Johann Gottfried Herder’s Sculpture was originally published in German in 1778 in response to a trip to Paris (its sculpture collections in particular) that the philosopher made in 1768. Very much a product of the interest in classical art that was characteristic of times before him, as well as an anticipation of the romanticism that dominated the art world soon after his time, Herder’s essay makes heavy use of value judgments and concept of the ideal while at the same time imbuing sculpture with a romantic aura.
Part One lays out the foundation for Herder’s argument for the virtues of sculpture by distinguishing between seeing and touching. He recounts several stories of blind people who did not understand the concept of seeing to point out the fact that we see sculpture as three dimensional only because we have grown up using our senses of touch and of sight in tandem. Were it not for touch, vision would merely be a field of colors and shapes. In this distinction we find a theme common to media theory, the problem of distinguishing the ways we interact with our surroundings, while at the same time recognizing their interdependence. While Herder realizes that our understanding of sight as forms depends on our sense of touch, he would have us define our understanding of forms only through touch and forget about sight. For him, since the essence of sculpture is "beautiful form and beautiful shape," and a "physically present, tangible truth," (p. 40) to understand it only as a vision is a profanation, a grave underestimation of its potential. Furthermore, his assumption of the need for a separation between painting and music is interesting in light of the work of such artists as Kandinsky and Mondrian, who made "musical" paintings, and Romantic composers who strived to paint pictures with their music.
From this initial distinction, Herder moves at the end of Part One to distinguish painting and sculpture from each other. He associates painting with seeing and the dream world while claiming that sculpture is a source of truth. Herder was obviously only considering the classical sculpture that he knew, thus one wonders what he would have said about the twentieth century forays in cubist sculpture that moved away from strict representation of the forms of a single moment to the multi-truths of figures as they moved in time. And how would he have dealt with minimalism? These questions attest to the impossibility of predicting the trends and developments of art, and for that matter, any technology.
Part Two relentlessly extols the virtues of sculpture in relation to painting in the form of questions and answers. Herder walks through specific qualities of sculpture that make it more perfect and truthful than painting, discussing clothing and drapery, color, beauty (ugliness), and timelessness. Again, there is not way that Herder might have imagined the developments in sculpture of the twentieth century, entrenched as he was in classicism, but a question that asks, "To what degree are the forms of sculpture and of painting constant and eternal?" and is answered with, "The forms of sculpture are as constant and eternal as pure and simple human nature; the forms of painting are an image of their age and vary in accordance with history, peoples and times."(p. 60) has not withstood the test of time. And yet it holds some truth, for the compulsion to sculpt the human body has not been exhausted in the human race.
The subsequent sections of the book cover classical ideals of the Greek body, the idea of the living, moving body as the source of beauty, the concept of body parts symbolizing the inner beauty of a person (borrowed from Plato) and the tendency of people to love the youthful, healthy, beautiful human form. In regards to media theory, Herder’s discussion of "the natural language of the soul that expresses itself through the entire body, [with] the basic letters and the alphabet of posture, action, and character and of all that these can become" (p. 79) is particularly interesting. Here, a concept of the body as a medium of communication is pinpointed and can be related to contemporary thought ranging from genetic modification to tattooing to virtual dance. In concluding his essay, Herder acknowledges that even sculpture is an allegory for the world, a symbol of reality, but he maintains that it is better to represent the truths of the world with a continuous surface and form than with only a flat painting. Interestingly, throughout his work, Herder does not address the problem of representing sculpture, form and the visual field in words. It seems that reflections on this layer of mediation were left to later generations to address.