In The New Sculpture, Clement Greenberg discusses Modernist sculpture as a rejection of the monumental quality traditionally associated with statuary. His remark seems to have little to do with materiality. Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth and many others around the 1930s privileged direct carving over bronze casting. Their oeuvre was in many ways revolutionary, yet the technique they chose was quite traditional indeed. Cavemen produced stone pieces by directly carving a block of material, and so did Donatello after them, and Michelangelo as any sculptor of their age.
Corinthos – Barbara Hepworth
Greenberg’s remark does not consider the traditional nature of direct carving. Rather, it focuses on its role in the work of the Modernists. As Barbara Hepworth stated in an interview, her works deeply depend on the specificity of the chosen material. The core of the work of art is the making, and often this is not preceded by a project. Hepworth, for instance, did not make maquettes for her pieces, and, even though she drew extensively, she never did so as a preparatory technique. The symbolical and material struggle of carving is a notable part in any Modernist piece, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska fixed this idea by saying that every stroke of the chisel is both a physical and mental effort. Never before had the making been so emphasised by artists.
Mermaid – Henry Gaudier-Brzeska
These considerations force us to reconsider the meaning that Greenberg attached to the word monumentality. As shown, the medium itself does not seem to be relevant. Rather, the author stresses the relation of this to the meaning of the artwork. In a Modernist piece, the process of creation and the relation artist-material are the true conceptual core. In a traditional work of sculpture, for instance a Baroque statue, the artwork’s material components are means of communication. For example, precious metals such as bronze were used to express the patron’s largesse and, in the case of public monuments, generosity. Bronze per se is not being discussed, but its use is made significant by the sculptor’s intentions.
Monument to Alessandro Farnese (detail) – Francesco Mochi
According to Greenberg, monumentality is binding the essence of a statue to a specific purpose. This is political, as in Mochi’s Monument to Alessandro Farnese, or devotional, as in Bernini’s St Longinus. The powerful materiality of sculpture becomes a way for the patron to impose his ideas in the real space. What Greenberg suggests is that this dependence on an external concept alienates the true essence of the artwork and its intrinsic materiality, which loses its fundamental status. Brought to its extreme, this position may even lead to think that an artefact can be called art only when it is “pure”, and does not serve any function. In fact, this is not strange for Greenberg, who in Art and Kitsch advocates for avant-gardist art to defend itself from the massification operated by popular culture.
St Longinus – Gianlorenzo Bernini
The main problem with Greenberg’s statement is the dualisation between the work of art and the world wherein it is created and exhibited. Modernist sculptors actually withdrew themselves from a certain nineteenth-century sculptural tradition, which emphasised the public value of statuary and drew clear limits to the artist’s creativity. On the other hand though, it is never possible to separate the two given dimensions, as artists live and work in a contingent context. There is no such thing as a pure idea of art, and no such thing as a piece of sculpture which is totally independent. The act of carving, even when not supported by preparatory drawing, is deliberate and, as such, points toward a specific direction. The final product will never be neutral, nor independent from the surrounding world. In fact, art is materiality as much as conception.