Sculpture: An Exemplar for the Unreal Nature of Art

Sculpture plays a unique role in the philosophy of art by bringing to light some of the often overlooked characteristics of artworks. All artworks, in my opinion, point us toward another world, but sculpture reflects attributes of the other world in a way that no other artwork is capable of. With its solid and durable materials, sculpture symbolizes a stability and a rigidity, which can withstand the weathering of time. Robert Wood points out:

Bronze and stone, and to a lesser extent wood or ceramic clay fired at extreme temperatures, have a fixity, a solidity less subject to the decay of time than paint on canvas or plaster . . . A sculpted piece suggests an endurance, a hardness, a resistance and is particularly fit for memorializing – especially in stone and bronze. It renders its subject “immortal.”[ref]Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, 76. [/ref]

The permanency of the sculptural materials reflects permanency in another realm; though we know that the materials are not immortal, the longevity of their life suggests to us things or beings which are immortal. But, how exactly does a material artwork, such as a piece of sculpture, reflect something immaterial?

Sartre offers a helpful answer to this question through his description of the real and the unreal (imaginary) worlds. He believes that each work of art participates in both the real and the unreal worlds. The artwork in the real world is the ‘physical analogue’ because it contains the material and physical dimensions of the artwork. A sculpture excellently typifies this due to its permanency of materials, but other artforms have their physical nature as well: the frame, paint and canvas of a painting, the sound waves of a musical piece, or the page filled with words of a poem, for a few examples. The ‘physical analogue’ is not the complete work of art, as it also symbolizes the imaginary artwork in the unreal world. A sculpture, as the ‘physical analogue,’ holds the place in the real world for the sculpture in the imaginary world; it acts as its file name or reference number. Behind the reference number, or ‘physical analogue’, an artist has created an unreal object or image.

Sartre gives us an example of the statue of Ganymede (see image above), a handsome mortal in Greek mythology, to illustrate the way a sculpture symbolizes both the real and the unreal. He proposes:

Consider Ganymede on his pedestal. If you ask me how far away he is, I will tell you that I don’t know what you are talking about. By ‘Ganymede’ do you mean the youth carried away by Jupiter’s eagle? If so, I will say that there is no real distance between us, that no such relation exists because he does not exist. Or are you referring to the block of marble that the sculptor fashioned in the image of the handsome lad? If so, we are dealing with something real, with existing material and can draw comparisons.[ref]Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Quest of the Absolute,” in Essays in Aesthetics, ed. Wade Baskin (New York: The Citadel Press, 1963), 86.[/ref]

Ganymede is both a statue of marble, 15 feet away, as well as an imaginary figure of Greek mythology. An artwork is free to live in both of these worlds: it will stand in front of us, as real as marble, but it will also dwell in the imaginary world of the unreal.

Sartre’s definition of an artwork as both real and unreal gives us a language to understand more fully the power of art, and in particular, the power of sculpture. Though a decidedly physical object, sculpture ironically represents a lasting nature in both the mortal and the immortal worlds.

Andy Goldsworthy: Nature, Metaphor and Humanity


I recently had the opportunity to view a screening of a documentary on the nature artist, Andy Goldsworthy, entitled Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy has developed a unique form of art, which involves going into nature, using the natural materials around him and then creating an artwork, which complements or accents the natural surroundings. Due to the nature of such work, his artworks are often temporary, taken back into nature by wind or water. The actual work of art, then, is not only found in his structure of the natural material, but also in the process by which he makes it and in the photographs and film used to preserve it. He spends all morning, for example, building a wooden round structure, resembling a beaver dam, on the shore of a lake (shown in photo above). At the top of the wooden structure, there is his signature hole, representing eternity or infinity. When the tide comes in, the structure slowly moves away from its original location, breaks free from its foundation and is gradually carried out into the water. The beauty of the art is found not only in the way it is created, but also in the way it is broken down as it returns to nature.


