical... [39] )

Notes

[(1)]

Santayana points to these instances of how it was natural for the Greeks to make statues. See George SANTAYANA, "Sculpture", New England Magazine, N. 5, Vol. 38 (1908), 105.

[(2)]

Santayana points to these limited satisfactions as the only fruits of a purely formal, non-representative sculpture. See SANTAYANA, "Sculpture", 103.

[(3)]

HEGEL, G. W. F., Lectures On Aesthetics, 2 vols. Translated by T. M. Knox and W. Miller (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1975), II 708.

[(4)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 703.

[(5)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 704.

[(6)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 703. As Hegel observes, this prevents sculpture from presenting much that does appear on the surface of the figure, such as the trembling and twitching accompanying outbursts of anger and passion. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 715.

[(7)]

For this reason, Hegel claims that sculpture must leave the portrayal of changes of countenance to painting and other more suitable arts, focusing instead upon the universal, permanent dimension in the unity of body and spirit. See Hegel, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 718.

[(8)]

Santayana aptly refers to the "suspended animation" of sculpture. See Santayana, "Sculpture", 110.

[(9)]

In this sense, Hegel observes that the fundamental shape for sculptural construal (the human frame) is given by nature, rather than created by sculpture. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 713.

[(10)]

This "idealization" may even take the ironic extreme of a prosaic naturalism in which every detail is present except for the animation of rational agency. This is the case in romantic sculpture that expresses the independence of rational agency from any sensuous configuration by vacillating between abstraction and rote immersion in the facticity of appearance. When the latter option is embraced, the human figure may be appropriated with a "fidelity" in which only the expression of character is lacking (Duane Hanson, Segal et al), an expression requiring some transfiguration of the immediate surface of the body.

[(11)]

As Santayana observes, "sculpture is not a matter of surfaces; the muscles ... must first have been taught to relax or strain ... to some purpose ... to mean something to the beholder." (Santayana, "Sculpture", 108.)

[(12)]

In this connection Hegel observes that although rational agency permeates the entire body, it is primarily concentrated in the expression of the face, whereas the other bodily appendages express mind and will only through their posture. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 727.

[(13)]

Nonetheless, Hegel claims that romantic religious sculpture ultimately amounts to an adornment of architecture, as if all it achieved was decorative charm. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 789.

[(14)]

Admittedly, Hanson relies on coloring and clothing his figures to achieve the greatest verisimilitude; nonetheless, these extra-sculptural touches remain in line with other plastic embodiments of the same agenda that photorealism pushes in painting.

[(15)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 708, II 789. Yet, as Clark argues, Michelangelo's David has features that hardly fit the classical mold : "the strained, defiant neck, the enormous hands, and the potential movement of the pose" all suggest a different spirit. See CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 61. Rodin's Balzac seems even more distant, with its inner, searching gaze.

[(16)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, 11 710.

[(17)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 705-6.

[(18)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 710.

[(19)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 711-12.

[(20)]

CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 26.

[(21)]

As Hegel points out, although the nudity of the statue can present how the body infused by rational agency is esteemed as the most beautiful shape, mind and will attain bodily expression primarily in the face and posture of the figure. Body parts whose nudity is not a condition for disclosing facial expression and posture need not be unclothed. Therefore complete nudity is not essential to the realization of classical sculpture, and Greek sculptors were not inconsistent in clothing most female figures. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 744-5.

[(22)]

CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 24-5.

[(23)]

As Clark observes, the sculpting of the nude aims "not to imitate, but to perfect". See Kenneth CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1972), 12.

[(24)]

CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 5.

[(25)]

Clark not inappropriately speaks of the "expressionless, time-free pumpkins of antique sculpture". See CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 102.

[(26)]

CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 49.

[(27)]

Although the eternal youth of the classical nude might seem only apt for the portrayal of immortal gods, it equally signifies the removal of every want and need of sensuous life that an idealized identification of body and spirit requires. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 759.

[(28)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 727-8, II 734.

[(29)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 736.

[(30)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 731-3. Although, as Hegel observes, in some ancient temples, certain statues had painted eyes, the "sculptural" treatment remains devoid of any plastic indication of the inner soul that a glance might unveil.

[(31)]

Exceptions to this lack of expression are found only in groups of figures, engrossed in interactions involving different responses. A good example is the father and sons of the Lacoon ensemble.

[(32)]

Hegel analyzes at length the distinctive flatness and rigidity of Egyptian sculpture, showing despite himself how sculpture need not be confined to the classical style. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 781-4.

[(33)]

CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 35,40.

[(34)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 740.

[(35)]

Hegel himself acknowledges these options and their historical realizations by showing how the symbolic and romantic forms of art sculpt the human figure. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 779 ff.

[(36)]

See Clark for a description of how the facial expression, gesture and posture of PISANO'S Venus all express an other-worldly longing. CLARK, The Nude : A Study in Ideal Form, 95 ff.

[(37)]

HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 733. Hegel here states not just that ancient sculptors were consistent in avoiding to portray the glance of the eye, but that sculpture in general cannot express the demeanor of the soul through the eyes. The former claim may be valid, but the latter is refuted by the entire history of romantic sculpture.

[(38)]

As Hegel observes, the anthropomorphism of classical sculpture is deficiently incomplete since it leaves out of account the dimension of particular subjectivity, without which the full concrete individual remains elusive. See HEGEL, Lectures On Aesthetics, II 790.

[(39)]

See SANTAYANA, "Sculpture", 108, who remains sceptical of modern sculpture's prospects.

Plan de l'article

  1. THE CONSTITUTIVE LIMITS OF FIGURATIVE SCULPTURE
  2. THE AFFINITY BETWEEN SCULPTURE AND CLASSICISM
  3. FORM AND CONTENT IN THE CLASSICAL NUDE
  4. SCULPTURE AND MODERNITY

Pour citer cet article

WINFIELD Richard Dien , « The classical nude and the limits of sculpture », Revue internationale de philosophie 3/ 2002 (n° 221), p. 443-460
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-internationale-de-philosophie-2002-3-page-443.htm.


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