This exclusive interview with Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen in Scotland DL and Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in Scotland during April 2012.
As it surely is not as simplistic as it may seem to some, why did you become a sculptor?
I became a sculptor for no reason; that is to say, the imperative that drove me to this strange profession was not hypothetical (an “if/ then” imperative) but something in fact categorical (that is according to a feeling that I “ought” to do and be this, regardless of the outcome). This is an important distinction of motivation for it comes to shed light on why it was that the Monument became such an important form in my life. It was all born in an overwhelming childhood conception of “duty discharged” which alighted on me at exactly the same time as my first aesthetic feelings arose. So you might say that as a child I had innocent experience of the link that Kant talks about when he shows that beauty rhymes with duty; that aesthetics and ethics are not merely allied, but perhaps even, at kernel, the one thing.
The strong sense of the artistic and the good being connected was really brought to the fore in my infancy by the existence of a small monument at the foot of our road in the Renfrewshire village of Elderslie. This little structure stands at the site of the birthplace of the national hero of the Scots, Sir William Wallace, Guardian of Scotland and Knight of Elderslie (c.1274-1305). This is a memorial not to the rough fellow known in the cinema as “Braveheart” but rather to a petty-nobleman, probably of Welsh extraction, who rose to oppose a tyrant and fought not for the interests of any particular House, but for a broad idea embodied in the Scottish Crown. This purpose was always a fascination to me, for it was vague and very generalist; not what the Americans would call “instrumentalist.” At this time I began to picture Wallace not as a figure naturally seen on the battlefield, but rather pictured in the sequestered grove by an evening light, in deep repose – a typification I much later discovered I shared with Robert Burns in his imaginings of the hero. Thinking of Wallace in this way is an old-fashioned thing to do. Nowadays one is required to think of this extraordinary individual as a forward-looking thruster fully committed to the multiplication of wind-farms over the Scottish Borders and never tiring of punching the air – which is to say that the contemporary view of him is deep-fried in philistinism. Sentimentality, said Oscar Wilde, is the bank-holiday of cynicism. The modern picture of Wallace is thus corrupted.
Later I remember I had to account to a playmate for my religious affiliations. Being in the West of Scotland it was only a matter of time before someone asked me whether I was a Protestant or a Catholic. I didn’t know which I was, so I ran in to ask my mother. “You’re a Protestant, dear,” she replied in a matter-of-fact manner, not untainted with conviction. I ran out to tell the boy, whose name, incidentally, was John Coulter, but he had run off, so I was left in solitude to face up to the heartbreaking fact that I “was” a thing whose name positively repulsed me. This was the very first aesthetic decision I remember making; that I wanted, on account of the sound of the name of it alone, to be counted a Catholic. I stood on the wall, nearly in tears, and shouted to the empty street “I am a Catholic!”, while waving my wooden sword aloft. This was an early exercise in formalism, for not an iota of knowledge was present around the question to condition my response. For all I knew being a Protestant could have referred to my left or right-handedness, or my short or long-sightedness. What’s in a name? Well, there’s a sound – and this is not entirely without significance – if one is a man of taste and sensibility.
I became a painter first, because I discovered that my aptitude for music was on the back foot owing to a difficulty reading music, the sight of which I loathed. This difficulty evaporated when I was about twenty years old, so that I became a rather capable sight-reader on the piano in due course. Not so in childhood. I turned to painting because of a rather sudden and powerful growth of interest in Paris and the demi-monde of the late 19th century. Shortly I forgot about the context (the idea of the bars, brothels and studios) and became enchanted with the pictures, so I took to painting out of doors in Paisley, trudging the length of it looking for views that looked marginally “Impressionist.” One afternoon, while painting in a field next to the main road, a man standing in a small crowd at a bus-stop shouted over to me “On yer’sel’ Vincent!” which, to translate from the Paisley tongue means “Carry on doing as you are, in full, if unacknowledged, justification, Vincent!”
At art school in Glasgow I discovered that the painting department was run by a tyrant called Donaldson – a heavy-hander unlikely to be kind to my burgeoning desire to paint like Ingres – so I entered the sculpture department since it was widely held to be the easiest-going. Then I felt that childhood surge again, and recovered my interest in the Monument. But it was to be a very long time before I was asked to make one, and when I was it turned out to be a disaster!
What I loved, and love, about the Monument is that its subject is not “now”, but “then”. And the Monument survives all the “nows” it goes through to exist in many other “thens”, extending into the very distant future, far away from us. It links the past with the future and in the process demonstrates the strange fatuity of the “now”. This is why the Monument was much castigated in the recent past, and it also explains why political leftists (left-liberals) have such a dyspeptic attitude to the Monument or statue. It refuses to take part in the “dialectic” but rather postulates something immutable and lasting. Its mind, so to speak, is concentrated on the distance, which is blue in colour. But contemporary art is focussed on the near-to-hand, which is the colour of blood. Because of thoughts like these; because I had a tendency to look to the distant hills, to imagine the struggles of eight hundred years before as more real than the concerns of the present, and because I instinctually pictured a warrior at rest rather than in action, I feel it was dispositionally necessary that I became a sculptor of monuments, and that the classical tradition of sculpture should rise, eventually, as my guide and master.
