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.

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.

Our Senses and Art

Have you ever been on one of those 4D rides at an amusement park? Not only do you experience the film 3D (because you are wearing those stylish 3D glasses), but there is a supposed fourth dimension which includes water being sprayed on you or the feeling of bugs crawling up your leg simultaneous to the corresponding scenes in the film. While the experience is diverting, do the additional effects enhance or detract from our aesthetic experience? If the purpose is to draw us in to the imaginary world of the film by stimulating more of our senses, I’m afraid it has the opposite result. Just as we are about to enter the imaginary world of the film, the shock of touch calls us back to the real world. We may try to enter into the fantasy world of “Shrek”, for instance, but are jolted back by a spray of cold water on our legs! As a result, the experience becomes awkward and disjointed diminishing the aesthetic experience.[ref]Though it falls short as an aesthetic experience, I still enjoy the ride![/ref] This may simply be a personal preference or it may actually relate to how our senses interact with art.

In Robert Wood’s “Introduction” to Placing Aesthetics, he observes that seeing and hearing are the primary senses used in fine arts. By listing off the primary forms of the fine arts: prose, poetry, music, dance, architecture, sculpture and painting, we can agree with his observation that each of them are experienced through either sight or sound (or both). Wood references a few obscure arts that do have other senses such as the culinary arts or perfume making, but we do not usually associate those with fine arts. Wood questions the reason for this emphasis: “What is there about seeing and hearing that sets off their field of operation from that of the other senses?”[ref]Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 19.[/ref] He suggests that the other senses (taste, smell and touch) are proximity senses; in other words, those senses give us information about an object which is close to us and as a result, produce an immediate sensual experience. The proximity senses relate directly to the body: for example, when we smell, the odor enters through the nose; when we taste, the food enters the mouth; when we touch, the object must come in contact with our body. With seeing and hearing, however, though sight is done with the eyes and hearing with the ears, the experience and reaction takes place more in our mind. We do not have a “somatic self-experience,” as Wood puts it, and thus, these senses can be considered away from the body or distant senses.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] The distance created between the body and the aesthetic experience by these senses allows the participants to transcend to something above a bodily experience. Participants can engage and connect with the universal world through the ideas referenced in the art. Art, then, is primarily through the senses of sight and sound because it provides us with a deeper, more meaningful experience and pushes us to think upon ideas that are bigger than ourselves.

Think, for example, of reading a good novel. We use our sense of sight to read, but the words on the page are not the form of art in itself. The art is actually found in the imaginary world. The words from the novel paint the world in our minds and we transcend to this place as we read. The better the descriptions and the more relatable the characters, the more we are able to truly engross ourselves in this imaginary world. The sense of sight then uses a real object to call us to an imaginary world which includes universal ideas. As we go deeper into the imaginary world, we connect ourselves more to these universal ideas. If we attempted to use the same techniques found in the 4D theatre experience while reading a good novel, our experience would immediately change. What if we were able to touch the texture of the clothes of the characters or smell the food described in a dinner scene? I would argue that these physical elements would only distract and detract from the aesthetic experience. The novel carries the reader to an imaginary world and the proximate senses, most likely, will only bring him or her back to the real world.

Could incorporating all the senses ever be beneficial to our aesthetic experience? There may be times where, though it is an aesthetic experience, the purpose is not to carry us into the universal or imaginary realm but, rather, to call us to something in the present and real world.[ref]Certainly, good art, which may carry us away to the imaginary world in the moment, will also encourage us to change our present reality. Its connection to the universal ideas can be a powerful motivator for reform.[/ref] In high mass, all of our senses are incorporated: we are listening to the music, touching and tasting the bread and the wine, smelling the incense, reading the Scriptures on the page and seeing the beauty of the art in the cathedral around us. Here it seems that our experience is enhanced because we are able to worship more fully – with all of our body and our mind completely engaged. The purpose of the service is not for us to transcend to an imaginary world, but to fully dedicate all of our being in the present world and in that present moment to God.

The emphasis, then, on the senses of sight and sound in the fine arts is not arbitrary, but goes hand in hand with the usual purposes of the fine arts: to turn us out of ourselves toward universal ideas and to connect us to an imaginary world. There are some aesthetic experiences which successfully use the proximity senses, such as a church service, but here the purpose of such an aesthetic experience differs from the norm.