Plastic Arts

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Plastic Arts


(spatial arts), a concept uniting forms of art whose works exist in space, do not change and develop in time, and are perceived visually. Works of the plastic arts have an objective character. They are created by reworking a material medium, whose composition determines, to a large extent, the formal structure of the work.

The plastic arts are subdivided into the representational and nonrepresentational arts. To the first category belong painting, sculpture, graphics, and photography, which reproduce visually perceived reality with varying degrees of sensual accuracy, either three-dimensionally (sculpture) or two-dimensionally (painting, graphics, photography). The nonrepresentational plastic arts include architecture, decorative applied art, and artistic design, in which visual-spatial forms do not, as a rule, presuppose real models.

The boundaries between the representational and nonrepresentational arts are not absolute. In decorative applied art more or less conventional, figurative motifs are widely used. However, some completed pieces of nonrepresentational art often belong to one of the varieties of representational art as well (for example, figured vessels as a type of small sculpture). In architecture, the forms of nature are sometimes reproduced (India, ancient Egypt). Architectural ornamentation often uses plant motifs (for example, the classical Corinthian capital), as well as zoomorphic and anthropomorphic forms (the animal masks in Vladimir-Suzdal’ architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries; caryatids and atlantes). The representational arts, including book illustrations, posters, and monumental-decorative painting and sculpture, often use abstract motifs. Ornamental design uses both representational and nonrepresentational motifs.

The plastic arts differ from other kinds of artistic expression in the lack of temporal development of the image. The form does not change in time nor does it have an ongoing quality, as it does, for example, in music. In addition, works of the plastic arts are perceived by sight and in some cases, by touch as well (sculpture and decorative applied art). Complete appreciation and understanding of architectural images and some monumental paintings and sculptures require motor perception, which takes a certain length of time. However, in such cases the temporal element is only subjective; the work itself remains unchanged.

Creative workers in the plastic arts participate on a more or less equal basis in many of the synthetic arts. Painters, architects, and sometimes even sculptors take part in creating theatrical productions and movies and executing decorations for popular festivals. There have been attempts to combine the methods of painting and music (for example, Scriabin’s “color music”) In medieval China and Japan painting was organically combined in one work with poetry: the poem, inscribed on a landscape, was united with the painting not only by the meaning but also by the inscription. In the Far East calligraphy is a special form of the plastic arts.

Language has been used quite extensively within the framework of the plastic arts, particularly in certain periods and certain art forms. The text is an inherent part of posters and caricatures. Words often developed and made more concrete the image in Greek vase painting, medieval icons and miniatures, and cheap popular prints. In architecture the same role was played by inscriptions (for example, on Roman triumphal arches) and even whole texts (ancient Egyptian temples and medieval mosques). The title of a picture or sculpture is often related to its content. Basically, however, the structure of images in the plastic arts relies on visual-plastic means: composition, elements of form (for example, space, volume, plastic movement, rhythm, line, chiaroscuro, and color), and the way in which the medium is worked.

Like other forms of artistic expression, the plastic arts assimilate the world in terms of images. The structure of the artistic image in the plastic arts can be broken down analytically into three aspects, which are actually closely interrelated: the tectonic-compositional, the expressive, and the representational. In their indissoluble unity, these three aspects reveal the ideological-artistic meaning of a work.

In architecture, the decorative applied arts, artistic design, and sculpture the tectonic-compositional aspect requires the artist to organize his medium in three-dimensional space, work out its structure and tectonics, produce a mutually harmonious or purposely unharmonious arrangement of its separate parts, and fuse all the elements of plastic form to attain compositional unity. In painting, graphics, and photography the same constructive-compositional principles are worked out on a flat surface, so that volumetric-spatial relations are modeled more or less conventionally in two dimensions.

Expressiveness is achieved through visual-formal elements, which help to create a certain spiritual atmosphere and mood and to reveal the ideological meaning of the work. In the act of creation the tectonic-compositional and emotional-expressive aspects are indissoluble, inasmuch as the spiritual content of an image depends to a great extent on a definite plastic resolution, and this resolution, in turn, always has a certain emotional-aesthetic content.