Can you describe the day you realised Contemporary art was a complete waste of your time, a one trick pony, nothing more than junk?
I remember a particular day when I realised I had done something wrong in the art line. It was at art school.
I had completed an abstract composition made of pop-riveted sheet steel, as part of my course in the second year. Anxious to please, I had expended some time on this thing and believed myself to be thoroughly whacked as a result of the full week’s working on it. My tutors gave it a resounding cheer and were absolutely thrilled with my “almost arch-like” “piece”. (Honestly, arched pieces are ten-a-penny in art schools, still to this day, as are face-casts of poxy students’ backsides and circles of sand disposed upon the floor. And when one hears a new cacophony bearing a wistful title like “Outreach” freshly commissioned by the BBC from some young composer, it is invariably described as being in the form of an arch. The arch is favoured because, as the old Hindu proverb says, it “never sleeps.” An arch stands because it is perpetually falling, and this makes it greatly appreciated in modernity, with all its thrust-imperatives. Similarly, while trabeated classical architecture is forever suspect – on account of its stillness – Gothic styles are more generally excused, and this is because the struggle to stand is so evidently written all over their structures. The buttress is always appreciated; the flying buttress positively adored – because we like to fly. In America there is a great love of the arch in conservative circles, and this worries me, I must say. The great Glasgow architect Alexander Thomson indicated that the arch is the embodied form of a cruelty of outlook, which is why the Romans loved it - but then they also had the self-knowledge to employ it in serried rank in the cruellest building they ever constructed – the Coliseum. I digress!) My pop-rivet job thrilled them, thrilled me, and we were all thrilled with ourselves. Then, on the way home to thrill my parents with the news of my success, I paused in front of the cast, near the entrance of the GSA building, of the Apollo Belvedere. He was seen there, recast a thousand times, stalking through the ether, his nostrils flaring in a barely suppressed anger; the purest object one could conceive and as such a perfect anomaly in the canon of Occidental sculpture. He had just slain the python, which could be seen tightening itself around the tree-trunk by his leg, and was thus showing how the Patriarchy was now established and the present vanquished – for the Python represented the old Matriarchal order – of immense duration – to which we have now almost returned; the Occident was something that lasted about four thousand years and has finished in our time. And as I looked at this object I began to thrill in a new and upsetting way, so that I felt not only uncomfortable being so impressed, but also rather ashamed at my having been so recently impressed by something of mine own – a small thing, to be sure! The god seemed to be saying to me “Try me! Your accomplishments so far are beneath contempt.” I think that was the first time I experienced this tremendous jolt of objective understanding in the art line. It was the voice of an inner daemon, which the moderns would call conscience. In any case, it was the very opposite of “self-empowerment.” I was slaughtered on the spot. Shortly after this I had the first of the Great Depressions that have been such a pest in my life and career. There was no alternative but to attempt to work towards this manner of sculpture and to abandon what I appeared to be good at. So you could say that my disillusion with the contemporary in art was a sudden seeing of self; I saw myself before that image and the prospect was not good. Interesting that it should have been an image of Apollo; on the lintel of the Tholos (his temple) at Delphi there is inscribed the words “Know Thyself”. He is the deity of Enlightenment.
My tutors were very alarmed that I should try to make sculpture so backward-looking, but they were kind and even conscientious people and so I was not positively obstructed in the impossible task I had set myself. The obstruction came later, once what I was doing was beginning to stick. But I quickly noticed that the act of making a figure in any continent (that is un-distorted, handsome and proportioned) way, with any evidence of technical skill (not to speak of symbolical meaning) was likely to draw adverse comments. At first I thought this was simple resentment – that someone in the “club” was inclined to betray the imperium of mediocrity by doing something well, according to standards up to which none could reasonably be expected to match. Such standards were to be dismissed as “irrelevant” because they were in the past. But for me these standards were a kind of reproach. “What’s the ‘Resident Sculptor’ up to today?” sneered an astoundingly attractive female student one morning, as I was wrestling with a superior iliac process. Then some toilet graffiti appeared advising Poland to watch out, since “Sandy’s coming.” It was a time when no Student Representative Council was happy unless it had some Nazis near to hand. There being few to appear in Glasgow they had recourse to turning upon a feeble, specky, nervous wreck in the sculpture department of Glasgow School of Art! It is true that, far from modelling myself upon Engels, Marx or Lenin, I had rather chosen the attire, manners and enthusiasms of the only proper King of his century, Ludwig the Second of Bavaria (God rest his soul) – yet this seemed extreme. I was at the time attempting to sculpt a little like Rodin, the Frenchman’s style being manageable and careless. If one could not manage a hand, or an arm, one simply truncated the work at that point! It was the kind of sculpture that would have gotten me into a camp – but it smacked of the West, still, and this as enough to turn the Soviets at the GSA against me.
