The Bruce Arnott Inaugural Lecture

Shaping Ideas:
the Visual Forming of Meaning


A sculpture has been defined as ― “something you bump into when you stand back to look at a painting”. Nowadays the thing that you tread in when you step back to admire a sculpture might very well be a painting, or a print in the form of a frozen chicken or a chocolate body part. That is good. Such developments extend the boundaries of art.

Nevertheless that old definition of sculpture is more useful than one might suppose, because it emphasizes the qualities of “solidity” and “thingness” that still describe the essentials of the art form. It reminds us that sculpture is fundamentally concerned with mass (therefore with gravity), with volume (therefore with space), with the object (therefore with materiality and identity).

There have been some moralistic attacks on the commodification of the “object”, but art objects have not noticeably diminished. The fruits of trade still subvent our salaries.

It should also be remembered that we look to objects for clues to the origins of art. In the archaeological record, lumps of patterned ochre, or fragments of carved and incised mammoth ivory, are understood to hint at the ordering of the human mind, or the celebration of shamanic sorceries. These objects, classified by ethnographers as „portables‟, are really proto-sculptures that possibly predate the diffused traditions of palaeolithic rock painting and engraving.

A sculpture has been defined as ― “something you bump into when you stand back to look at a painting”.

Present day readings of cave and rock art in Western Europe, and in Southern Africa (as elsewhere), indicate that the artists who made these works knew precisely what they were doing; that “portable” and mural images were integral to ritual practice; and that they very likely mark attempts to resolve problems of consciousness and survival; to influence natural processes ― even if only symbolically.

Studies of San social structures enumerate classes of shaman ― including shamans of the game, shamans of the rain, shamans of the sick, shamans to propitiate the spirits of the dead. It must be assumed that these offices point to ancient practices that ease psychological survival. Many of the rock art images describing this material refer to trance-associated experiences; and were made with divinatory and prophetic purposes in mind.1

In the intellectual traditions of Western high art, where processes of art making are not primarily communal, there is less certainty about the societal functions of art than exists in the primitive model. There is a lingering sense of having lost the way. Robert Motherwell, for example, expressed the concern that it is more difficult for a modern artist to know what to make, than to know how to make it.2

There is a line of argument that suggests that, in Western Europe, the tradition of Romanesque sculpture was evidence of a healthy recovery from the barbarian depredations of the Dark Ages. That is, until the year 1260, when Nicola Pisano perversely shifted the paradigm by quoting Classical art in his marble pulpit for the Baptistry in Pisa.

This signalled the end of the anonymous medievalism of Romanesque and early Gothic sculpture; and the beginning of the self-conscious creative processes of Renaissance art ― individualistic, intellectual and modern.

Unfortunately, the artistic flowering of the Renaissance did not give birth to significant developments in the language of form. In embracing the intellectual traditions of Greek classicism (including the notion of Man as the measure of all things), the sculptors of the Renaissance locked onto the habits of Classical representation ― adopting an essentially idealised naturalism.

1 David Lewis-Williams, The mind in the cave (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002): 133.
2 Robert Hughes, The shock of the new: Art and the century of change (London: BBC, 1980): 161.

PROF PIPPA SKOTNES ― A note of thanks to Bruce Arnott, on the occasion of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Fine Art, Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, 2003. We remember Bruce Arnott, Emeritus Professor of Fine Art


Source : African Yearbook of Rhetoric, Volume 2, Issue 2, Jan 2011, p. 153 – 169