The representational aspect of the artistic image is characteristic of painting, sculpture, and graphics, despite the attempts of bourgeois modernism to make these branches of art “abstract.” Within the representational aspect, a distinction can arbitrarily be drawn between directly visible elements, which are actually depicted by the artist (for example, fruit in a still life, trees in a landscape, human figures), and associative elements that enable the artist to broaden the content of a work beyond the limits of the object depicted (for example, the plot of a narrative, inner conflicts, a psychological state, and symbolic meaning). Association makes it possible to include among the real phenomena assimilated by the plastic arts those aspects of reality that lack a visual form, such as the temporal flow of events, philosophical reflections on life, and the broad totality of social ideas.

Thus, it is incorrect to assert that the objective world itself— that which is accessible to sight—is the only object of aesthetic assimilation by the plastic arts, or that the artistic significance of the plastic arts is limited to the purely “plastic values” of visually perceived objects and spatial relations. The subject of the plastic arts includes virtually everything “of general interest in the life” of man (N. G. Chernyshevskii, Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 2,1949, pp. 81–82). Organically connected with the social and ideological movements of their time, the plastic arts reflect— though often indirectly—social conflicts and the class struggle.

A very broad range of objects is depicted indirectly in the representational arts. The sphere of phenomena re-created by painting is particularly multifaceted. Crowd scenes, events in history or everyday life, and nature in its various forms and states are accessible to painting and, to some degree, to graphics. A narrower range of life’s phenomena is directly reproduced in sculpture. Nonetheless, three-dimensional art, which reveals the ideal of the perfect man and his rebellious daring and realizes in a material medium the most complex thoughts and emotional impulses, has at its disposition as many powerful resources for the spiritual assimilation of the world as does painting.

The nonrepresentational plastic arts—architecture, above all —are also rich in possibilities for spiritual and ideological content. As a rule, they are capable of embodying the most generalized social and philosophical ideas of their time. The world as it was conceptualized in certain periods is imprinted in the architecture of the Pyramids, the Parthenon, Reims Cathedral, Bru-nelleschi’s dome, and the church at Kolomenskoe.

As a type of artistic activity, the plastic arts are among the phenomena of social consciousness. At all stages of man’s historical development they have occupied an important place in the spiritual assimilation of reality, in ideological life, and in the social struggle. However, many of their characteristics also ally them with the world of material objects created by man as his cultural milieu.

Man’s spiritual capacities were developed by the very act of reworking natural materials and giving them forms that corresponded to social needs—by the creation in actual practice of “a change in the world” of objects, the production of works that are foreign to nature and that stand opposed to nature because they are man-made. The growth of human spiritual capacities included the development of “the eye, which senses the beauty of form” (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Iz rannikh proizvedenii, 1956, p. 593). In the harmonious functioning of eye, head, and hand a sense of correctness, order, and plastic coordination arises. Thus, a man-made thing becomes the bearer of man’s “essential forces”—“becomes spiritualized.” The objective world, transformed by man, is perceived as a “humanized” world—a materialized creation that perfects nature and brings a rational element into the chaos of reality. Thus, through practice, the aesthetic sense is born, on the basis of which the various forms of plastic arts gradually develop.

In this sense, the origin of the plastic arts can be linked with “making things.” It is a mistake, however, to reduce the specific character of the arts to this. Art is the making of a special category of things endowed with spiritual content and later—in class societies—with a more or less developed ideological meaning, depending on the art form. “Making things” grows into art only insofar as the object is “spiritualized” and acquires aesthetic qualities. Any structure, utensil or religious object, or three- or two-dimensional representation becomes an artistic fact when art aesthetic assimilation of the world and an attitude toward it are expressed and when an interpretation of reality in terms of images—an evaluation of reality according to the criteria of beauty —is firmly established. A vessel is transformed from a receptacle into a work of decorative applied art when it expresses a certain idea of the beauty of the real world. Pictorial representation becomes painting when it manifests at least the seeds of an interpretation of the world through images.