Another example, which I found particularly beautiful, was where he placed brightly colored leaves according to a particular pattern in a small pool at the side of a creek (similar to the photo on the right). The vibrancy and brilliance of the colors were astonishing; it was almost as if the water was on fire! And yet, all the colors were from the surrounding trees, simply arranged in a striking way. Again, this work was only temporary, for when the creek rose, the leaves were carried away.

I will admit, however, that at the beginning of the documentary, I was skeptical of the value of Goldsworthy’s work because I felt uncomfortable with its temporality. With some of his pieces only lasting a few hours or less, I wondered if their value and impact would be diminished. Others, who have encountered Goldsworthy, most likely have posed similar objections. Yet, after reflecting on the power of his art, I realized that all art, and all of humanity, for that matter, is as temporary as the leaves being taken away down the stream. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this:

All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.[ref]Isaiah 40:6-8 (Quoted again in 1 Peter 1:24-25).[/ref]

Robert Wood eloquently remarks on this fleeting characteristic of humanity as represented in Andy Goldsworthy’s work in Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us: “ . . . it brings to mind the way in which every form that we introduce into Nature eventually succumbs to its processes as do we who emerged out of Nature. [Goldsworthy’s] work makes a powerful case for the metaphoric use of Nature.”[ref]Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, Quote at End of Ch.1.[/ref] Many other metaphors, in addition to the temporality of humanity, speak to us from Goldsworthy’s profound use of nature.

What is it about Goldsworthy’s nature-art that attracts us and allows us to explore such metaphors? The attraction of his projects, in my opinion, does not lie in his reliance on the natural environment or in his human skill at creating art, though both of these are important and attractive elements of his work. The source for such profound beauty is in his wedding of the natural and the human. Although they are inspired by natural forms and processes, his artworks are not nature look-alikes; each of them is uniquely human in their design and execution. On one hand, his artwork shows the stark contrast between wild, untamed nature and rational humanity, but, on the other hand, it also displays connections and similarities between them through elements of temporality and unpredictability.

Kant speaks of the power of this type of aesthetic contrast towards the end of the first book of the Critique of Judgment. He gives an example of how a pepper garden in itself is not so amusing, but if one were to stumble upon a pepper garden in the middle of a forest, it would be much more attractive. For, he states, “wild beauty, apparently irregular, only pleases as a variation from the regular beauty of which one has seen enough.” [ref]Kant, Critique of Judgment in Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 307.[/ref]. He argues that the variation between wild beauty and regular beauty is what is attractive to us and draws us in. This variety is necessary for aesthetic experience, according to Kant, because it allows us to have free play between our imagination and our understanding.

Goldsworthy’s art certainly does allow our imagination and understanding the freedom to explore new metaphors, and, I would argue, through such exploration, we can be brought to meditate on even deeper metaphysical and spiritual reflections. If you can spare the time, I would encourage you to view the documentary, Rivers and Tides, and allow yourself further meditation on the metaphors between nature and humanity. I welcome comments on Goldsworthy’s work here as well.

Heidegger and Poesy

Heidegger considers poetry to be the pinnacle of all art forms because it most accurately illustrates the essence of art. He views art as fundamentally concerned with setting-into-work of truth (i.e. bringing to light truth), and he believes that poetry is best able to perform this function. Poetry sets-into-work truth with superiority, because it is able to use language to show truth. The linguistic nature of poetry makes it stand apart from all other genres of art and, in Heidegger’s opinion, gives it a “privileged position in the domain of the arts”[ref]Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 695.[/ref] Other art forms can still set to work truth, when they contain the essence of poetry, which Heidegger calls poesy, but they cannot reach the level of articulation that poetry is able to obtain. Poesy technically means the art of making poetry, so other arts, though they are not poetry, can still be created according to poetic principles. These poetic principles are focused on the projection of truth. Thus, all forms of art can be traced back to poetry through the notion of poesy, as Heidegger relates, “If all art is in essence poetry, then the arts of architecture, painting, sculpture, and music must be traced back to poesy.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

