Monday, January 28, 2008

Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor; and a Digression on Artistic Quality

The Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart refers to himself as a heroic realist, but his work--which spans both private commissions and some ecclesial work--definitely places itself squarely within the larger tradition of Western art. He has had a long history of working in collaboration with architects to create a fusion of architecture and sculpture seldom seen today. Whatever one may think of his stylistic choices from a purely subjective point of view (and I find them perfectly justifiable), he is one of the few truly serious traditional artists working in the medium at present, and thus worthy of our time, study and consideration. His work stands in public squares in Edinburgh, on the campus in Princeton, in Buckingham Palace, and many other sites of civic and world importance. To ignore such cross-currents is to ignore significant trends within the major part of the traditional architectural community today.


One thing I would like our readers to consider over the next few days as I post other new architectural and sculptural work by outstanding traditional artists, I think many of our readers--and many Catholics of a traditional bent--are too quick to reject the work of most of the few talented artists out there because of issues of style. This is unfortunate, as often the only other option is to resort to inferior, mechanically-produced copies, a solution seized upon entirely too quickly as a viable option. This is not to say style is immaterial, but the issue of Gothic versus Classic versus Romanesque at this point in time serves to cloud the larger issue of artistic quality. Not all Gothic, or Romanesque, or Baroque, is created equal, and a partisan enthusiasm for one particular traditional style over another, whatever its legitimate merits, should not excuse faulty workmanship.

The solution here is not to reject their work but ask up-front for what you want, if you have a problem with style. Artists with a traditional background are often surprisingly accomodating, so long as they have the right training. A Catholic renaissance (or what-you-will) of the arts will not come without artists, and artists cannot live without commissions. Don't settle for the first amateur you come across, but search hard. There are real sculptors and painters out there today, who go (figuratively) hungry whenever a commission is handed out thoughtlessly.

I have referred, in the past, to originality, but I do not mean originality in the sense of novelty or rejection of tradition, but rather freedom within the Catholic artistic tradition in its many forms. An original composition, rather than a catalog-bought copy, may faithfully reproduce the requirements of Catholic iconography, but it is also able to respond more specifically to the local traditions of a place or parish. Even a hand-painted reproduction of a famous work by a competent copyist can fit itself better to the specific qualities of a parish than something made by machine, because of the intervening human element.

We abhore electric altar candles and cringe at the idea of bringing recorded music into mass--why should we settle for equally cheap stopgaps when it comes to art?


Some samples from Mr. Stoddart's portfolio:

St. Rita; a bronze for a marvelously inventive private chapel done by British architect Craig Hamilton.

A pair of winged figures designed as part of the architecture of John Simpson's new Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace.

Processional Cross maquette.

St. Nicholas of Tolentino.

A bust of Scottish composer James MacMillan, who has been featured in these pages before. The prongs on either side of the bust represent the ancient lyre.

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