It was not, however, just “simple resentment”. A great friend of mine, the greatest living architectural historian Professor James Stevens Curl of Hollywood near Belfast, once asked me in a moment of despair the no-doubt rhetorical question “Why are Modernists all such odious people?” I was in no condition to answer this, being terribly drunk at the time, but the query stuck, and over the years I’ve gone some way, in my thoughts and digressions, to account for this effect – of the seriously obnoxious, contemporary-art-type person. It has become a cliché, and as such must be attended to – for the cliché is a kind of smoke to indicate fire. (In the same way we have to ask why it is that the clichéd image of the scientist – a kind of “Brains” type , with a certain look, a spectrum of manners and tremendous, if unexpected sexual ambition – has such a strong hold over the popular imagination.) Why are modernists such odious people? I have come to see, quite clearly, that the reason for this is to be found in the field of metaphysics. It is a startling effect to see how, when metaphysics is even mentioned, there arises a sort of world-scale shuffling in the seat and an awkward protestation of hurry to get on elsewhere, or an altogether too quick burst of dismissive laughter, or even a flat refusal of any further talk in this line. This must be because something about the world is in danger of being said, when metaphysics is the talk. The same thing happens when religious questions arise. Religion is only metaphysics illustrated for children. Yet metaphysics are interesting, especially to young men. The question (Berkeley’s single idea) as to whether there is a sound in the forest when a tree falls unobserved is often the single most compelling conundrum that many a boy of fourteen hears, but his wonder at this is quickly stamped out and he will be observed positively giving up on it, or developing an actual detestation of the enquiry and a shame at ever having made it. With brusque tones he will command himself to “get real.” If he gets a girlfriend he will learn that nothing is more liable to bring out the rolling-pin than such a line of speculation. But I believe that the problem of the typical disposition of the Modernist can be accounted for in respect of this. A traditionalist is someone who never entirely gives up on the “no object without subject” line of epistemology (no sound without a listener). A Modernist is one who cannot abide the implications of this, for it gives rise to a suspicion that the world, which includes as a kind of central sun the material being of the subject, is in fact an illusion. Modernists like the world to be real, for they want to “intervene” in it. If it were a phantasm, they cry, then to what avail my projects? But traditionalism, or in its social manifestation conservatism, has a proper and scrupulous pessimism about the world, as a Veil of Maya (illusion) concealing the noumenal truth that can only be perceived once the conditions of time and space have been abolished. To put this more clearly, the Modernist loves life and believes the world good. The traditionalist sees life as a gigantic error of judgement but admires the way that culture has come, over the few millennia in play, to mitigate the forms of this ghastly cosmos in institutions of dignity and compassion, in established manners, cultivations of all sorts, restrictions upon behaviour, self-denials in every field of human and inter-species intercourse - and of course the pursuit of the redeeming redundancies, by which I mean academic study, scientific enquiry (compromised owing to its applicability) and above all art. Modernism is to be understood as art in an optimistic guise. But art itself, if it were proper, is life-denying. This is an extremely hard idea to accommodate, since we are indentured to life and think very highly of it (it must be good since we are in it). But there is absolutely no doubt that the young men gathered in a threatening mob can be more easily dispersed by the simple playing of Mozart at them than the work of any water-cannon can do, and this effect is only a demonstration that the Will-to-live, which runs strong in young men, feels itself dwindle and weaken in the face of such beauty, and so this same Will draws the youths away from this threat to its dominion as a matter of urgency. Art works upon the Will-to-live as Kryptonite works upon Superman. The Modernist dreads the narcosis of art, so he made a simulative alternative to its heady potion during the last century; something whose ugliness would forever prevent it having the sedative effect of the Great Tradition, whose position it came, so thoroughly, to usurp. Modernism is a sign, then, of Health; a dialectical-materialist doctrine with which Nature (who conceived and sustains it) is very proud.
And yet, after having said all this about Modernism, I consider myself a Modernist – but in the context of a vast application of the term extending miles beyond the pokey wee official area to which usually it is confined. For in truth there are really two kinds of Modernism to be uncovered in the space of the last two and a half centuries, and it is to the first and largest of these that I belong and to which, in my small way, I contribute. This is the Modernism that was born in neo-classicism and has, as its great central titan, the mighty Richard Wagner. It begins in Scotland with the explosion of the Ossianic poetry in the 1760s and ends here too, in the death of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid in 1978. Overlapping this colossal span of accomplishment, beginning in the early years of the last century there is the opposing rainbow, coloured not in opalescent tints but having the hue of the New Jersey Turnpike on a grey day. It begins with Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal and ends in Tracey Emin’s Bed and if followed to its end renders up a crock – but not of gold. It is best to have nothing to do with this species of Modernism. It was hired directly to countermand the discoveries of the 19th century, which was the greatest century of all in the miserable history of the world. Something simply had to be done to stop what had been happening, quite against the trend – and look at the success of it! This “second-wave” modernism has been as successful as Japanese Knotweed; a veritable shark in the tank. Why? Because, as I said before, it has Nature on its side.
What are your feelings about the current state of art and architecture education?
You could have your portrait painting by anyone of anytime in history who would it be and why?
The above interview with Alexander Stoddart 2012 © Manner of Man Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission.