The Artist as Prophet

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?

33 Comments

  • AndrewF says:

    Is there an aspect of the artist’s vocation that is necessarily prophetic?

    Yes, I think so. Artists challenge & critique society, and often hold up a mirror to it. Often they point to a way in which society ought to head.

    • Cole Matson says:

      My question is, does every artist “challenge & critique society”, such that if his art does not do this, it is not art?

      • Andrew Finden says:

        Perhaps not necessarily, and I probably not all the time, but thinking about great artists, nearly all of them, at some point, created things which asked questions or challenged. Even something as ‘simple’ as a love poem or a lanscape painting can be prophetic.

      • Andrew Finden says:

        My question would be, how does a ‘re-creative’ artist (e.g. one who interprets & performs other people’s creations) fit into the prophet paradigm?

        • Cole Matson says:

          This is a good question. For example, an actor can easily participate in a team’s prophetic work, by helping share the playwright’s story, executing the director’s vision, etc. But I’m trying to think of how an actor can be prophetic purely in his interpretation and execution of a role, in ways that don’t change the story that the playwright/director has decided to tell. (For example, an actor might make a suggestion on how to change a line, or an activity to add, that might deepen and extend the playwright’s story, or might change it. But even when the actor contributes new material, or deepens existing material, he’s still doing it in collaboration with other artists, and he doesn’t have the final say in the “word” [message/story/logos] of the play that is spoken.)

          I’m not sure how “re-creative” artists can fit into the paradigm except as collaborators. A performer, of course, can create and perform his own work, as can a group of performers. But a “re-creative” artist is, by definition, sharing in the work of another, and participating in their prophetic work.

          Do you see another way?

        • Andrew Finden says:

          I think you’re right that it’s a collaborative thing. Despite what some directors might wish for, the performers are not puppets – that is, they bring their own creativity and interpretation to the table as well. Just a piece will be different when staged by two different directors, so too would the piece be different with two different performers, even if the director is the same. So in that sense I would say that the performer has an active role in the collaboration, just as the director does. Sometimes a performer will deliver a line differently on any given night. Sometimes the performer will interpret a role in a way the playwright does not actually like (e.g. apparently Britten hated Jon Vickers portrayal of Peter Grimes, while it’s considered a benchmark by everyone else!) Indeed, often the writer doesn’t have a final say in the ‘word’ being performed; with deconstructionist directors (so called ‘Regie’ theatre) it is expected that they will not only find some new insight within the piece, but often add some parallel ‘konzept’ on top of it.

          So, thinking as a collaborative performer, we do have to think about what it is we’re ‘saying’ as a character, though this is necessarily contextualised by the production. E.g. there is plenty of critique to offer via the role of Don Giovanni, but how this is enacted will necessarily vary – e.g. is it a period production, or a modern setting?

  • bruce herman says:

    The issue that David Taylor raises is valid. So much of modernist/avant-guardist art was a deliberate flouting of middle class values, religious convictions, and tradition. Tradition was the enemy. But why attach the word “prophetic” to general dissent? Yet as Cole Matson points out if God were to specifically call an artist to prophesy, why shouldn’t they do so? However, I am deeply skeptical of such a widespread arrogation of prophetic license to a whole generation of artists. By definition the call to prophesy is rare. God does not need many mouthpieces. God speaks eloquently all the time through what God has made. Artists do well to pay attention to nature, to light and color, and form, and texture, and shape, and sound — and to their own inner worlds stimulated by God’s creation. Words like “prophetic” and “creative” have become shopworn and constitute exaggerated rhetoric and nothing more in most instances. As George MacDonald once said, “Let us leave off with shadow heroics and be simple doers of our work — perhaps then at least we will be certain of our humanity.”

    • Cole Matson says:

      I obviously share your hesitancy to apply “prophecy” to artwork outright – the two things may go together, and one can argue perhaps should go together (though I wouldn’t argue they always should), but they are not the same thing.

    • Pat Butler says:

      Delicious quote by MacDonald!

  • Pat Butler says:

    A great book to read for those interested is “The Prophetic Imagination” by Walter Brueggemann. Although not written to/for/or about artists, it will be easy for any artist to make the connections. The prophet is called to rekindle hope in a people who have lost it, to penetrate the numbness of those caught in oppression under a dominant class. which takes imagination. From the cover: “He sets out a pattern of prophetic ministry whose task is ‘to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to that of the dominant culture.\'” Highly recommended.

