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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.

  1. [1] Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, 76.
  2. [2] Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Quest of the Absolute,” in Essays in Aesthetics, ed. Wade Baskin (New York: The Citadel Press, 1963), 86.