What thought is The Thinker thinking?

Two points are emerging strongly from the developing library of content on Cradle of English. As the blogs, podcasts and videos accumulate, a much clearer conviction arises that what went on in Fleet Street going back centuries before the newspapers took off there remains not only relevant but vital to our understanding of life in the 21st century. And second, most of the interesting ideas we find ourselves considering play out with distinct and eloquent force across most if not all of Cradle’s communication channels.

An example of the latter was the tweet inspired today by a thoughtful and rich article in The Conversation, examining the author’s growing disquiet, bordering on repellence, at the sculptor Rodin’s famous Thinker – which is of course a highlight of this summer’s Rodin exhibition at London’s Tate Modern. Amidst the customary ambivalence prompted by so many thoughtful arguments – respect for the writer’s thoughtful contextualisation shaded by disquiet at her conclusions – an even greater reflection dawned: how seldom does a tweet enable a properly balanced thought about anything important? Sometimes only a blog will do. So here, more in hope than expectation, we are.

The writer, Natasha Ruiz-Gómez, does extremely well at setting the scene for what inspired the sculpture in the first place, and how the mere image – the iconic posture of the piece – has endured for over a century in the public imagination. It made perfect sense in its time, and it resonates today. The cultural significance of this particular artefact is such that we would clearly be bereft – we: art lovers, thoughtful people, students of our civilisation – if this particular sculpture were to be, in the language of the incendiary demotic, torn down, cancelled, or simply thrown in a harbour somewhere.

At no point does the writer suggest any of these reactions, but her reasons for “turning her back” on an “artwork past its prime” reflect the rationale of those who would advocate those things. The sculpture is a brutalist celebration of masculinity, sexist, classist, and so on: supposedly celebrating the brain but being instead a voyeur’s confection of biceps and bollocks and nothing like as attractive as another sculpture in the exhibition which features neither. And there is no acknowledgement that, in 2021 as much as in 1902 when The Thinker was unveiled, the real thinking is going on in those contemplating the thinker thinking. There must always be a place for that, particularly where history is full enough (thanks) of bullying beefcakes blonzering about, bashing people up with hardly a thought for what they’re doing.

Finally, how often does cultural criticism run off down some alley or other with a distracting deliberation that is not relevant to the power in the piece? To what extent is commentary on Rodin’s work obsessed with the binary opposition of brains and biceps when the more interesting issue may be how the body language might betoken a particular quality of thinking: something more introspective and deliberative than a more open pose might have suggested?