On the vocation of an artist: part III: The artist as prophet (I)
|Ten Penny Prophet, 2008 - Jamie Baldridge|
"The Prophet" by Aleksandr Pushkin (1826)
With soul athirst I wandered, lost,
Across a dark and desert land
And where at last two pathways crossed
I saw the six-winged Seraph stand.
With Fingers light as dream he turned
And brushed my eyes until they burned.
And then I saw strange visions rise
As through a startled eagle's eyes.
He lightly brushed my earthly ears
To bring the pounding of the spheres:
I heard the shuddering of the sky
The sweep of angel hosts on high,
The creep of monsters in the seas,
The seeping sap of valley trees.
Then leaning to my lips he wrung
From out of them my sinful tongue
And all its guile and perfidy;
And his right hand where blood was wet
Parted my palsied lips and set
A Serpent's subtle sting in me.
And with his sword he clove my breast
And took my quaking heart entire
And in my sundered breast he pressed
A coal alight with living fire.
There in the desert I lay dead
And heard the Voice of God who said:
"Arise O Prophet! Do My Will
For thou hast seen, and thou hast heard.
On land and sea thy charge fulfill
And burn Man's heart with this My Word."
Enrique Martinez Celaya, in a lecture delivered at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum in the fall of 2009, said: "we will all break our backs trying to be artists-prophets, but this is a better fate than letting our backs calcify from lack of action or hunch over in shame." Greg Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, appealing to both Flannery O'Connor and St. Thomas Aquinas, suggests that the way to negotiate the tension that arises between the artist and the broader community is to take advantage of the biblical model of prophet. Christy Tennant Krispin, in a series of observations drawn from the 2011 Brehm Lectures, in response specifically to the lecture given by Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, wonders out loud about the role of art as prophecy and the prophecy of art in our times. She comments:
"Prophets see contemporary situations with divine perspective, and as I look at the art created by some, I wonder, Is this artist not a prophet also? Emily Dickinson, Bono, Wendell Berry, Jacob Riss, Anselm Kiefer, Chaim Potok, and even Banksy are just a handful of artists who help me 'see contemporary situations with divine perspective'."
In a 2007 talk given to artists at the Laity Lodge, Murray Watts, the British playwright and landlord of a Scottish castle, argued the position that artists should see themselves as both servants and prophets. In Pentecostal circles, the prophetic artist will take on very specific, though not unusual, connotations. As one visual artist puts it, speaking representatively: "we strive to 'taste and see' what the Lord has for us and to 'paint the vision and make it plain'.”
The Vocation of the Artist, is that the notion of artist as prophet is a recent historical category, surfacing in the 18th century and bound up in a complex of cultural and philosophical dynamics. In early nineteenth-century Germany, for example, it was believed that "artists of all kinds were blessed with a prophetic insight that was denied not merely to ordinary people, but even to men of learning." In 1834, the Frenchman Honoré de Balzac insisted on the preeminence of the artist over the king, to the extent that kings ruled only briefly while artists ruled over centuries. He states:
"The artist is often a prophet whose vision is not so much the product of its own time as the augur of time to come."
If we were to summarize the kinds of things that are said about the idea of artist as prophet, four characteristics will be seen as recurring.
First, the prophet-artist is endowed with a capacity for special sight. Such an artist will be insightful (over against "ordinary" sight), far-sighted (over against myopic sight) or capable of pre-sight (divining the future or the eschatological implications for present living). Appealing to one of the common definitions for prophet in the Old Testament literature, the artist-prophet will regard herself, quite frankly, as "one who sees." In some cases she will be a mystic visionary. In other cases she will be the one who exposes to the light of truth the plain facts of life, which have too quickly become obscured. She will see what others cannot see or refuse to see; she will see them even if, in Tiresian fashion, it costs her the possibility of physical sight.
Third, the prophet-artist will be a healer. While the hammer blow of judgment that results from her work may be painful, the prophet-artist ultimately aims at a better world. Whether social action or the mending of human relations is an explicit objective, and whether she appeals to an Ultimate Truth or to a more proximate one, including an "inner conviction of things," she will always hope for a regenerative outcome to her art. The prophet-artist perseveres by bearing the pain of the world. Even if it means exhausting herself to personal ruin, her witness to an authentic existence and to a world put to rights will continue beyond her death.
What then do we make of this notion? In the next entry I'll offer a few observations and six possible critiques. I'll also be tempted to recommend that we throw out the notion altogether, because it might be more confusing than clarifying for artists.