as Covenant Naming, Douglas Wilson
on an old man's sleeve
all the ash the burnt roses leave.
in the air suspended
the place where a story ended.
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.
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
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.
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.
Robert Browning's poem, "Fra Lippo Lippi", the painter, speaking in the
poem, says this:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
© 2005 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.
9, Issue 1: Poetics