A Picture Not a Copy: Gadamer Helps Us Honor Art (And Each Other)

Protestants over the past few decades have become increasingly aware of the crisis of art in our community. For much of our history we’ve either ne­glected the value of art or, what is possi­bly worse, just made bad art. At Whea­ton College our own Dr. Matthew Milliner of Art History among many others has shown us an alternative perspective on the place of images within the Christian tradition.

The twentieth-century philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer offered an apol­ogy for the value of art that richly con­tributes to this ongoing conversation. By practicing the phenomenological method of philosophy Gadamer attempted to ar­ticulate how human beings understand and interpret truth. Gadamer sought to articulate how we are made open to the truth that is offered to us in all the things we say to each other, in what we create for each other, and in those ambiguous realities that our world is always giving us to understand. In what may at first appear a strange choice, Gadamer turns to art as the model for discussing how we are opened to truth. At the beginning of Truth and Method he attempts to re­habilitate art as not merely an aesthet­ic experience, but as a genuine mode of knowing truth. Gadamer claims that an image amounts to an emanation from its original. It is from the womb of truth that the image emerges as a legitimate child. The work of art has a blood-inheritance, a real sharing, in the truth it reveals to us. If we want to honor the truth whose child the image is, we must also honor her progeny.

Art Is a Presentation of Being

At the outset of his project Gadam­er argues that the mode of being of the work of art is presentation, or the mani­festation of being. In a work of art, what is represented in the image is genuine­ly put on display. He writes that in the work of art “what is emerges. It produc­es and brings to light what is otherwise constantly hidden and withdrawn.”[1] The classical theory of art as mimesis, or imi­tation, offers a helpful key. The essential element of imitation is recognition. When we see an imitation, what captures us about it is that it shows us something we already know. We recognize in the imita­tion the thing imitated; it rings true. As Gadamer writes, “what we experience in a work of art and what invites our atten­tion is how true it is – i.e. to what extent one knows and recognizes something and oneself.”[2] But he is quick to point out it is not merely in recognizing what we al­ready know that imitation has its full ef­fect. Rather it is in recognizing more than was apparent. What we thought we al­ready knew shows up newly illuminated. We understand this sense of recognizing what was hidden before when someone imitates a mutual friend and we respond by saying, “He does do that! I never no­ticed before!” In imitation, art represents its object in such a way that its being is made manifest to us more fully.[3] In mi­mesis we have knowledge of the nature of that which is represented. Why do these imitations so frequently make us laugh? Gadamer calls this experience of mimesis nothing less than the joy of knowledge.[4]

The Emanation of Being

Gadamer goes on to articulate how the meaning of presentation in art can be worked out in the difference between a picture and a copy. The only purpose of a copy is to point back to the “origi­nal.” A copy of a painting, for example, is only interesting in that it directs our attention back to the original painting. It is a means to an end. Once we encounter the original, the copy can be discarded. A copy is self-effacing. It is a sign that points away from itself toward the origi­nal without having any intrinsic connec­tion to it.

A picture, on the other hand, has a positive character of its own that is bound up in what it represents. By presenting the being of what it represents, the pic­ture is not forgotten or effaced, but “re­mains essentially connected with what is represented.”[5] Gadamer thinks that the picture has some ontological communion with what it represents. It is not by can­celing itself that the picture allows what is presented to show itself but rather in affirming its own value the work of art liberates what is represented to appear. It is precisely through the picture that the truth of the subject matter is shown to us.[6] The picture as presentation is not the same thing as that which it rep­resents, but it uncovers something about the original not by pointing us away from itself, but inviting us to abide with it awhile and see what it has to show us.

What does this mean for what is represented? Gadamer argues that the being of the entity represented is actually affected by this representation. The be­ing of the subject matter comes to pres­ence in the work of art, and so this pres­ence in the picture also belongs to the subject matter’s own being. The being of what is represented has real presence in the picture. Gadamer writes that “by be­ing presented [the original] experiences, as it were, an increase in being. The con­tent of the picture itself is ontologically defined as an emanation of the original.”[7] This claim is downright weird. However, our own experiences actually testify to its plausibility. Our sense of reverence in the presence of art bears witness to this emanation. Even the sacral mood we cul­tivate in art museums reflects an implic­it belief in something like this. Gadamer suggests these attitudes go all the way back to art’s prehistory of “picture mag­ic.” We used to believe that to touch or deface a picture would affect who or what was depicted in the picture. The fact that we have never truly been able to detach ourselves from this notion is an indica­tion that we still believe artistic represen­tation is in some way sacred.[8] This rever­ence before the work of art would follow naturally if the picture were an emana­tion of being.