From the most ancient times the plastic arts have participated in reworking and structuring man’s objective environment—in creating a “second nature.” Particularly in the early stages of history, the plastic arts often merged with material production. The artistic element was closely intertwined with nonaesthetic features associated with production, everyday life, various forms of social rituals, and ideological functions. With few exceptions, works of architecture are built not to serve as “pure” artistic monuments but to satisfy particular material, social, or practical needs. Thus, temples are buildings where a particular religion is practiced, and theaters are buildings where spectators gather to watch theatrical performances. Nevertheless, the aesthetic qualities of a building are inseparable from its practical function insofar as the spiritual-aesthetic values expressed by the building are a part of its function. A dwelling is transformed into a “palace” when it becomes necessary to express the idea of social distance.

Before the 19th century decorative applied art existed only in the form of artistic handicrafts—the manufacture of objects for use in production and in everyday life. Its function was purely practical before it became an art. However, it is true that artistic treatment was often an inherent feature of utensils, weapons, and objects of social, state, or religious rituals and was even considered necessary to the fulfillment of their social function. Thus, in order to meet their practical purpose, Mycenaean daggers, gold Scythian fibulae, Sassanid plates, “Monomakh’s cap,” Chinese porcelain, and Japanese lacquers had to possess high aesthetic qualities. Beautiful, rich, and luxurious, they took on a “human form” corresponding to the period (Marx, ibid., p. 594).

Nonetheless, as the socioeconomic structure changes, the practical function of the object vanishes in most cases, and the artistic handicraft enters its essentially aesthetic capacity (for example, decorative ceramic plates or a clasp that has been converted into a brooch). An analogous fate usually awaits works of the plastic arts that were originally intended to satisfy primarily nonartistic needs. Egyptian sculpture portraits, used in the worship of the dead, icons, which were objects of religious worship, and 17th- and 18th-century portraits of the nobility, which served as genealogical documents for those who commissioned them, have preserved an objective meaning only as works of art.

The development of the plastic arts through material production can be observed even in primitive society, which endows objects created by human hands with magical or religious meaning. This is the beginning of a concrete sensory interpretation of reality.

In antiquity and during the Middle Ages such spatial arts as sculpture and painting gradually lost their direct connection with material production. The separation of the spatial arts from material production made possible especially important gains in the Greco-Roman world, where both architectural and representational works were able to develop fully and freely their specific aesthetic content. Even in decorative applied art material production was distinguished from aesthetics, as, for example, in the division of labor between the potter and the vase painter. At the same time, in the classical world the organic connection of sculpture and painting with all artistic treatments of the material environment was fully preserved, manifesting itself in the high degree of stylistic unity in all of man’s objective surroundings, from monumental architecture and statuary sculpture to everyday utensils, clothing, and armaments.

The aesthetic assimilation of the world was furthered by the fact that classical art had mythology as its foundation and arsenal, for mythology itself is an “unconsciously artistic reworking of nature” (K. Marx in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 12, p.737). The role of mythology was just as great in the plastic arts of the ancient and medieval Orient (China, India, and Sassanid Iran, for example).

In both Europe and Asia during the early Middle Ages there was again a close bond between the plastic arts and handicrafts, or material production in general. The supremacy of religious ideology, which in a certain sense limited the free development of the aesthetic assimilation of the world, contributed to this trend. At the same time, the early medieval period is noted for its major gains in the aesthetic assimilation of new aspects of reality and of man’s inner world. Thus, Chinese and Japanese landscape painting offers models of a lyrical, subjective perception of nature. In Europe the Gothic style created the preconditions for the development of psychologism and the presentation of dramatic conflicts in the interpretation of the contradictions of reality.

