Alexander Stoddart is one of the few current sculptors working on a monumental scale who is capable of producing work that is recognizable as art, rather than being mistaken for something hauled out of the back corner of a scrapyard.
Perhaps his most famous sculpture is the bronze monument to the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, located on the Royal Mile outside of the University of Edinburgh. The piece has become so integrated into the life of the city since it was unveiled over 20 years ago that it has now become a tourist attraction in its own right, with both local university students and tourists from all over the world coming to rub its extended right foot for good luck.
Stoddart was appointed Her Majesty’s Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland in 2008, a lifetime honorary position held by only one Scottish artist at a time. In addition to works throughout his native Scotland, Stoddart has also created monumental pieces for the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, and for Oxford University’s Sackler Library, among others.
Here in the United States, Stoddart’s work can be seen in Atlanta, Dallas, and at Longwood University in Virginia, where his monumental statue of Joan of Arc was recently unveiled. Among other projects, Stoddart is currently at work on a sculpture of the great Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti, for the School of Architecture at Notre Dame.
I recently sat down with Stoddart at the Coq d’Or Bar in Chicago’s Drake Hotel, prior to him giving the keynote address to the annual Catholic Art Guild conference, an event to which I was invited, as art critic for this publication, to moderate the closing panel discussion.
Stoddart is one of the greatest raconteurs I have ever met: insightful, thoughtful, keenly observant, and terribly witty. My only regret, in sharing the following excerpts from our conversation, is that mere text cannot put across to the reader the delivery of the words themselves, which by turns provoked a great deal of thoughtful nodding or uproarious laughter.
WN: How did you get to be the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary?
AS: It came to me unexpectedly, because I thought this would always be a resolutely Modernist appointment. The previous one to me was Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, who’s a thundering Brutalist of absolute Modernist orthodoxy, and you would have thought that the next one would be even more like that. And when this happened, there was a tremendous outpouring of rage on one side, and a bigger outpouring of joy and happiness on the other, because this had gone against the trend.
WN: And what does the Queen’s Sculptor have to do?
AS: So there are no duties, and no pay: the lack of duties is the pay. If there were duties, it’d be a very onerous thing. But the Queen’s Sculptor thing is tremendous, because so many great sculptors, well beyond me, were there, although there were some others who were really very poor artists. However, really it’s simply an honor that’s bestowed upon you, and you don’t really have to do anything about it.
WN: So HM doesn’t ring you up and say, “Could you knock me up some putti for the Christmas tree this year?”
AS: No, it’s entirely detached, and that’s nice. She knows I exist, but one doesn’t want to get too close into “scenes,” if you know what I mean. There’s a dignified detachment there.
WN: And a great tradition.
AS: I’m a great monarchist. If anyone asks you why I’m a monarchist, I have one answer: “Trump-Clinton.” And then you know exactly what I mean.
WN: Scylla and Charybdis.
AS: You know, I finally saw Seurat’s “Grande Jatte” in the Art Institute yesterday. And I remember as a young man thinking with great indignation that that thing was in Chicago of all places, and I’d never get to see it. “What’s it doing over there?” I thought. And now I think, why not? It’s here with Childe Hassam, and William Merritt Chase—another staggering painter as well—and other great American Impressionists.
WN: Something for Instagram, then.
AS: I’m deeply incapable of understanding the digital world.
WN: Do you feel deprived by that?
AS: I’m extremely primitive. My daughters think it’s hilarious, but I have an antipathy for technology. I think it’s all bad. Look at the faces of people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. They look like a bunch of architects. There’s something terrifying about them and their followers, they all have this knowing look.
WN: It’s very cultish.
AS: I was once invited to an architect’s 30th anniversary of his practice in Glasgow, and when the senior partner was making his speech, he didn’t reference the work of Vitruvius or Alberti or anyone like that. He mentioned Steve Jobs as the leading light to the world of architecture today. But what Jobs and Zuckerberg and others did was to rarify a world of emptiness, by making us constantly in touch with one another on the basis of no important thing, and then losing sleep over it.
WN: You know, I recently saw an interview you did for Belgian television, where you mentioned how you have come to appreciate the value of sleep. I’d only modify that slightly to keep to Benjamin Franklin’s maxim about early to bed, early to rise.
AS: I’ve not had a proper holiday in over three years, hardly even a weekend off, so this morning I just wanted to take the opportunity to lie in bed and look across Lake Michigan at the sunrise.
WN: I saw it also, it was a beautiful sunrise over the lake today, actually.
AS: Yes, it was. And I just wanted to take advantage of enjoying it. I try to do as much work at home in Paisley as I possibly can. I’m not a person that voluntarily travels. I’d rather stay at home and get on with the work. We’re all addicted to traveling now, like a local form of the “move on” imperative. It’s much of a leftist thing, really, the idea of perpetual change and constantly moving onwards. “Just move on” is the big complaint of these people. I’m one who believes in staying put, but some people just can’t. So it’s an actual geographic conservatism I have as well as a philosophical one. To them that makes me a provincial.
WN: If we’re using “provincial” in a non-pejorative sense, is that something that has always been the case, or is that something that has developed as your work has developed?