  • Ryan says:

    Hey Cole
    This is something I’ve been wrestling with for years. I go back and forth between wanting to use the language and concepts of the prophet in relationship to the arts. But then I step back and am really uncomfortable with it. So I appreciate your work in that direction.

    I am trying to wrestle with your first point that the prophet must speak God’s words and not their own. I agree, but with a substantial qualification (and you perhaps likely intend this but lack of space does not permit its articulation or is implied in your #2 emphasis on community). To what extent is the prophecy uttered or imaged contextual?

    It is curious to me that the popular conceptions of the prophet filter it through a radical individualism and psychology. Here, prophetic message is simply a product of the interior self. These ideas were easily adopted by the Modern artist, who must look inward for the creative idea, but also by claiming a prophetic position asserts a peculiar form of authority about themselves and their work. But the other side of this proverbial coin is also interesting. Where revelation or inspiration is primary, it can negate the humanity of the prophet. Now this is where I get squeamish in regards to your statement. I want to preserve the individualized voice and context of the artist, but do so without falling prey to the hyper individualized notions of the Modern artist that you described above in the quotations.

    I think you are right on with elucidating the prophet’s connection to a community. The biblical prophets, or at least as I have understood them, were part of a community…though perhaps at the fringes of it. At times they upheld traditions and at others they re-interpreted traditions in the light of their message. Their messages were contextualized in the community, in their needs, or one might say in their vernacular.

    But without the movement toward your #3 that emphasizes community reform, all we have is a cultural critic. Here is the crux of my working definition of the prophets…to what or whom is the prophet calling the people? Critique is an important aspect, but the true prophet offers their community an alternative way of living or pursuing the good.

    I think we are right to be wary of the concept of the prophet being co-opted by Modern individualism, but we also need to be concerned not to remove the prophetic message from the community and the humanity of the prophet. As Abraham Heschel said, “The word of God reverberated in the voice of man.” The voice of the prophet is part of the message. Where this leaves us for the arts, I am not sure. I can get along with this in theory, but my wariness of Modern individualism stops me short of trusting such a vision.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Ryan,

      Thanks for your excellent point. I don’t think we as artists (or prophets as prophets) need to worry too much about being “ourselves”. I think that if we say what we see needs to be said, it will reflect our individuality, without us having to worry too much about it. The Old Testament prophets, and indeed the saints, are all wonderfully different, even though they were serving the same God. God doesn’t give them all the exact same word to speak, and even when the word is similar (“Repent!”), I think He knows they’re not all going to share it the same way. (Elijah is different from Isaiah is different from Jeremiah is different from John the Baptist…)

      • Pat Butler says:

        Ryan and Cole, one thought to add: very often the Old Testament prophets held a position equal to or surpassing the king (before kings!). That is a vastly different scenario that any modern day prophet, who is usually well beyond marginalzed –usually speaking to a Christian subculture. I suspect the true prophets may be doing very undercover work, off the radar. I’m speaking for the West now, but does anyone know of a political leader or king saying, “Wait a minute, let me consult the prophet?!” (Or some equivalent statement).

        I would also make a distinction between a gift of prophecy, the role of prophet, and the average Joe Christian who wants simply to fulfill 1 Cor. 12:3 (and I put myself in that latter category. It’s the way I’ve found forward in the whole debate about arts and prophecy.) There are no cookie cutter answers here – I’ve seen a wide range, which is consistent with the multi-faceted way God creates us and has us live,work and play together.

        • Cole Matson says:

          I remember reading about a conference call that President Obama called early in his administration with the NEA and a selected group of influential American artists, to talk about how artists could be effective in improving American culture, especially in terms of education and raising the level of public discourse. Some artists were pleased that the administration was taking an interest in artists; others were sceptical and accused the administration of trying to control artists. The latter response points to a desire on the part of some artists to be separate from the “king”, so as not to be subject to manipulation or control. On the one hand, this desire for independence can lead an artist to reject all externally-imposed rules, even those of morality, in the name of his artistic freedom. On the other hand, this independence can allow socially-minded artists to “speak truth to power” on behalf of the marginalised, rejected, and oppressed. So one’s relationship to political authority may have little to do with one’s relationship to justice.

          The more I learn about the arts, the more I realise that it’s almost impossible to make blanket statements about what art is, and what an artist’s vocation is. There are many ways of being an artist, and many ways of morally being an artist as well.

        • Andrew Finden says:

          @Cole
          In my own field of opera, it’s interesting to note that the American scene, which is predominantly free from government funding tends to be much more traditional and conservative, pleasing the funders, while Germany, which publicly funded tends to have more freedom to criticise society and the government. It would seem that not getting money from audiences frees up the artist in that way somewhat.