In the Middle Ages a rare monolithic style was preserved: painting and the three-dimensional arts were organically united with architecture, decorative applied art, and the entire material culture of the period. Byzantine mosaics harmonized aesthetically with the architectural forms of the interior and its decorations and, in turn, the mosaics were an important element in the formation of the architectural image. The same monolithic quality characterized the end of the Middle Ages: in the Gothic style, architecture and statuary were organically interconnected, not only in a strictly formal sense but also, as had formerly been true everywhere, in their very artistic conception.

The Renaissance, with its highly developed division of labor, marked a very important turning point for the plastic arts in Europe. At that time the representational arts became artistic activities, proper. Their separation from handicrafts made them, as well as architecture, “free arts,” like poetry and music. The secularization of the plastic arts occurred at the same time. Even when church painting and sculpture were revived during the Counter Reformation, the artist’s goal was generally to serve religious ritual by essentially aesthetic means. Rubens’ altar paintings and Bernini’s church statuary are not icons—that is, objects of worship—in the strict sense. Essentially, they are artistic works, intended to propagandize the ideals of Catholicism through their aesthetic quality.

The separation of the plastic arts into an independent field of artistic activity decisively broadened the limits of aesthetic cognition. The world was revealed to artistic masters in a richness and variety previously unseen, broadening the potentialities of painting, sculpture, and graphics, which became a special form of creative art.

The divergent development of the free arts and artistic handicrafts and the emancipation of sculpture and especially painting from architecture—a process that was completed by the 19th century—led to the rise and later to the predominance of easel painting and freestanding sculpture. On the one hand, the differentiation of the art forms resulted in the destruction of the stylistic and ideological wholeness of all forms of the plastic arts, the disappearance of the aesthetic unity characteristic of the arts of antiquity and the Middle Ages, and the decline of professional artistic handicrafts. It was impossible for craftsmen to perform fully the functions that had become most important to the plastic arts—direct observation and aesthetic interpretation of varied aspects of social life and of man’s inner world. The traditions of the artistic integrity of man’s objective environment survived only in folk art, where handicrafts continued to flourish (for example, in 18th- and 19th-century Russia).

On the other hand, the basic development of artistic thought in the plastic arts took place within the framework of easel painting and freestanding sculpture. Fundamental ideological-aesthetic problems were solved, opening to the plastic arts new perspectives for the interpretation of the ever-deepening social, moral, philosophical, and, later, directly political problems of the time. Painting branched into a number of independent genres, including portraits, landscapes, genre and historical paintings, and still lifes.

In sculpture some new genres emerged, and others, such as the city monument, the portrait, small sculpture, and genre sculpture, simply underwent internal development. However, sculpture increasingly yielded the leading position in the plastic arts to painting and graphics, while simultaneously preserving closer stylistic ties with architecture. (This process ended with the period of classicism at the beginning of the 19th century.)

In architecture a number of new tasks and essentially artistic problems achieved prominence. Secular architecture asserted its dominance for once and for all. The principle of an urban architectural ensemble planned in advance, which had originated in antiquity, was developed, but only to the extent to which the economic and social conditions of serf-owning and, especially, bourgeois society did not stand in the way. Advances in technology made possible a number of bold ideological-aesthetic innovations at the end of the 19th and especially during the 20th century.

The character of the evolution of the plastic arts changed accordingly. Instead of a slow change of styles, there was a dynamic alternation and coexistence of various trends. Thus, as early as the 17th century, the baroque style, classicism, and Dutch realism were developing side by side. The process of development grew particularly complex in the 19th century. From the middle of the century an eclectic lack of style characterized architecture and decorative applied art. In representational works, change and struggles among different movements became particularly acute. During this period the plastic arts acquired new possibilities through their direct involvement in the social struggle. In painting and graphics, critical realism developed considerably (Daumier and Courbet in France, and the peredvizhniki—the “wanderers,” a progressive art movement in Russia).

The dominant role of the representational forms of the plastic arts led to the rapprochement of painting and graphics with the verbal arts, particularly literature. In the image structure of these arts great importance was achieved by the narrative plot and the attempt to reveal complex social conflicts, on the one hand, and the attempt to achieve greater psychological depth, on the other.

