Book review: Sensation in 3D here here

The World as Sculpture by James Hall Chatto & Windus, pounds 25, 435pp
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The Independent Culture
Everyone knows that painting is dead, even if Gary Hume's splendidly garish daubs currently grace the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Yet while painters continue to make what James Hall refers to bleakly as "platitudinous art of great accomplishment", most artists now prefer to perceive themselves as sculptors. Two dimensions good, three dimensions better, as George Orwell might have put it. Contemporary art of the kind that gets praised, and looks set to last, is sculpture.

Yet this was not ever so, as Hall explains in his pioneering and thought- provoking book. Sculpture was traditionally the poor relation, and the sculptor a figure of fun. Leonardo da Vinci (no mean sculptor himself) described how the sculptor's face, "plastered and powdered all over with marble dust," made him "look like a baker". Damien Hirst might be dismissed in the same vein as a butcher, except that he, like many artists before him, gets someone else to do the butchery. Leonardo found sculpture to be a "mechanical" operation; Baudelaire thought it was just "boring".

So why has sculpture become the hegemonic art form of the late 20th century? How come that artists now refuse to condemn themselves to a lifetime of artistic production destined to be stuck on walls? What enabled them to insist that their works should be seen in the round, get in the way, and make a three- dimensional intervention in space?

In answering these questions, and by trying to appeal to the general reader, James Hall has set himself a difficult task. Most people are still struggling with the seismic change in the landscape of the art world. If, heaven forbid, there were to be a radio programme entitled "Desert Island Artworks", few of the middlebrow celebrities who choose Mozart and Vivaldi would go much of a bundle on Carl Andre's bricks. It may have become a cliche for artists to dismiss "inspiration" and "genius", as Hall suggests, yet plenty of cultural gurus still hanker after the old certainties, reverently using the word "genius" as though it had some religious significance.

Hall looks not just at the work of artists and critics. He also examines the changes in society that have had an impact on art. Skipping over five centuries with a wide frame of reference, he summons up Sartre and Zola, George Eliot and Flaubert, to illuminate his argument. Sculpture once lost out in intellectual debates about the virtues of rival art forms, at a time when painting and poetry were inextricably linked in European sensibilities. Class was also a factor, with the gentleman-painter pitted against the artisan-sculptor.

In the structure of the book, Hall does not stray far from his art-historical training. The age of modernity begins as usual with Courbet, and the worker-artist steps onto the stage. Hall includes under the general rubric of sculpture the developments of the 20th century: happenings, collage, text art and "ready-mades", and provides them with a pedigree. Even artists who use film and video usually do so in a three-dimensional, "sculptural" way. A century after Courbet, the heirs to a tradition once denigrated as trade have proudly proclaimed their proletarian roots. Andy Warhol had his "Factory", Claes Oldenburg had his "Store", while Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas had their "Shop".

Artistic enthusiasm for the three-dimensional did not spring out of thin air. Hall traces a change in our perception of the world, in which we have acquired a heightened "spatial awareness". The concern for texture, shape and volume, inculcated into children, has spread to the adult and artistic world, notably in the work of pioneers like Joseph Beuys and Jeff Koons. Along the way, Hall takes in Pestalozzi, Froebel and Montessori, and shows how their ideas formed a backcloth to the artist's enthusiasm for objects as "tactile awareness" slowly climbed up the pecking order. Hall even concludes his book with a jokey reference to space itself, to "outer space", the ultimate exhibition zone.

The intrusive phenomenon of sculpture is clearly here to stay. It will only disappear, although James Hall does not quite go so far, when some new totalitarianism, working under the influence of focus groups, once again demands that sculptors and other manufacturers of "graven images" be locked away to leave the field free for practitioners of boring old paint-on-canvas. Listen for the whingeing when next you hear late-night discussions about the Turner Prize. Just occasionally, when bemoaning the debased state of contemporary culture, a book comes along that is so intelligent and so illuminating that one wants to cry out Hallelujah! This is one of them.