Art History through Innovators: Sculpture

Part 1 (Introduction)


Sometimes when I walk into the Metropolitan Museum (my “local” museum), I still freeze like a zombie in a spotlight. The choices are overwhelming. Where should I head to find art that I’ll enjoy — not art that the museum staff or art critics think I ought to “appreciate”?

Fortunately, the panic usually lasts only a moment. After 25 years of talking and writing on art, I can make an intelligent guess whether an exhibition on Bernini, Carpeaux, or the sculpture of Assyria is going to give me a thrill. (This is the first in a series of articles. The whole series is now available as a Kindle book, Innovators in Sculpture.)

What’s in this survey for you?

When I’m in a museum, I don’t like having Audio Authorities talking in my head. I don’t want to be elbowing my way to one abstrusely academic label after another. I don’t want to be straggling along behind a guide. (That woman at the edge of the group, taking a photo of the artwork next to the one the guide is talking about? That’s me.)

I like to be self-directed — but I also like to be informed, because following my curiosity is more interesting than aimless wandering.

I wrote Art History through Innovators for people like me. It’s a framework designed to help you enjoy art on your own. The survey is pinned on 10 turning points in the history of sculpture — easy to grasp and easy to recognize. Medium is a perfect platform for this sort of survey: you can add highlights, post notes and queries to me, and share with friends.

All the images you need are provided. If you like, read the survey at home before you visit the Metropolitan Museum, and then choose galleries that have works you think you’ll enjoy. If you’re not in New York, the framework will let you seek out intriguing galleries in any museum. If you’re taking a college course in art history, it’ll give you a grand perspective, so you won’t feel like you’re desperately seeking the $10,000 koi among hundreds of red herrings.

If you’ve always been curious about art, but are daunted by thousand-page, $200 art-history textbooks … then this is the introduction you’ve been waiting for. Think of it as a frolicsome romp through 5,000 years of sculpture, condensed into a dozen 10-minute segments.

Walking the Met

Because seeing sculpture is indubitably and infinitely better than seeing photos of it, this survey was originally designed as a walking tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its length is based on the fact that I burn out after about 2 hours at the Met.

If you are walking through the Met as you do the survey, check the Notes for useful information about where to find the sculptures. Look for a number in a small gray box to the right of the text.

A few additional words of advice re walking the Met:

  • Feel free to sit whenever a bench is available. Throbbing feet make it difficult to think about anything, including art.
  • Don’t feel you have to march from one sculpture in the survey to the next. If you want a moment to think, take it. If you’re irresistibly drawn to the second sculpture to the right of the one I’m talking about, go look at it.
  • If you need caffeine or food after half an hour, go find some. You don’t get double bonus points from me for suffering in silence and finishing first.

*The* question

We start our survey in the American Wing courtyard, at Harriet Frishmuth’s The Vine. It’s a bronze statue of a woman dancing, about 7 feet high.

Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, The Vine, 1921. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1927. Photo: MetMuseum.org

Our first and most important question is: Exactly what are we covering in this survey?

What we’re not covering is what you’d get in a typical college art-history course. Those usually last a semester or two, and cover the characteristics of the art of every major civilization and every time period, from Neolithic through Post-Modern.

Here we’re focusing instead on a single question. In 5,000 years, how did sculptors progress from creating works such as Hatshepsut to works such as The Vine?

Left: Hatshepsut, ca. 1479–1458 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Dianne L. Durante. Right: Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, The Vine, 1921. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1927. Photo: MetMuseum.org

What I want to show you are the major innovations in art that brought us from Hatshepsut to The Vine. That’s why I call this survey “Art History Through Innovators.”

What’s art? What’s a major innovation?

If you have an enquiring mind, you’ll immediately be asking two questions.

  • What is art?
  • What counts as a major innovation?

What is art? You might be surprised to hear that there’s no widely accepted definition. If you ask 5 staff members at the Metropolitan Museum, they’ll give you 5 different definitions. Same thing if you ask 5 professors who teach art history.

The most difficult part of writing this survey was making sure that when we start, we’re on the same page about the meaning of “art.” It’s not an easy question, so let’s start with the basics.

Look at this logo.

  • Do you know who that is?
  • Do you know what he’s doing?
  • Is he good, bad, or mediocre at what he does?
  • How did he get that way: skill, practice, luck, transcendental meditation?

If you recognize this figure as Michael Jordan, then the image carries with it a set of ideas about excellence, and about how you achieve excellence. That’s why Nike uses it as a logo.

Sculptures carry ideas with them, too. For example, look at Michelangelo’s David.

Michelangelo, David, 1504. Florence, Accademia. Photo: Rico Heil / Wikipedia

What do you see in this sculpture? Most people see a combination of courage, strength, and alertness.

Now: think about this for a moment from the artist’s point of view. Artworks often endure for centuries — but artists never do. That means an artist can’t sculpt an image of every single thing he sees, or every random idea that pops into his head. Nor can he include every microscopic detail of what he does choose to sculpt. He has to choose his subjects and his style based on what matters enough to him — what’s important enough to him — to spend days, months, or years working on.

So by showing courage, strength, and alertness in a work of art, Michelangelo says: “These things are important to me.” A sculptor who represents Uncle Dave drinking beer in a La-Z-Boy reveals a different set of values.

In either case, when the artist creates his work of art, he tells you: “This is important, this matters, pay attention to this — this value, this idea, this action.” Sometimes it’s this kind of place, this sort of person, this kind of feeling. But it’s always something the artist considers profoundly important.

Now, let’s talk about what counts as a major innovation in art.

To convey his idea of what’s important, an artist must be able to communicate with you. That means, first, that he has to capture your attention — he can’t communicate with you if your brain is channel-surfing.

Then he has to show you something you can understand — he can’t communicate without a common language.

He has to show you something so unusual or so vivid that it makes you stand still and contemplate what he has created. As soon as you move on to another artwork, the sculptor has lost his chance to communicate with you.

In short, a sculptor has to make you, his audience, stop, look, and think about his work of art.

The innovations we’re looking at in Art History through Innovators: Sculpture are not novelty for the sake of novelty. Every one of them gave its creator more power to make you stop, look, and think. And these innovations were not gimmicks or minor tweaks. They were so effective that they allowed many other sculptors to convey their values and ideas more effectively.

By my count, there are only 10 such innovations. In this survey, we will look at a number of other works for the sake of context and contrast. Do try to resist the temptation to make a rude noise and scroll speedily through those parts of the survey. You may hate medieval art, for example, but you’ll need to see some of it in order to appreciate Donatello and Michelangelo.

Takeaways

  1. The big question we’re looking at is: How did sculpture progress from a sculpture such as Hatshepsut to a sculpture such as Frishmuth’s Vine?
  2. In a work of art, an artist tells you: “This is important, this matters, pay attention to this — this value, this idea, this action, this kind of place or person, this kind of feeling.”
  3. A major innovation is one that allows a sculptor to make you, his audience, stop, look, and think longer and harder about the artwork he has created.

Comments and suggestions always welcome, in the form of notes here or tweets (@NYCsculpture).

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