AS: Making monuments is a very hard thing to do nowadays, and sometimes you have to actively suggest that you can do it. It’s like the old Vietnamese proverb: A man stands on a hillside with his mouth open for a long time before a fried duck flies into it. So what you’ve got to do if you want to make a monument is, you’ve got to seed the idea, so that the people you’re seeding the idea to come to think of it as their own idea. But you’ve also got to make sure that you’re not demanding too great a fee for it, because everybody wants an excuse not to go through with the work, and the biggest excuse is always that it’s too costly.
If I stay put in Paisley all of my life, the rent is cheap because it’s a post-industrial town, and I can actually do the sculpture at a reduced cost. My interest is always to reduce the cost of works, so that they can actually be made. I’m not interested in concepts, or talk about projects, I’m interested in seeing them executed. People now focus on the concept, as opposed to the percept, but I’m not a conceptualist. The percept comes first. That’s a guarantee of taking a proper approach to creating art, so that you’re not shoving art down people’s throats.
WN: It’s interesting that you’re thinking about the contemporary art establishment, in your provincial setting, but I wonder though if we’re looking at what the art establishment is doing with respect to the dis-establishment of images as more of an urban phenomenon and not a provincial one?
AS: Exactly, and this is another interesting thing that comes from the provinces. So as far as the resurgence or revival of Occidental values is concerned, you can’t look to New York or London, but you can look to other places. And your ordinary John Doe from the provinces has got a strong olfactory sense for a fraud, just because he hasn’t been living in a place where the miasma is constant. He’s too far out there, he’s not a part of the Mandarin coterie.
So this is why being a provincial is a very important thing, because you can actually maintain clear breathing, your nose stays close to nature, and you can smell the fraud when you come into a room.
WN: It surprises me, given the common sense of British people who live outside of London, how the art establishment within London is able to put up public monuments all over Britain that are crap, and there isn’t a mass of Britons heading to these things in the middle of the night and blocking them from being put up, or just tearing them down.
AS: Well they don’t actually put up monuments nowadays, they put up public art of substantial scale. I’ve done no “public art” my whole life. I’ve fought against public art. It’s terrible. Public art is only private art thrust into the public domain. It’s like when you’re standing at a bus stop, and an idiot comes along and starts annoying all of the people who are waiting there just minding their own business.
Public art is an idiotic type of private art that should be in a whitewall gallery, safely away from the general public, amongst the cultural psychopaths to whom it ministers. It’s fine in there, as a kind of freak show. When it leaks out into the public realm, it’s a perfect menace. It has no logic, and it spawns a huge amount of chatter and talk trying to justify it to the point of every extrinsic consideration.
WN: True, but in the past wouldn’t the British people in the provinces have opposed these things being put up in their cities and towns?
AS: They think it’s all comical and they shrug. They’re used to the most appalling architecture going up everywhere, creating real blots all over the landscape, and a wee contemporary sculpture has no significance.
WN: And of course only a chosen few artists get to participate.
AS: Right. You can only have another Antony Gormley piece standing there, looking as sanctimonious as h-ll. You know they say that for every man, woman, and child in Britain, there are at least two surveillance cameras. I would say, “And four Antony Gormleys.” And they do stand there, in a surveillance mode. Very much like the Steve Jobs look.
WN: So is it people from somewhere else who are going to see this stuff, not locals?
AS: Look, Edinburgh Castle has the greatest number of visitors in Scotland. Was it built to attract visitors? No, it was made to repel visitors. But come they do. Human instinct. If you’re walking down a provincial street, and you see that on one side of it there’s someone standing there with a clipboard, and they want you to do a short survey, you think, “Why did I walk down that side of the street? Do I have to speak to this person? Why couldn’t a nuclear war start right now?”
But walk down the same street and pass a huddle of people looking inwards at something, and you’ll make an effort to see what’s going on. And this is why something like Edinburgh Castle or the Statue of Liberty attracts attention: because even as we look at it from outside, it makes us turn inward. And that’s why we turn to look at it. Also, the Statue of Liberty happens to be the finest work of monumental sculpture in the world, in my opinion…You can go round and round the Statue of Liberty and try to find a bad view, and you can’t find it.
WN: Unfortunately we produce very little great monumental art at the moment.
AS: That’s because we have a natural instinct toward mediocrity. We’re essentially a very wild species, humanity. Man is a dreadfully dangerous animal. It’s only civilization that manages to tame him, or at least chain him to a post. As soon as civilization goes, the beast is rampant, and the things he does tend toward what we would call the “common” or the “vulgar”, that which is typical of the species. Fighting, for example.
WN: Or foul language.
AS: Or every sort of sartorial misdemeanor. And when it comes to fine works of art, things that are refined or highly crafted, forget it. This is why marble carving is so highly valorized in the kitsch version of the history of art. Michelangelo’s record in this is absolutely atrocious, in that he caused so much damage to the public understanding of sculpture by virtue of his glamorization of the destructive aspect of carving. Michelangelo’s a great genius of course, as an architect, and that’s where his greatest talents lay.