        • Cole Matson says:

          Andrew,

          Your point re: government-funded opera tending to feel more free to critique is quite interesting! Definitely goes against the typical “government money=control, private money=freedom” rhetoric here in America.

          Cole

  • Matthew Linder says:

    I think that disavowing community in any sense is the wrong direction for an artist and it is sad to see so many artists go down that route into isolation. I recently ran across an article explaining how to capture a younger audience for classical music and the author’s solution was to build community (http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2012/06/doing-it.html). With so much focus on social media in today’s cultural environment, I think this is a great time to latch on to how the community can be involved in the artist’s work by giving input or critique after the finished product. The people David quoted say that they have no responsibility to the community and think that they live in a cultural vacuum. However, what they say does not reflect what they do, otherwise they would not have released their art to the world. If they did in fact actually believe that they were ‘post-audience’ artists then they would keep their art to themselves and no one would ever know about it. I see a contradiction here because if they are trying to make a living as an artist they need an audience and to state that no audience is needed for the art is disingenuous and insulting for anyone that might appreciate their art. I think Christian artists can be prophetic by unveiling the truth of the world in their art, do it in such a way that it invites the community in and express the views of the Christian community as it relates to the community found in the triune God.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Matthew,

      Thanks for the link. I agree that there is often a disconnect between the freedom from the audience an artist may claim, and their actual relationship with the audience. As one of my favourite bloggers, drama prof Scott Walters, writes:

      ‘Artists don’t actually want to offend people. Artists…say that’s what they want, but in reality actual offense by an audience provokes outrage. Look at the reaction from artists when audiences are actually offended and express their offense, say the people who walked out of Mike Daisey’s performance, pouring water on his notes on the way out, or the conservative Christians who were offended by Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi and had the temerity to picket the theatre, or when right wing politicians tee off on NEA grants for art work that is explictly designed to offend. Artists want polite offense, or, as Berry writes about [Arthur] Kopit, the “preferred audience is therefore one that will applaud his audacity and pay no attention at all to his avowed didactic purpose…”‘

  • Dave says:

    As you point out, Cole, art does serve to “instruct.” I think perhaps we need to consider a prophetic role outside of God’s prophetic gifts and offices, perhaps that of a cultural prophet. That is, all artists are sensitive to their cultures, and tend to predict and announce the potentially harmful routes down which their cultures are traveling. They tend to see this before others and try to make others aware. Any artist can do this, it does not necessitate faith. I think that this is Tillich’s conception of the artist as prophet, which I hope David Taylor addresses in his future posts. In any case, I think that this more secular role of cultural prophet would fit nicely into the anti-establishment, etc., roles that Taylor articulates. The Christian prophetic artist would have a higher calling than this.

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Hey Cole, thanks for this post. I’m curious about what you mean by the artist speaking the Word of God and not her own word? Does this mean that the arts occupy a role in the Christian community akin to preaching? Does this mean that artists should avoid speaking their own mind, and that they should focus upon the gospel? Why is the gospel, or the Word of God, not my own word? Are these two things really in competition?

    • Cole Matson says:

      Jim,

      Thanks for your good point. I would go with a looser definition of “word of God” than explicit Scripture or preaching, and focus rather on the distinction between a word/message/vision/Logos that originates outside myself, that I receive and share with others, that comes from God, whether through Scripture, or prayer, or deep desires, or ideas that pop into one’s head in a dream or in the bath, etc. C.S. Lewis talks about seeing pictures, Dorothy L. Sayers talks about having something to say.

      (I love Sayers’ 1946 letter to Lewis: ‘You must speak to and for your audience – otherwise you are sinning against the City. But you must not tell people what they want to hear, or even what they need to hear, unless it is the thing you passionately want to tell them. You must not look at them from above, or outside, and say: “Poor creatures; they would obviously be the better for so-and-so – I must try and make up a dose for them”. You’ve got to come galloping out shouting excitedly: “Look here! look what I’ve found! Come and have a bit of it – it’s grand – you’ll love it – I can’t keep it to myself, and anyhow, I want to know what you think of it.”’)

      Of course, any such ideas that come into one’s head aren’t necessarily from God; it takes further discernment of the spirits. But this idea of receiving and sharing a good that originates from outside you, even though it is shared with the world through you, is different from the idea that you must reach down inside yourself and create something new, which in the extreme is the Luciferian idea of being “self-created” – my creativity and originality is mine, and it’s me and my ideas that have to be shared with the world, rather than a good that is outside of myself, and which Christians know has its source in God, the ultimate Good.

