What is the meaning of plastic value below? I read it in the book The art of painting.

A work of art may, incidentally, tell a story, but error arises when we try to judge it by the narrative, or the moral pointed, instead of by the manner in which the artist has used his materials to produce a work of plastic art; when, in other words, a literary or moral value is mistaken for a plastic value.

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    It could also mean plastic as in fake, cheap, worthless, like popular associations with plastic breasts and other tools. Oct 30, 2011 at 21:41
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    @Cerberus, not in art - in art there are specific meanings not related to relatively new sense of 'plastic' which started with mass production of plastic items (before that plastic had very positive connotation as relatively rare property)
    – Unreason
    Oct 31, 2011 at 10:19
  • @Unreason: Oh! Yes, it is all clear now. When I added that comment, the question was entirely without context, so I had no idea what it was about. With the longer quote and the source, it's clearly about forming shapes and such. Oct 31, 2011 at 10:39

6 Answers 6


It’s acting as a somewhat technical term, I think. Plastic here is surely calling back to plastic art earlier in the sentence; so I would understand plastic value here as meaning value as a work of plastic art.

Plastic art, in turn, is a somewhat old-fashioned technical term for art forms involving moulded materials (clay, ceramics…), and by extension sculpture in general, as Wikipedia, the OED and various other googlable sources confirm. (This comes from the original meaning of plastic, as quoted in @mgkrebbs’ answer.)

This use of plastic value is analogous to how one might talk about the harmonic significance of a chord in a Beethoven symphony. We’re not saying that the significance harmonises nicely; we’re talking about the significance of the chord, as part of the harmony. Similarly, the author isn’t (as I understand them) talking about whether the value is plastic, can be reshaped, etc; they’re talking about the value of the work, as a piece of plastic art.

  • The passage as a whole seems a bit "precious", but I think the writer is saying there can be artistic value purely in the form of a work of art, as distinct from why we might prize it for its narrative or metaphorical significance. In that case I don't know how you distinguish the aesthetically pleasing shape of a nice pebble from a Henry Moore sculpture, or the cadence of Afro-beat from Beethoven's rhythmic pieces, but then I'm not an art critic. :) Oct 30, 2011 at 23:52
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    There's a specific meaning of plastic value related to paintings, also related to chiaroscuro and tenebrism.
    – Unreason
    Oct 31, 2011 at 10:01

The term 'plastic value' has a specific, technical meaning in art. I am not sure of the full meaning, however I recommend searching through google books and reading up on it.

One of the sources (Art Fundamentals: Theory and Practice) defines it as:

These lights and darks that create the appearance of depth are referred to as plastic value.

However, I have a sense that this definition is actually very narrow and deals only with one aspect of plasticity in arts.

From dictionary


Capable of being shaped or formed: plastic material such as clay. See Synonyms at malleable.
Relating to or dealing with shaping or modeling: the plastic art of sculpture.
Having the qualities of sculpture; well-formed: "the astonishing plastic beauty of the chorus girls" (Frank Harris).

Although I can not find a direct reference in English, I know some languages use the word in a sense of realistic, life-like - probably related to the appearance of depth, but not only limited to contrast, more in the sense of any attribute that makes the work life-like.


The first definition in the American Heritage dictionary for the adjective plastic is:

Capable of being shaped or formed: plastic material such as clay. See Synonyms at malleable.

In "a literary or moral value is mistaken for a plastic value" it is saying that someone mistakenly thinks that these values can be reshaped as desired (implying that the values are really fixed things).

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    I don’t think this is quite what’s going on here: this would leave it quite disconnected from the use of plastic art earlier in the sentence.
    – PLL
    Oct 30, 2011 at 22:23

Actually, plastic values is a term used by art historians to refer to the basics of art. Plastic values are line, form, color, subject... and so on. It refers to the medium being used and how well the artist uses his specific medium. It has nothing to do with being cheap or tactile. Clement Greenberg, the art historian, has a great abundance of writing about art in the early Twentieth century and deals quite often with plastic values.


"Plastic value" is a phrase used in art theory to mean roughly "aesthetic/formal/artistic value." But it's not exactly either of these, and they don't want to write with combinations of them either. So they just say "plastic." It generally refers to the illusion of depth and material. Purely concrete, geometric painting would not be referred to as plastic, nor would a purely monochromatic canvas. Abstract neoexpressionism can be plastic since even though it is purely nonfigurative, depth and mass are discernable. So "plastic" is just a shortcut term to denote this idea. Etymologically, it comes from the idea of molding -- artists "mold" shapes on the canvas, even though it is actually two-dimensional. But with use its sense has enlarged beyond mere molding to include color, line and compositional aspects. Like I said, "aesthetic/formal/artistic" with perhaps some emphasis on "formal." People like Greenberg use it a lot, so in writing to a specific art-critical audience it is perfectly acceptable, in fact, some other circumlocution just will not do and would be insensitive. The word is plastic.


By "plastic", the writer is in all cases referring to the nature of the work of art as something tactile, formed from a combination of (often valuable) materials and (nearly always valuable) time and effort. The author is stating that certain values that may be placed upon a work of art, such as sentimental value or a net attraction or repulsion due to its subject matter, are not deterministic and thus not a measure of a work of art's "real" value.

Personally, I think that's rubbish, but I digress; you asked for the meaning of "plastic" value; you could equate it roughly with "tactile" or "material" value.

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