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Volume 9, Issue 1: Poetics

Art as Covenant Naming

Douglas Wilson

Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
"Little Gidding"
--T.S. Eliot

Our minds are covenantal. Whether we want to affirm "covenant" theology or not, the fact remains that God always deals with men by means of covenant. He has created us in such a way that we cannot respond to Him, or deal with anyone or anything in the world, apart from covenantal categories. But this word covenant is not to be repeated as some kind of Reformed mantra--the word refers to something which, if understood, provides a principle of explanation for everything. And this includes art.

One central aspect of covenant is the feature of representation. Under the judgment of God, Adam is the covenant head of our race--he represents the fallen race. In the New Covenant, Christ is the covenant head--He represents His saints. In the marriage covenant, the husband is the covenant head--he represents the household. In the creation mandate, man is given dominion over the creatures--he represents them. All reality is covenantal. We must therefore not be surprised when we find that representation in the realm of aesthetics.
But how does representation work in art? When men turn to their exercise of the creation mandate, they should see their role as that of exercising covenantal authority in the world. They are not on the same level as Adam, but their work is like that of Adam. When Adam named the animals, he was doing far more than attaching labels. He was naming in a way which captured and represented what was there. When a painter picks up a brush, he is doing the same kind of thing. He is exercising dominion. He is naming. He is a covenant lord, and he is assigning covenantal authority as he names.
In the argument that follows, the discussion is limited to painting. Much work has to be done in other areas as well--literature, music, etc.--but the same foundational principles apply there as well.
In Robert Browning's poem, "Fra Lippo Lippi", the painter, speaking in the poem, says this:

For don't you mark? we're made so that we love First when we see them painted, things we have passed Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see; And so they are better, painted--better to us, Which is the same thing. Art was given for that; God uses us to help each other so, Lending our minds out.

As Browning states it, the point of painting something is not to reproduce it exactly (which is impossible anyway), but rather to represent it in such a way that it enables others to see the reality of that which is represented for the first time. The pedantic mind may wonder why we should paint the apple when we already have the real apple here. Isn't the real apple more realistic? Why make another one, that is less realistic? But the point of a great painting is not that we have had a shortage of apples, but rather that we have not yet understood apples the way we ought. The painting of the apple is not to compete with the real apple in order to replace it, which would be silly, but rather to name it in such a way that I begin to see real apples differently.
A man may have such hand/eye coordination that he can capture a particular scene with a photographic realism. Is he a great painter? Not necessarily. If we were to swing a camera around the room, snapping at random, we would capture a number of vantage points with equal photographic realism. But people would not think that Ansel Adams took these pictures. Such scenes would not name anything. A painting which simply acts like a camera in technical reproduction is not necessarily successful. A successful painting, or photograph, for that matter, is one which names, and which establishes that painting as a "covenant head" for a broader category of things. We are confused if we try to figure out the Mona Lisa as if it were an unlabeled photograph. We understand if we see her as a representative. We should not ask the woman's name; the woman is a name.
"Modern" art does not fail because it fails to "look like" something. It fails because it represents a theology hostile to the very idea of naming; it is hostile to coherence, hostile to dominion. A man who believes he should name may name badly or well. But a man who hates the very idea of naming will never name well.
This means that we should not evaluate a painting on the basis of a resisted technique (e.g. impressionism). Seabreeze by Winslow Homer does not offer a one-to-one correspondence between atoms in the scene and atoms on the canvas. This would be democratic rather than representative. But the painting names effectively and well.
Our appreciation of art will grow considerably as we evaluate the theological assumptions beneath the painting (n.b. this does not mean asking whether the painter is born again) and then go on to evaluate the painter's competence in dominion. Did he name anything? And, if so, did he name it well?

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