Sculpere, the name of our newsletter, is a Latin word of three syllables the emphasis being placed on the long ‘e’ of the middle one. Translated into English it means ‘to carve’. This infinitive together with the first person present tense, ‘sculpo’, I carve, and the first person past tense, ‘sculptus sum’, I carved, tells you all you need to know to fully conjugate the verb.
Many English nouns are derived from the past participle of Latin verbs, in this case ‘sculptus’, giving us ‘sculpture’ and ‘sculptor’. It would seem therefore that sculpture, at least to the Romans, was something produced by carving and there are plenty of examples to support this even if they are copies of earlier Greek ones. A purist, I suppose, would say that objects produced by carving alone is entitled to be called a sculpture. This, presumably, would rule out of contention the statue of Athena that stood about 10 metres high in the Parthenon as it was constructed from tree trunks and covered with ivory and gold. No doubt each part was carved roughly to shape, the parts assembled then finished with more carving and finally sanding. But I think that no-one today would say that this is not a sculpture. But where, then, does that leave Stonehenge, The Great Pyramid of Cheops and the Pont du Gard all of which are carved then assembled.
Clearly, today we have no such limited view of sculpture which has developed to include almost any idea that can be expressed visually and in three dimensions. The important word here is ‘idea’. Until fairly recently, when art became autonomous in the middle of the nineteenth century, sculpture along with painting was mostly illustrative. The notion of a sculpture conveying an idea as its primary aim was severely limited. Today I suspect that the reverse is true, most serious sculpture being intellectual with illustration playing a minor role.
This intellectual content that overlies the subject of a sculpture sometimes leaves viewers bemused as they try to find a point of recognition and exasperated when they do not. Dismissal of the unfamiliar as unworthy is common.
Attempts are being made by organisers of exhibitions to accommodate this plethora of genres in ‘sculpture’. In the next Lempriere Prize, for example, entrants will be invited from ‘sculptors/architects/garden designers’. The invention of more categories with particular names would relieve the word ‘sculpture’ of the burden it currently carries thus freeing it for its original purpose and meaning. But what’s in a name?