Thanks in part to the use of materials that often preserve well in an archaeological context, sculpture and carving are one of the earliest art forms we have evidence for. Early people worked with stone, bone, and shell, and once various cultures figured out pottery, they began modeling in clay. (They probably used wood, too, but that doesn’t survive as well.)
I’m not going to attempt to discuss the specific mechanics of sculpture and carving, nor say much about different styles. I’m not a sculptor; the last thing in that vein I recall making was a very bad clay bowl that at last count my mother was still using to hold rubber bands. I was roughly eight at the time. Instead, I’d like to talk about the role this art form plays in society, and the significance people attach to it.
(As a brief aside: from here on out I’m going to use “sculpture” as shorthand for several art forms, including the carving of three-dimensional objects, the modeling of three-dimensional objects, and processes that don’t result in a fully 3D result, like engraving designs into wood or stone.)
To begin with, it has the advantage of semi-permanency. A wooden statue can rot, a stone or clay one can erode, etc, but they don’t fade as easily as paintings, nor are they ephemeral experiences like music or dance. This came up back when we were talking about writing systems; important decrees and the like get carved into stone precisely because of that permanency. Because of this, sculpture seems to have played a role in religion and government from a very early point, helping to establish their power and legitimacy through their material depiction.
Here I begin to speculate, because visual art was never an area of focus for me in my anthropological and folkloric studies . . . but as we see in the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, I think part of sculpture’s significance lies in how close it comes to being “alive.”
It’s three-dimensional and can be life-sized or larger, and the study of residue on ancient statues has made it clear that many of them in both Egypt and the classical Mediterranean were not austere works of stone in its natural color, but painted all over with lifelike color. In Asia and other parts of the world, it’s not uncommon to dress religious statues in cloth garments, and sometimes rituals involve “feeding” a statue by pouring wine over it or touching food to its lips. I don’t remember which culture(s) this comes from (Hinduism? Mesoamerica? both? others?), but I know there’s at least one tradition where the final step in creating a statue is the providing it with eyes, painting them or adding a separate piece of glass or precious stone; that element transforms it from a hunk of inert material to a kind of semi-aware entity.
When a statue depicts a secular figure like a king, it provides a way for him to be “present” for people who might otherwise never lay eyes on him, which helps to extend the reach of his power. And when it depicts a god, it provides a home in the earthly realm for that spiritual force, acting as a kind of avatar or channel. This sometimes gets represented, especially in colonialist literature, as the statue being a god, but in many cases the actual theology is more akin to the Shint? concept of the shintai or “divine body,” which is a vessel for the power of a kami, often only temporarily inhabited. Worship is what calls the divine presence into the material form. The flip side of this coin is aniconism, which is particularly well-known in Islamic art: a prohibition against depicting sentient beings, either in sculpture or in painting.
The power of such depiction also operates in miniature. Many ancient elite burials around the world include astonishing quantities of grave goods: furniture, chariots, weapons, dishware, and more, not to mention sacrificed slaves, concubines, horses, livestock, and so forth, all to serve their master in the afterlife. But that’s an extraordinary waste of resources . . . so in Egypt, they hit upon the solution of ushabti and wooden tomb models. Why make (or kill) and then bury the full-size article, when a small version can do just as well? After all, a sculpture can contain the essence of the thing it represents, and in the afterlife, the essence is what matters. A similar idea lies behind poppets and their use in sympathetic magic.
Of course, sculpture isn’t always mystical. Sometimes it’s created for purely aesthetic purposes, combining the beauty of the material (rare stone, exotic wood) with the skill of the artist to give people something pretty to look at. Sometimes the goal of such artwork is realism and emotion, as with statues like the Boxer at Rest or Laocoön and His Sons; other times it’s faithful adherence to an orthodox iconography, as with the countless Egyptian statues depicting a striding pharaoh with generic features, or medieval sculptures of saints.
This kind of artwork isn’t always elite material, either. Whittling can serve a practical purpose, making utilitarian items like spoons or bowls or toys, but it can also be decorative — and if you live in a region with long, cold winters, there isn’t a lot to do at times but sit around the fire carving designs into household objects. And the Moche of Peru are notorious for their sculpted pottery, a great deal of which is explicitly sexual. No one’s quite sure what the meaning is behind that — whether it served a religious purpose, or whether the Moche just found it funny to pour their beer out of a vessel showing two people having anal sex or drink from a penis-shaped spout.
These days, at least in the West, sculpture is pervasive, but doesn’t play a very central role. Our leaders are less often immortalized in stone, and Protestant Christianity doesn’t call for very many statues; we don’t have a thriving tradition of patronage for sculptors, the way we did in the Renaissance. On the other hand, cheap ceramic or plastic tchotchkes can be had in just about every souvenir shop everywhere, and even a poor person can decorate their home with fat-cheeked cherubs or rearing dragons. Mass production has drastically changed this field, and 3D printing might change it even more.
But that’s true of many forms of art, as we will see.