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Monument, Object, Fetish, Artefact: Contesting 'Modern' Sculpture - HOA00082M

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  • Department: History of Art
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Michael White
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

Of all forms of western artistic expression of the twentieth century, arguably sculpture changed most dramatically. The appearance in the space of just a few years in the 1910s of Cubist constructions, Duchamp’s ready-mades and Dada assemblages is an obvious manifestation of this phenomenon. Similarly, it was in connection to sculpture that some of the greatest public debates about ‘modern’ art took place, such as over the censorship of Jacob Epstein’s Tomb of Oscar Wilde, the scandal of the ‘Richard Mutt Case,’ the Brancusi trial and Carl André’s ‘pile of bricks.’ What is apparent in these debates is conflict between forms of sculpture making and what has been termed the ‘sculptural imaginary.’ Much of what counts today as ‘modern’ sculpture was as much ‘anti-sculpture’ in the sense of its denial or rejection of what was commonly taken to define it, whether that be its memorial or commemorative function, its connection to the decorative arts or its material qualities. At the same time new objects not previously considered sculpture in a fine art sense were drawn into the debate through colonial collecting practices and cultural appropriation, and were used to justify certain of ‘modern’ sculpture’s characteristics.

The aim of this module is, then, to examine the emergence of new forms of sculptural practice in the twentieth century in connection to the new critical frameworks its troublesome status stimulated. If many of the artworks themselves seem to have paradoxical ambitions, such as attempting to be simultaneously monumental and insubstantial or utopian and useful, contemporary writings on sculpture are also frequently conflicted, sometimes proposing it as the most vital art form, sometimes as completely redundant or defeated.

Four thematic concerns typify the contested character of ‘modern’ sculpture as found in such texts and in the public discourse on sculpture, and they guide the content of the module. They are:

  • Sculpture as the public site of memory.
  • The object-hood of sculpture and its relation to the world of commodities.
  • Anthropological and psychological understandings of sculpture making and use.
  • The nature of material practices, craft, skill and labour in the machine age.

The module will be organised according to these themes, with seminars focussed on case studies. Where possible these case studies will take advantage of the rich resources for the study of sculpture in the region – Leeds City Art Gallery, Henry Moore Institute, The Hepworth Wakefield and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – but the module is not limited to those collections and is intended to consider ‘modern’ sculpture in the widest possible sense.

Module learning outcomes

  • Knowledge of key twentieth-century sculptural practices and key textual sources for their critical interpretations
  • Understanding of connections between theory and practice in twentieth-century sculpture
  • Understanding of the Eurocentric discourse of ‘modern’ sculpture
  • Understanding of major theoretical paradigms for the understanding of ‘modern’ sculpture: perceptual, formal, sociological, psychological, ethnographic
  • Ability to critically analyse three-dimensional artworks in connection to their varied interpretations
  • Ability to discriminate between established theoretical frameworks for the understanding of sculpture and perceive their vested interests
  • Ability to identify appropriate case studies and research resources
  • Ability to use experience of site visits to guide research and interpretation

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

Feedback on summative assessment within 20 working days.

Indicative reading


  • Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge MA & London: MIT 1981)
  • Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2000)
  • Charity Scribner, ‘Object, Relic, Fetish, Thing: Joseph Beuys and the Museum,’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Summer 2003), pp. 634-649
  • Jon Wood, David Hulks & Alex Potts eds., The Modern Sculpture Reader (Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, 2007)


  • Albert Elsen, ‘What We Have Learned about Modern Public Sculpture: Ten Propositions,’ Art Journal, vol.48, no.4 (Winter 1989), pp.291-7
  • David Katzive, ‘Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy: The Genesis of a Monument,’ Art Journal, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Spring 1973), pp. 284-288
  • Axel Lapp, ‘The Freedom of Sculpture – The Sculpture of Freedom: The International Sculpture Competition for a Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, London, 1951-3,’ Sculpture Journal, no.2 (1998), pp.113-22
  • Megan Luke, Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014
  • Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2009)


  • Anna Chave, Constantin Brancusi: Shifting the Base of Art (New Haven: Yale, 1993)
  • Paul B Franklin, ‘Object Choice: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the Art of Queer Art History’ Oxford Art Journal, vol.23, no.1 (2000), pp.23-50
  • Steven Harris, ‘Beware of Domestic Objects: Vocation and Equivocation in 1936’, Art History, vol. 24, issue 5 (2001), pp. 725-757
  • Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge MA & London, 2005)
  • Janine Mileaf, Please Touch: Dada and Surrealist Objects after the Readymade (Hanover NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010)
  • Peter Read & Julia Kelly eds., Giacometti: critical essays (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)


  • Carl Einstein, ‘Negro Sculpture’ (trans. Charles Haxthausen and Sebastian Zeidler), October, vol.107 (Winter 2004), pp.122-138
  • Julia Kelly, Art, Ethnography and the Life of Objects. Paris c.1925-35 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)
  • Eduardo Paolozzi, Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl (London: Museum of Mankind, 1985)
  • Sherwin Simmons, ‘Men of Nails: Monuments, Expressionism, Fetishes, Dadaism,’ RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no.40 (Autumn 2001), pp.211-238


  • Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg, 2007)
  • Simon Groom ed., The Secret History of Clay (Liverpool: Tate Liverpool, 2004)
  • Alexandra Paragoris, ‘Truth to Material: Bronze, on the Reproducibility of Truth’ in Anthony Hughes ed., Sculpture and its Reproductions (London: Reaktion, 1997), pp. 132-52
  • John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (London: Verso, 2007)
  • Anne Wagner, Mother Stone: The Vitality of Modern British Sculpture (London: Yale University Press, 2005)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.