It is unfortunate that Heidegger did not explore this notion of poesy further in his analysis of other art forms. Perhaps, through such exploration, the value of other art forms would become more explicit. Abstract music, for example, is one such art form, which jumps out as having a unique type of poesy; its message is often as loud as poetry if not louder, depending on the person and circumstances. In one sense, abstract music does not have the linguistic characteristic of poetry, and yet, in other sense, it can speak through a language all its own. It can express human emotions in a deep sense; emotions, which may not even be expressible in words. Such depth of feeling needs to be accounted for in art and while poetry proper certainly can describe and elicit such deep feelings, there also needs to be space for art forms to describe and elicit feelings incapable of being articulated in human language. Poesy may be the foundation for the art forms, but the manner in which poesy is displayed varies, making each art form play a different role in the setting-into-work of truth.

A Starting Point for Metaphysics: Kant and Lonergan

Immanuel Kant’s famous distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal world naturally poses problems for metaphysics. The noumenal world is the intelligible world or the world of things-in-themselves where, if we had access to it, we would be able to understand our sensible experiences in the phenomenal world. Access to the noumenal world would include understanding pure ideas such as justice and courage as well as an understanding of causes and effects seemingly found in our world. But, according to Kant, we do not have access to the noumenal world and are stuck in the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, where we can only make speculations about what is really going on. We cannot make synthetic a priori judgments; in other words, we cannot make any universal truth claims based on our experiences in the world. Our link between experience and truth is cut off. In light of this, Kant must reject metaphysics since we are unable to make any metaphysical claims about reality. Metaphysics may exist but we have no way of knowing anything contained in it.

However, Kant appears to take a step closer to the noumenal world in his third critique, Critique of Judgment. In this Critique, he discusses how aesthetic judgment links art to morality. As Wood puts it, “Our shipwreck in the theoretical order points to the real purpose of our faculties: moral action in this world” [ref]Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 125.[/ref] Art brings out our act of judging and through this act which reflects both freedom and nature, Kant may be finding a unity between the world of appearances and the world of truth. Wood argues, “The whole region of reflective judgment – the beautiful, the sublime, and the organic – points to the possibility of the insertion of causality through concepts into the mechanical world of nature and thus serves to bring together the fractured halves of the field of thought . . .” [ref]Ibid., 145[/ref]

Though Kant would not claim that human judgment is a starting point for metaphysics, others, such as Bernard Lonergan, do offer such a proposition. Lonergan seeks to understand the human faculty of judging (along with the other human faculties) in order to first, find a method for how we come to know things (epistemology) and second, to discover a starting point for metaphysics. In his carefully structured 700 page masterpiece, Insight, he slowly finds that the capacity to judge or “revise” the world is where we can find truth about the sensible world. In the Chapter 14, “Method of Metaphysics,” he states, “Bluntly, the starting point of metaphysics is people as they are.” [ref]Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 422.[/ref]

Sadly, Kant was unwilling to make such a claim, although perhaps he was drawing closer to it in his third critique. Lonergan, in contrast, offers this rather simple starting point for metaphysics: people as they are. People have the unusual capacity to judge the world around them, have insights, revise insights and slowly build up a dynamic set of metaphysical principles. Though all other metaphysical principles are able to be questioned, the fact that we are questioning is unquestionable. Thus, the fact that we are revisers cannot be revised: “for there is no revision of revisers themselves.”[ref]Ibid., 302[/ref] It may seem like an obvious principle to grant, but as Lonergan attempts to do, from it, one can begin to discover many other metaphysical principles along the way.

This is not to say that this principle is the only starting point for metaphysics. Certainly, there are many other points on which to begin as philosophers have shown over the centuries. For, if there really is a metaphysics, there will be more than one way to find it.