As early as the Renaissance, a pictorial representation was constructed as an actual picture of visually perceived reality. The artist aimed for “the effect of being present,” which makes the viewer feel that he is the direct observer of the world reproduced in the picture. For this reason, a formal system for the spatial arrangement of three-dimensional objects was devised. The Renaissance created linear perspective, with a single point of convergence corresponding to the conceived axis of vision of the person viewing the picture.

The coloristic gains of the 16th-century Venetian painters and the great 17th-century masters—Rubens, Velázquez, and Rembrandt—opened new possibilities for communicating the sensual wealth of the objective world. Especially great contributions were made to scenic composition, which was treated by the 19th-century realist masters as a staged event, the action of which had been suspended (for example, works by Courbet, P.A. Fedotov, and I.E. Repin). The impressionists developed plein-air techniques. These were the main stages in the development of the new structure of the painting, which most fully expresses the advances made in the plastic arts in Europe in modern times.

Graphics, especially engraving, underwent a substantially similar development. The first steps in the development of photography, whose technical means proved to be particularly well adapted to the quest for the “effect of being present,” date from the 19th century. The specific attributes of sculpture did not permit it to follow the same line of stylistic development as painting; however, within the limits of its potential, it also strove for naturalness, smaller forms that would make the work correspond more closely in scale to its viewer, and the compositional techniques used by painters.

In the 19th century, elements of “representationalism” were characteristic even of architecture. As a result of stylistic eclecticism, a single building might “imitate” a Renaissance palazzo, the interior of a Gothic castle, and an ancient Russian tower. The technical advances of the time made it possible to use such representational imitation extensively, clothing a building in any style. The tendency to reproduce stylistic forms of the past also captured decorative applied art, in which pretensions to artistic worth degenerated to an eclectic imitativeness that had little in common with the most important aesthetic needs of the time.

Romantically inclined artistic figures of the 19th century such as Ruskin and Baudelaire considered the breakdown of a single “grand style” to be evidence of the universal decline of the plastic arts. In the unequal development of separate forms and genres they saw the crisis of plastic culture in general. They perceived in the separate development of easel painting and freestanding sculpture the disastrous disintegration of the wholeness of artistic vision. Actually, the development of the plastic arts, particularly painting and sculpture, since the Renaissance has brought great gains on both the ideological level and the purely technical level of artistic methods and approaches.

In the plastic arts of the modern period the interrelationships of the structural elements of a work are different from those of earlier periods. The compositional structure and emotional expressiveness of forms were openly revealed in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The clear plastic rhythm of a Greek statue or the linear melody and expressive color of medieval icon painting are easily grasped by the eye. In these works, either the representational principle is found in harmonic balance with the plastic expressiveness of the form (as in Hellenistic art) or it yields to the latter the main role in revealing the inner content of the image (for example, the art of the early Middle Ages).

In the art of the Renaissance wholeness and freedom in recreating the real world in all its vitality are organically joined with the structural clarity and formal expressiveness of a work. Donatello’s sculptures and Piero della Francesca’s frescoes exemplify these qualities, which are also encountered in the masters of the 17th century. By the 19th century, the increasingly intense endeavor to achieve the “effect of being present” led to the domination of the representational principle, while the logic of compositional construction and the expression of form are hidden but do not entirely disappear. Thus, it is not difficult to discover the solid linear and spatial construction in the canvases of Courbet and Repin. In Manet’s and V.I. Surikov’s paintings color has far more than a purely representational function: it has an emotional one as well.

At the end of the 19th century a movement to revive the stylistic unity of the plastic arts began. The “modern” style in architecture and decorative applied art, which was preceded by the theoretical reflections of G. Semper and the practical experiments of W. Morris, represented the first attempt to return to the synthetic concept of plastic culture, to a single “grand style.” Monumental painting (M. A. VrubeP, F. Hodler, M. Denis), architectonically conceived sculpture (A. Maillol), and the entire artistic treatment of the material world were to be organically united. The quest for artistic unity was accompanied by the revival of the principle of open construction and the predominance of the expressive function of form.

