What to do with sculpture? Quiz the sculptor

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Sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton
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You arrogate to yourself
more power
than is meet.

You found the language
to describe the workings
of the universe.
Well done!
But you did not
plumb the depths
of mystery,
the impulse to life
or the power
to create.
And even your language,
good as it is,
does not describe
all planes;
it remains
partial.

With your language
you could do
so much:
eventually,
machines of
all kinds,
for all manner
of things.

Yet, you didn’t
notice
that somehow,
you
were changing
into a machine.

These ideas about the way Sir Isaac Newton was depicted in the sculpture occurred to me when I visited the British Library, London, especially to see this sculpture.  The sculptor was Eduardo Paolozzi and this piece is called ‘Newton’ After William Blake, which was unveiled in 1995.  The painting by William Blake (on the left), however, depicts God, The Ancient of Days, as the figure holding the pair of compasses and marking out the heavens. This idea was familiar in Christian iconography where God was depicted as the Architect of the universe, holding measuring implements (as shown in the illustration from a 13th century French Bible).  So for Paolozzi to depict Newton in the same stance as Blake’s Ancient of Days conveys the idea of Newton – and his science – as being in the place of God.  Now Newton’s science and rationality can measure and map the universe – God would have to move over.

Yet that interpretation of Newton’s enterprise is to misrepresent Newton himself.  Yes, of course, he was fascinated by probing and discovering all manner of things in the natural world, but he viewed God as the masterful Creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation.  Certainly, some of Newton’s religious views were less than orthodox but it seems that his scientific inquiries did not lead him into atheism.

It makes this sculpture all the more interesting, then.  Is it the sculptor who views Newton’s science as paving the way to the modern world in which God is not regarded as essential?  The gaps of knowledge have been filled, so ‘the God-of-the-gaps’ is no longer required.  That this sculpture has been placed on the forecourt of the British Library, the repository of so much human knowledge, also signals the superiority of human rationality and learning.  So is the institution of learning endorsing human knowledge which surpasses all things?

Or maybe, the sculptor is being canny and discreetly showing where all this human rationality can get you, if you’re not careful – you become machine-like (notice the bolts in the shoulders, hips and ankles) and the world you create becomes dominated by machines and it might not end happily.  And perhaps that is why Newton has robotic-like bodily features.  Who knows?

It certainly makes you think!  And that’s what I love to do!

 

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