Music Opening the Road to Truth and Beauty: Plato and Marcel


In the construction of the theoretical city in The Republic, Socrates argues that when the appropriate kind of music is employed for the training of the youthful guardians of the city, they will be more inclined toward the love of reason. Like a fresh breeze blowing into a field, so music will bring health and life to the soul. Socrates eloquently describes:

Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.[ref]Plato, The Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett, In Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), Book III, 401, pg. 27-28.[/ref]

As they grow up, the youth of this theoretical city will only be exposed to music, which uses the proper words, melody and rhythm to foster a love of reason. Music will be carefully filtered to make sure that only certain words, which tell stories of good virtues, are allowed to be sung, certain melodic sequences, which are only found in the Dorian and Phrygian modes, are allowed to be used in composition,[ref]The Greek Dorian and Phrygian modes are not the same as our modern Dorian and Phrygian modes. The Phrygian mode went from the note d-d’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between and the Greek Dorian mode went from e-e’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between. The sounds, however, could differ greatly as the tetrachords could be either diatonic, enharmonic or chromatic meaning that the number of whole steps, half steps and even quarter steps composing the tetrachord could vary. Along with the patterns of notes, these modes included other characteristics coming from the people groups after which they were named. The important point here is that these two modes were seen as promoting positive values for the youth. See Don Michael Randel, Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1978) for a very brief reference to these ideas and the article Mode (music) on Wikipedia for a more detailed overview.[/ref] and certain rhythmic patterns, which incite only the appropriate emotions, are accepted. All of this is for the sake of cultivating a love of reason so that the youth will better be able to discern the “true nature of the beautiful and graceful.” “For,” Socrates asks, “what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?”[ref]Plato, The Republic, Book III, 403, pg. 29.[/ref] The goal for the restrictions on art and music in the city is not to deprive the guardians of pleasure for the sake of some kind of asceticism, but to use art to all the more foster an environment which allows the youth to fall in love with reason and to go after the beautiful.

In one of his more autobiographical lectures, “Music in My Life and Works,” the 20th century existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, relates his own journey directed by music toward the love of the beautiful and the love of truth.[ref]Marcel would claim, however, that all of his works are autobiographical as one cannot divorce his life from his writings.[/ref] Music, for him and for his family, was more than a hobby, as it played a significant role in establishing familial relationships as well as expressing life values. Marcel’s childhood mirrors Plato’s hopes for the youth of his city since he is surrounded by music from birth, by his mother, his father, his aunt and his own playing, which then “opened the road to Truth.” He recounts:

On this level my thought continues in the tradition of Schopenhauer . . . Of course, I admit his pessimism, against which I have always protested without ever forgetting that the world does seem on all sides to invite us to despair. But . . . it seems to me that it is music and music alone that has caused me to discover the saving light. It is music that has opened the road to Truth for me, towards which I have not ceased striving, this Truth beyond all the partial truths that science demonstrates and expounds, the Truth that illumines the work of the greatest composers like Bach or Mozart.[ref]Gabriel Marcel, “Music in My Life and Works,” In Music and Philosophy, trans. by Stephen Maddux and Robert E. Wood (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2005), 53.[/ref]

Marcel finds that music revealed the notions of truth to him from an early age and though he did not consciously understand this till much later, he is able to look back and see how music was one of the primary stepping stones leading him toward his idea of truth. To apply Plato’s terms, music was a use to him in that it refined his rational abilities to follow after the beauty and the truth.

Marcel, however, would not apply the same type of restrictions to music (or art) that Plato puts forward in The Republic. He often gravitated toward art that expressed the despair that he found in his own life and in the world around him which included many diverse art forms. Not that he would make no distinctions between good and bad art, but he would argue that art promoting a multiplicity of values was what gradually allowed him to discover hope and truth. The exploration of other values allowed him the freedom to be gently led toward what he called, “the saving light.” Nevertheless, the common thread between both Plato and Marcel is significant: though the scope of music (and art) may be different, both recognized that a greater love of truth and beauty can be gleamed from music.