WN: Certainly not as a painter.
AS: Well, I think the painting’s good too.
WN: We can disagree on that.
AS: But sculpture brings out the worst in him, as it does in people generally. Sculpture is a thing that excites tremendous hackles, like the fights that sculptors have amongst themselves. Sculptors all want each other’s blood in buckets…And Michelangelo produced one of the kitschiest objects ever known to man, really one of the most revolting of statues, the “David” in Florence. A real stinker.
AS: It’s reproduced as a kitsch object, because it is itself an object of kitsch. But the worst thing Michelangelo did, through Vasari, was to give the impression that he didn’t need to do any preparatory work to make these statues. So he suppressed all of the small models he made, and put forward the myth that he had x-ray eyes, and could see through the base material to reveal the sculpture enchained within it, which he will set free.
There’s a kind of Neo-Platonist republican movement here as well, almost a kind of liberation theology, and this man is seen as such a heroic figure that it makes me want to throw up. So for this reason, people just don’t understand how to go about creating a work of sculpture nowadays. And particularly since the 20th century, with the return of free carving and people reading too much Nietzsche.
WN: So is it possible to find beauty in a Modernist work by a British sculptor like Jacob Epstein or Henry Moore?
AS: Well Epstein was one of the worst of all sculptors who ever sculpted. The work is very coarse, very ugly, and very ill-wrought. Henry Moore, on the other hand, had I suppose a certain wholesomeness, the same way that Benjamin Britten had in music, or John Piper in painting. Now the problem is that, as Salvador Dali correctly said, Henry Moore has the intelligence of the village idiot sitting in the duck pond. The man was deeply unintelligent.
WN: Back to Michelangelo, and I need to ask the Vasari question: painting or sculpture, which is greater? Because that’s been the classic debate in art since at least the Italian Renaissance.
AS: People sometimes say to me, “Do you do art as well?” They believe that only painting is art. For me, sculpture is the most important: statues get pulled down when there’s a revolution, but paintings don’t get so beaten up. The reason is that painting exists in its own space, and marks its own territory, whereas a statue has the temerity to come into our space, into our world, and stands there, meaning we can’t stand there. It cuts off the world to us.
Also, it’s an emissary of the dead, erected in the middle of the world of the living. And that is also an outrage to the vulgar, vitalist-imperative culture or psychology. Here’s a thing that will not move. That’s why sculpture is on the back foot nowadays, whereas the movies are the ones that transpire into triumph.
Imagine if I was told that I will be co-starring with Matt Damon in the next Bourne movie. Everyone would say, “Sandy’s really made it.” But if Matt Damon decides to come and work for me for a few years, they’ll say, “What happened to Matt?” Because if he left the movies for the “stillies,” statues are always still: they’re associated with death.
Life is identifiable most of all by movement, like if you see someone fall on the ground, but there’s a flicker of the eyelid to let you know that they’re still living. A statue will never supply a flicker of the eyelid for you, and that’s one of the reasons why vulgar morons turn against it, because the statue is standing there, refusing to move, and not collaborating with the world. Statues are about the past, about the not-here, about the there and the then, there’s not alive, and they’re not now.
That’s why we never do statues of living people. Because you’d have an anomaly here: you’d have the subject, running about, doing their thing, shouting for taxis or singing karaoke, and you have the statue standing there doing nothing. You have to wait until thirty years have passed after someone dies, and have a moratorium, to see if there’s still a call for a statue of a person.
Also, people who try to erect statues of living people do so because posterity cannot be trusted to erect a statue of them, so they try to cheat the exam of posterity. It’s also vulgar to see your own statue. Mrs. Thatcher and Nelson Mandela both hated each other, but they both committed the same fundamental crime. Not only did they each have a statue of themselves unveiled in their lifetime, but they themselves also unveiled the d-mn things. Mrs. Thatcher unveiled her own statue. That’s why she can never be categorized as a proper conservative, because no proper conservative would ever have allowed that.
WN: It’s interesting in the original version of “House of Cards” that Mrs. Thatcher’s statue is unveiled by Sir Francis Urquhart after she’s dead, but that’s not actually what happened in her case. And I remember thinking that at the time, when she unveiled her statue, that…no. That’s not right. That’s not how this works.
AS: You’ll find this sort of thing among a lot of the new right-wing activists. They started off as lefties, and then they realized that the left won, but they still have to be fighters and revolutionaries. So they go to the right, but they behave like lefties. She was like that. She was a leftie, behaviorally, psychologically, and by disposition: a scrapper, a fighter.
WN: Final question. I’ve noticed that instead of celebrating virtue, a lot of contemporary art actually celebrates selfishness.
AS: And particularly pride, which is the worst of the lot of them. You remember how Tracy Emin said to Roger Scruton, in that famous interview after she won the Turner Prize when she was very drunk, when he asked her, “How do we know it’s art?” and she answered, “It’s art because I say it is.”
WN: And that’s ultimately where we are now when it comes to the art world.
AS: When she’s no longer around to molest us, then somebody else just like her will say what’s art. But these days, something has to be said to be art. Because it doesn’t go without saying just by looking at it.