Hollow victory

The World as Sculpture

James Hall <em>Chatto & Windus, 435pp, £25</em>

ISBN 070116882X

"Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting." This famous put-down has been attributed to any number of postwar artists and critics. It may well be apocryphal, but the mere fact that there are so many suspects (the New York minimalist Ad Reinhardt being the most likely) reminds us of how sculpture has been traditionally regarded as the poor relation of painting.

Things are very different now. With painting considered as good as moribund, sculpture, or at least some form of work in three dimensions, is generally the only medium you encounter in contemporary galleries with any kind of cutting edge. This fundamental shift from two to three dimensions, from image to object, has not escaped the notice of James Hall, the former art critic of the Guardian. In his years spent reviewing, he has been "repeatedly struck - literally as well as metaphorically- by the way that modern artworks address the viewer". Experiencing art has become an act of physical confrontation.

The World as Sculpture is an exhaustive and at times exhausting study of sculpture-as-inferiority-complex. Hall, like a barrister setting up a jury for some crushing adversarial coup, takes us through a lengthy catalogue of literary disparagement, from Filarete's dismissal of sculpture as "not for gentlemen" (1461) to Boccioni's assertion that the "sculpture of every country is dominated by the moronic mimicry of old, inherited formulas" (1912).

To Hall sculpture is unsophisticated and labour-intensive; its development is hidebound by the achievements of antiquity; it panders to the sense of touch, the most dangerous and unreliable of the senses. Unlike painting, it is unable to "speak for itself"; it is static and monochromatic; it lacks expression and modernity; but above all - and this is the axis around which Hall's entire thesis revolves - sculpture is produced by workers, not artists.

The gentleman-artist may have flourished in an age of royal and aristocratic patronage, but a very different kind of figure was required for the social upheaval of the 19th century. Enter Courbet and the "myth of the worker-artist", the unlikely seed from which installation art grew. Hall seems more at ease with modern material, and his perceptive discussion of Courbet's "landmark" self-portrait of 1845 is the springboard for a wider reinterpretation of modernism in the visual arts. As Hall demonstrates, the tendency for contemporary artists to play down notions of "inspiration" and "genius" - and to create works that aggressively invade the space of the viewer - has close parallels with the 19th-century mania for erecting large-scale public statues. It is the collaborative effort required to produce major architectural works such as Rodin's Gates of Hell and Gilbert Scott's Albert Memorial that, Hall believes, provides the template for celebrated contemporary works such as Rachel Whiteread's House and Richard Wilson's pond of sump oil in the Saatchi gallery. "The birth of the worker-artist is thus the corollary to the so-called 'death of the author'," writes Hall. So if Duchamp is the father of installation art, Rodin turns out to be its grandfather.

If anything, The World as Sculpture tells us more about the origins of late-20th-century conceptualism than it does about the history of sculpture, but the originality of the perceptions alone makes it worth the price of admission. It has little of the pleonastic jargon that disfigures so much contemporary art history. Tropes and paradigm shifts are kept to a minimum, and there is the occasionally memorable splash of idiom: "Every encounter with the artwork should have some of the characteristics of a blind date."

Whatever the reasons, Hall is convinced that two-dimensional art has had its day. Twenty-first-century art - or "platitudinous art", as he calls it - will be nothing more than "an extended footnote in the history of art". The irony is that, after centuries of being maligned as an art form inferior to painting, sculpture won't be in a position to enjoy the fruits of its newly elevated status. As Hall sanguinely puts it: "The terms 'sculpture' and 'sculptural' have been applied to so many entities and activities that they have been rendered virtually meaningless - so much so that since the 1970s fewer and fewer artists bother to call themselves sculptors: they are simply artists." Painting may be doomed, but so, too, as a separate art form, is sculpture. Victories don't come much more hollow than that.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics