This post is a bit of an experiment in attempting an open discussion about the creative process between any and all reading these words. So if you’re up for it, please weigh in with a response at the end.
Odds are you’ve seen a version of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Have you ever wondered what he’s thinking about? Rodin’s The Thinker (1880, bronze), has been portrayed in a host of ways, ranging from listening to headphones to sitting on a toilet to contemplating his pint of beer.
I’m a pastor. Sometimes when I’m teaching on the authority of Scripture in the believer’s life, we talk about the Thinker. Is there authorial intent or can I interpret what I see in that sculpture any way I wish? Am I free to decide what’s on The Thinker’s mind?
Who’s to say what he is thinking about anyway?
Well, Auguste’ Rodin, actually.
It came as a surprise to me that “The Thinker” is an historical figure. He is Dante’. And The Thinker was sculpted to sit atop a larger sculpture called “The Gates of Hell.” (Here it is.)
Rodin wanted to capture the thought process Dante’ must have had to subject himself to in writing “The Inferno.” On close inspection of the Thinker, you’ll see a great burden on the countenance of Dante’ as he contemplates the loss of souls into eternal punishment! And Rodin was captivated enough by the weight of such thoughts that he wanted to try and capture it.
So the Thinker is not just some guy thinking about nothing in particular. He is Dante’ thinking about souls being lost in hell. And regardless of what anyone believes about the afterlife, Rodin is the authority over what’s on the Thinker’s mind because he cast the sculpture. To put him on the commode cheapens Rodin’s authorial intent and, it seems to me, makes it so the beholder will never really be able to comprehend what Rodin meant to say.
Some non-objective and abstract artists today leave the interpretation of their work completely up to the beholder. But if we mean to communicate truth through our art, can we create without intent?
What do you think? I’d love to hear from all kinds of artists on this. Here are my questions, and I’ll number them in to basic categories for the sake of discussion. If you have a particular artistic focus (songwriter, painter, writer, instrumentalist, etc.), do tell, and perhaps we can see how the responses vary according to genre.
1. Regarding the creative process; Is communication an inherently necessary part of the creative process, or can we create good art without intending it to “mean” anything by it?
2. Regarding the presentation of what’s been created; What, if anything, do artists owe their audience? And conversely, is that audience obligated to try to understand the artist’s intent, regardless of whether they agree or disagree? Or, how important is it that when people engage the arts, they’re “picking up what the artist is putting down”?
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).