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."

The instinct today to describe artists as prophets is as common as it is irresistible. Visual artist 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 necessary and perhaps obvious thing to point out, as Deborah Haynes carefully elaborates in her book 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 HonorĂ© 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."

The Russian Mikhail Bakhtin emphasized the artist's capacity not only to envision a new world but also "a new human being." His early 20th-century compatriot Mikhail Matiushin maintained that the artist in sacrificing to everyone, "opened eyes and taught the crowd to see" the true nature of the world, hidden to common sight. As he writes in a 1915 essay titled "The Artist": "The artist discovers the world and shows it to man." Whether grounded in something bigger than themselves (God or Nature) or on their own intuitive conviction (deemed bigger than "life as we know it"), Haynes, in less grandiose terms, believes the artist as prophet, on the one hand, possesses the capacity to receive a "message" and to discern its meaning for contemporary society and, on the other hand, is responsible to critique the disparities and hypocrisies of human behavior and to infuse his or her audience with a hopeful call to action.

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.

Second, the prophet-artist is one who chooses to live authentically. Integrity between vision and action will be paramount. He will look a certain way. He will behave in a fashion that might be at odds with "standard style." He will not be afraid to look directly into the ugly, shadowy, even terrifying dimension of human life. He will not be safe. He will trans-gress given boundaries and be a "disturber of the peace." He will likely suffer rejection for his work and might even be regarded as a traitor or a madman, or, worse, be dismissed as an idealist. He may live out an Orphic myth in preference to a common existence, choosing an alienated status to the status quo, much "like the mythological Orpheus, a religious leader, preserver of tradition, celebrant of the mysteries, leading society into the future," as Haynes explains.

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.

Fourth, the prophet-artist is a critic. If the world is a mess, the prophet-artist sees how and says so, even if nobody likes it. He will use unlikely methods to carry his message out: subversive tales and rationally inscrutable allegory, vicious irony and witty metaphors. He will be concerned not so much for the business of foretelling as for the business of forthtelling: saying it like it is as well as how it ought to be. The present will be judged in light of the past with a view to the future, and while it may take years to persuade his viewers and hearers, the "message spoken" will be satisfaction enough.

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.


Mark Allen said…
Can't wait for the next installment.
Thanks, Mark. Me too.
Zac Hicks said…
I'll be curious, too, to read what is said. The logic for me at this point is simply observing how artists appear to often in relation to culture. Perhaps it can be debated that artists should be called prophets, but I'm finding it hard in my (admittedly limited) understanding of it all to deny that many artists and art-pieces operate in a prophetic capacity. I'm looking forward to your wisdom on this, Dr. Taylor.
Zac, you're a good man.

-- The someday-soon Dr. Taylor
Great series...

Before moving out of the artist as prophet post, two wandering thoughts…

First, I go back and forth as to if a prophet primarily hears or sees and how that would change some of the verbiage in seeing an artist as a prophet. I suppose one can listen with both eyes and ears though.

Second, all of the characteristics of the artist prophet listed are positive… however, if there are prophets, there are also false-prophets who’s special sight is self-serving, who’s authenticity is narcissistic, who bounds and gag’s truth/beauty/goodness, and who’s critic of culture never includes and examination and transformation of self.

Now, I’m not of the camp that only “Christian art” is good, in fact I vibed with a recent article [http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cultivare/2012/05/the-dark-light-of-thomas-kinkade/] that probably would have painted Thomas Kinkade as a false prophet. Conversely, God has communicated with me more through “non-Christian” art, even when it was to show the antithesis of some truth. However, there is still a pastoral concern for the artist as to whether their intent and toward-ness is for God. To paraphrase and contextualize a Lewis thought, are the artists creating as mere tools or as sons/daughters of God? They will be used one way or another, but the spirit in which they create or prophesy matters greatly.
Jonathan Assink said…
While I wrote my graduate thesis on this topic, and argued in favor of the artist as prophet, I am coming to also see the problems this creates. Holding "true art" and "true artists" as exclusively the realm of prophet-artists seems to demean or devalue general creativity and craftsmanship. I don't know how to craft a prophetic piece of furniture, but there is certainly artistic merit in fine woodcarving!

I also look at the lives and suffering of the Biblical prophets and wonder if that is too much to ask of our church artists. Mentoring and counseling young artists of faith takes on new gravity if it means preparing them for a life of ostracism and "outsiderness".

I look forward to your next post in this series David! Your work has always been thought provoking and encouraging to me!
Justin, apologies for the delay. I went on a mini vacation with my family and I'm just returned. I think your question about whether prophets "receive" their message through sight or sound, eyes or ears, is very perceptive. The implications for artists and for those of us who professionally engage in theological reflection on the Scriptures is significant.

And you're right to point out that there will be false prophets roaming the streets and screens, as it were. Perhaps in contrast to the time of Israel's life, we don't have the easy ability to say, "Here absolutely is the good prophet, here is the false prophet." Perhaps some are better "prophets" than others, though none of us gets it perfectly right all the time. I'll raise some questions related to this issue in my follow-up blog.

Jonathan: fabulous observation. I love it. And I think you've identified a dynamic that makes me nervous in these kinds of discussions of the artist as prophet. It tends to privilege one kind of art-making over many, many others, and I'm not sure that's the most helpful way to categorize the vocation of artists.

The "outsider" status of artmaking might be alluring for some artists in our society, but I think it's silly and toxic for believer artists to seek it out or to embrace it unquestioningly or to allow their persons to be circumscribed by this kind of self- identification. While it might appeal to a certain feeling of specialness, I think in the long run it hurts their capacity to be bound up in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church for which Christ died and which is essential for our basic health as Christians (even if it's not always exciting).

Any chance I might read your thesis?
Jonathan Assink said…
David: Shoot me an email of where to send it. I was just looking at it today and revising some parts. Though I am a year out of school, it remains a living document. =)

Epic said…
Insightful series! I think I’m of the same opinion as you.

I would guess the artist-prophet situation is partially created by confusion with what a modern prophet is. That is, we struggle to accurately define prophecy, its role, scope, inclusivity, source, and practice under the messianic covenant. As such, we tend to liberally define anything that impacts us spiritually as being, on some level at least, prophetic.

Look forward to your thoughts! Thanks David.
Marc, as you say, definitions are everything.
Trying to keep my brain fresh on this subject, David. Good, good thoughts here. If "prophet" is a vocation/role/gift of some in Christ's church maybe that definition also suffers by us attaching "artist" to it? In the same way Jonathan points out the problems with "true art" having to = "prophetic art" maybe we hinder the definition of "true prophet" by requiring of her an artistic/physical expression? If I'm following you, I guess I'm advocating we break up a sort of co-dependent relationship between the two terms while still making room for them to relate at times, when appropriate. Does that make sense? (it's possible I'm just shooting bull here because my brain is really tired)
Tamara, that makes good sense. We need to properly define each term (as best as possible), we need to keep them distinct, we need to recognize that context significantly shapes the meaning of each term, and we need to think carefully how we relate the two if we believe it's important to the way that we clarify the vocation of an artist.

That's the task. In short.

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