Art is Way of Knowing Truth

This conclusion returns us to the claim we started with: Gadamer thinks these experiences with art are not sim­ply aesthetic. It is true to our experience that the art that captures our attention doesn’t simply make us feel something rich or beautiful. Art reveals to us our own world, uncovers the genuine being of things around us that are both beautiful and hideous. This can happen with the manifestation of a tree in a painting, or the essence of how people love one anoth­er as it is imitated and heightened in the theatre. We are taken in by this art not only because it appeals to us aesthetical­ly but because it carries with it a claim of truth. This claim presses itself upon us in a way similar to how our moods seduce us into believing in the way they interpret the world. Hopeful moods convince us of the world’s goodness, despairing moods convinces us of its emptiness. A work of art likewise impresses upon us a lure of truth. Art is showing us our own world in a way we hadn’t seen before, but that we can nevertheless recognize.

Central to Gadamer’s intention is that these works of art are not merely road-signs that point away from them­selves toward what they represent. In fact, we think it a mark of impoverished art that all it can do is efface itself and point us toward some being with which it has no genuine belonging.[9] On the other hand, it cannot be denied that in a truly moving work of art, there is a sense that the original is somehow dwelling with us (is here with us) when we encounter it. It is uncovered for us; it shows up. The art that moves us awakens in us a new thankfulness for the world, and a long­ing to tarry in the presence of being, as it shows itself in the work of art.

Martin Heidegger, Gadamer’s teach­er, calls this kind of event the clearing in which things show themselves. The way human beings perceive truth, Heidegger illustrates, is like the clearing in a forest where a doe might be seen grazing. For Heidegger, we are fundamentally open toward being, such that we are ourselves the clearing in which being presents it­self.[10] Art is one way for us to uncover the world for ourselves and for one an­other. Art has the character of uncovering the being of something by presenting it. It does so by regarding the picture and not by looking past it; in attention to the work of art we experience truth. In encountering a work of art we find our­selves in the clearing with being. And the truth of it brings us joy.

Gadamerian Art for Evangelicals

This stands in stark contrast to what we all too easily find in the Chris­tian evangelical community: an instru­mental vision of art as a tool that points us toward some other truth that can be translated into a proposition, i. e. Jesus died for your sins, and if you believe in him you will be saved. Translating the event of engaging with a painting or at­tending the theatre into a propositional statement would be to see the work of art as what Gadamer calls a copy rather than a picture. Through distinguishing between the two, Gadamer has attempt­ed to close off the possibility of claiming that what is really true in a work of art is at the end of the day reduceable to a statement. If we look at a work of art and perceive its worth merely as a function of what statement it can teach us, we are beginning to efface it and neglect its true value. The event of truth that happens when we experience a work of art comes not by following the work like following an arrow that points us away from itself, but by following the work home, dwelling richly with the work as it unfolds the be­ing from which it emanates.

To honor the truth of God that is revealed in a work of art, we must not simply give thanks for what it teaches us, but give thanks for its own being as par­taking in the being of God which he has given to everything he has made.

What is at stake in these subtle philosophical distinctions for us today? The neglect of the arts that infected the Protestant church after the reformation is beginning to give way to many con­temporary Protestants rediscovering the deep value of art for the life of the church. Gadamer’s response to the be­lief that art has a merely aesthetic val­ue has led us to claim in this essay that experiencing art is a genuine way of en­countering truth. More specifically, it is by affirming the goodness and value of the work of art that we are permitted ac­cess to this truth. Turning away from an instrumental view of art toward Gadam­er’s claim that the work of art shares in an emanation of being from the original instructs us to honor art rather than dis­miss it. Alongside reading folks like John Piper and Henri Nouwen, attending an art gallery and offering our attention and love to the works presented there is one of the many rich ways we come to live knowingly in the truth.

This picture or copy distinction in­vites another rich question for us to pon­der. What is the status of the image of God? Is the image of God that dwells in each man and each woman more like a picture or a copy?[11] Does the image of God in another person point us away from her toward the God from whose be­ing she comes? It is possible that the im­age of God in another invites us to attend to her and find in abiding with her the joy of knowledge in which the being of God emerges. When we encounter another person as the image of God, perhaps that person contains an emanation of the be­ing of God that means nothing less than the real presence of God in his image. In the face of each person, can we trust or hope in God’s real presence with us?


1. Hans George Gadamer, Truth and Method (Seabury Press, 1975), 112
2. Ibid, 118 emphasis added
3. Ibid, 114
4. Ibid, 112
5. Ibid, 139
6. Ibid, 140
7. Ibid, 140
8. Ibid, 139
9. We might think of Christian films like Facing the Giants that leave us with the dissonant experience of affirming the goodness of the gospel, but rejecting the artistic value of this work of art.
10. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie And Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 2008), 171
11. Thanks to Dr. Andrew DeCort who posed this question to me in response to an earlier draft of this paper.

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