In the 20th century the entire system of the plastic arts has undergone profound changes. All of the complexity of the epoch of the decline of bourgeois civilization, splendid revolutionary eruptions, and the consolidation of a new socialist order is reflected in the arts. Never before had the artistic process been so sharply polarized. The crisis of bourgeois culture brought about an ever-deepening decay of artistic concepts. Consequently, artists either indulged in purely formal experimentation, which often gave an exaggerated, one-sided emphasis to separate aspects of the artistic expression of form, or practiced aesthetic subjectivism, which ultimately led to a final break in the tie between art and reality and to the destruction of the integrity of the artistic consciousness (for example, in cubism, expressionism, abstract art, and pop art).

However, many fruitful tendencies have also emerged and been consolidated in the 20th century. Supported by the immense sweep of technical progress, architecture has developed new tectonic-constructive and aesthetic principles, which have been realized in both individual buildings and in large complexes of urban buildings. New kinds and forms of plastic arts have emerged, such as photomontage. The scope of the artist’s labor has become significantly broader. The plastic arts have again expanded: a new mass culture of the plastic arts is developing, manifested in artistic construction, city planning, exhibits, visual planning of festivals, advertising, and printing. From the daily practices of the masses this new culture culls traditional artistic handicrafts, which, in a number of countries, have survived primarily in the form of applied folk art. The contact of the plastic arts with society in progressive art is becoming more and more direct. Particularly strong evidence of this trend is the intensive development of essentially political genres (for example, the poster and the caricature).

Realistic trends in the plastic arts have become very powerful in the 20th century. The plastic arts have developed a number of new principles of imagery and form that have enriched the ideological and artistic content of the realistic method. Above all, the ties between socialist realist art and the contemporary social struggle have become very direct. Responding to the epoch of the decisive clash between two systems—capitalism and communism—realistic art has acquired an open ideological purpose-fulness. Among the interests of the plastic arts are the life and historical lot of the popular masses, revolutionary events, the profound, often philosophically grounded interpretation of the universal historical crisis in human history, and the place of the individual in global social processes. Accordingly, a new structure of images has crystallized. The plastic arts’ connection with reality has assumed a new form, and the correlation of the place and role of individual forms of artistic creation has changed. In addition to the traditional system of creating the “effect of being present,” various forms for the conventional poetic interpretation of the world and stylistics corresponding to these forms have become widespread.

The urge to revive the wholeness and organic unity of artistic conceptions has led to the rapprochement of architecture, the representational arts, and the artistic treatment of the environment of objects surrounding man. An inclination toward synthesis in artistic creation has emerged. Ties between the plastic arts and other forms of artistic activity may be observed. Motion pictures and television have greatly influenced contemporary visual-plastic culture. On the other hand, the role of the plastic arts in the structure of images of the contemporary theatrical and cinematic arts is growing, resulting in the birth of hybrid art forms such as cartoons. Thus, with the emergence of new forms, the plastic arts are becoming increasingly significant in human culture.


Hildebrand, A. von. Problema formy v izobrazitel’nom iskusstve. Moscow, 1914. (Translated from German.)
Hegel, G. Lektsii po estetike. Soch., vols. 13–14. Moscow, 1940–58. (Translated from German.)
Lessing, G. Laokoon, Hi O granitsakh zhivopisi i poezii. Moscow, 1957. (Translated from German.)
Herder, J.G. von. “Plastika.” In his book Izbr. soch. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959. (Translated from German.)
Dmitrieva, N. Izobrazhenie i slovo. Moscow, 1962.
Semper, G. Prakticheskaia estetika. Moscow, 1970. (Translated from German.)
Vipper, B.R. “Iz ‘Vvedeniia v istoricheskoe izuchenie iskusstva.’” In his book Stat’i ob iskusstve. Moscow, 1970. Pages 59–450.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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