Is sculpture too simple for today’s art lover?

Critic Michael Kimmelman thinks sculpture – by which he means those premodern alabaster and bronze figures – has fallen out of grace with contemporary audiences.

John-the-Baptist.jpg

A tiny clay sculpture of John the Baptist at the Bode Museum in Berlin is attributed to the 15th-century Luccan artist Matteo Civitali.

Image: Gordon Welters for The New York Times

In a recent “postcard” for the New York Times, Kimmelman described having certain galleries of the Bode Museum in Berlin all to himself… I’ve excerpted the meatier bits here for your consideration:

…Is it me, or do we seem to have a problem with sculpture today? I don’t mean contemporary sculpture, whose fashionable stars (see Koons, Murakami et alia) pander to our appetite for spectacle and whatever’s new. I don’t mean ancient or even non-Western sculpture, either. I mean traditional European sculpture — celebrities like Bernini and Rodin aside — and American sculpture, too: the enormous universe of stuff we come across in churches and parks, at memorials and in museums like the Bode. The stuff Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist painter, notoriously derided as objects we bump into when backing up to look at a painting.

…I grew up with the smells of plaster dust and clay in my mother’s sculpture studio on Third Avenue. Making a figure out of stone or metal retains its childlike wonder for me. But sculpture skeptics from Leonardo through Hegel and Diderot have cultivated our prejudice against the medium. “Carib art,” is how Baudelaire described sculpture, meaning that even the suavest, most sophisticated works of unearthly virtuosity by Enlightenment paragons like Canova and Thorvaldsen were tainted by the medium’s primitive, cultish origins.

Racism notwithstanding, Baudelaire had a point. Sculpture does still bear something of the burden of its commemorative and didactic origins. It’s too literal, too direct, too steeped in religious ceremony and too complex for a historically amnesiac culture. We prefer the multicolored distractions of illusionism on flat surfaces, flickering in a movie theater or digitized on our laptops and smartphones, or painted on canvas. The marketplace ratifies our myopia, making headlines for megamillion-dollar sales of old master and Impressionist pictures but rarely for premodern sculptures.

…In an age of special effects, we may also simply no longer know how to feel awe at the sight of sculptured faces by the German genius Tilman Riemenschneider or before a bronze statue by Donatello. We can’t see past the raw materiality and subject matter.

What do you think? Is Kimmelman right? In a world of multimedia performances, has sculpture simply become too… basic?

As always, your thoughts are welcomed in the comments section.

  • Irve Dell

    I do not think Mr. Kimmelman has it just right. The problem some have with older sculpture is not sculpture’s shortcomings but rather the tendency of viewers today to let one negative characteristic of anything completely inhibit their willingness to engage. Going out on a limb, it’s the all-or-nothing effect of Bush era politics creeping into art. Many people, but not all, have no patience for complexity. I am a sculptor and while I am not always enthralled by figurative or religious work, I am still willing to spend time with it and as a result am often surprised and delighted despite my initial biases.