My friend W. David O. Taylor, an arts pastor and PhD candidate in Theology and the Arts at Duke Divinity School, recently published the first post of a series on the vocation of an artist. (I recommend reading it before continuing.) In that post, he gives several examples of approaches to the artist’s vocation, including:
David Cronenberg: ‘At the time you’re being an artist, you’re not a citizen. You have, in fact, no social responsibility whatsoever.’
Adam Gopnik: ‘Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art.’
Philip ‘John’ Brennan: ‘I’d say rock’n'roll should always be anti-establishment–whatever the establishment is.’
At the end of his post, Taylor references ‘the all-too-ready appeal to the notion of artist as prophet’, which he will discuss in a future installment of the series.
It seems to me that the statements above by Cronenberg, Gopnik and Brennan are in line with a problematic ‘notion of artist as prophet’ which, as Taylor says, is all too prevalent. Artists too often conceive of themselves as prophets simply because they are artists and understand their art to be prophecy by nature. In this conception of the artist as prophet, the artist:
1) speaks his own word (his own artistic vision).
2) must be on the outside of the community and must reject the community’s values (e.g., Brennan’s quote that ‘rock’n'roll should always be anti-establishment–whatever the establishment is’).
3) speaks his word whether or not it’s of any use to the community and has the right to speak it even if it’s harmful to the community. (In some versions of this position, the community even has a responsibility to support and listen to the artist, even if his word is harmful to or contemptuous of the community).
I would like to suggest that the conception of the artist as prophet can work. However, in order for an artist truly to fulfil a prophetic role, he must:
1) speak the word of God, not his own word.
2) speak to the community as a member of the community. (Even though a prophet is often rejected by the community as a consequence of his prophecy, he does not reject them first.)
3) speak the word of God to the community for the benefit of that community (e.g., as a prophet encourages his community to repentance).
And, of course, he must be called to the prophetic vocation by God, not choose it for himself out of a desire to have influence, or even out of the benign desire to improve his society.
The question of the artist as prophet relates to the question of vocation. Does God call the artist always to be a prophet? For Christian artists, yes, in a way. All Christians share in Christ’s priesthood, kingship, and prophetic vocation by virtue of their baptism. All Christian artists are called to share God’s word. But are all Christian artists called to share God’s word as artists?
Scripture provides evidence for the existence of a separate prophetic vocation not common to all Christians: ‘God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers… Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?’ (1 Corinthians 12:28-29, NRSV). In this vocation, prophets are called to speak directly the word that God has given them.
I see no reason why such a vocation is inconsistent with an artist’s vocation, such that a person could be both a prophet and an artist, or a prophet who speaks through art. However, it does not seem that all artists are necessarily prophets as well, since art serves many purposes other than the prophetic (e.g., to entertain, instruct, provide delight, etc.).
What do you think? Is there an aspect of the artist’s vocation that is necessarily prophetic? Is there another aspect of the prophetic vocation that needs to be discussed in relation to artists?