      This is far from precise, I’m aware, but does it answer your question at least in part?

  • bruce herman says:

    Cole & Jim – I think the word “prophet” is still inflated when speaking in general about what artists, poets, composers produce. Sayers and Lewis would be the last to think of themselves or their calling as a prophet. Sayers’s point above is about making art — telling stories — not about prophesying. I think this confusion is what David Taylor was addressing. I will state it flatly: arrogating prophetic utterance to oneself or to the arts does two bad things. One, it actually diminishes the validity and legitimate enjoyment of art by requiring of it that it teach or preach or prophesy. Two, it runs the grave risk of deifying or exalting the artist far beyond her actual calling. Both of these errors undermine the good that art brings to our lives, and they disable the artist by placing an insuperable burden on his back.

    • Andrew Finden says:

      I’d argue that Lewis was one of the most prophetic voices of his generation! I wouldn’t necessarily equate prophecy with preaching and teaching.

      • bruce herman says:

        Andrew — thanks. I think we may be talking past each other a bit with the use of “prophetic”. I was responding to what I thought was “the artist as prophet” — God-sent, preaching to a generation, etc — but sensing that this posture can be self-appointed. I think you’re right in what you’ve said of Lewis, if by “prophetic” you mean astonishingly insightful, countercultural, and faithful to Christ. I suppose I’m being to literal minded here and reacting to what seems a bit exaggerated rhetoric.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Bruce,

      I completely agree with you. I think an artist’s work can be prophetic – in the narrow sense of the prophetic vocation – but only if the person has both vocations, that to art-making and that to prophecy. The vocation to art-making does not equal the vocation to prophecy. And not only must the artist-prophet have a vocation both to art-making and to prophecy, but he must also have the vocation to prophesying through art. This vocation is not given to many people, and I agree that some artists who call themselves prophets are arrogating to themselves a vocation that is not actually theirs (though I wouldn’t venture to say for what percentage this is the case, nor comment lightly on individual cases).

      I think, though, as you pointed out to Andrew, there are multiple meanings of prophecy being used. Probably a key question we have to consider is authority. The authority of an Old Testament prophet is God-given, so therefore kings are culpable if they do not listen. However, many artists today seem to think that audiences (if not political leaders) have a responsibility to listen to them because they are artists, i.e., on the authority of art. When did art become an entity that itself grants authority?

      • Bruce Herman says:

        Cole & Andrew– a friend just sent me this link, which I addresses an underlying issue of this blog topic:
        http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/22/opinion/global-agenda-magazine-good-art-bad-people.html?emc=eta1
        Cheers
        Bruce

        • Cole Matson says:

          Bruce,

          Thanks for that article. I’m troubled by its conclusion, though I see how he gets there. Yet I think it’s a cop-out – I see no reason why the creation of great art must necessarily go with selfish behaviour, especially in the area of family relations. I think I might respond to this article in a future Transpositions post.

          I’m often reminded, when the subject of dysfunctional artist marriages comes up, of C.S. Lewis’s statement somewhere in Arthurian Torso that he’s surprised that not more artists have seen in their work a vocation to celibacy. (It’s in his commentary on Charles Williams’ poem “The Song of the Unicorn”.)

  • Diane Tucker says:

    The idea of an artist as prophet seems grandiose and fraught with temptation to pride, and the danger of creating two classes of Christians, those touched with the gift and those who are just “plain Christians”, as if that were less! This has screwed up a lot of people I’ve worked with over the years in the church. I don’t believe such labelling is our job.

    A WORK of art, however, can be and often is prophetic, in that it can communicate a truth about God and our relationship with him that a person, group or society needs to hear. It proclaims who God is, via the particular language of itself.

    I am a poet, and serve my work with metaphor, image, simile, rhythm, all the tools a poet uses. I build a poem, which speaks the truth of itself from itself. I am a Christian, and if I serve the poem as well as it ought to be served, the poem will peak part of who I am. This will inevitably result in truths about who God is because the well I draw water from is a Christian one. My poem can then function prophetically, as in proclaim who God is and truth about him and his creation.

    Beyond this, to thinking of myself as a Prophet, I see as distracting and possibly dangerous. My job as a writer is to serve the work and leave the results to God. Doesn’t anybody read Madeleine L’Engle’s book “Walking on Water” anymore?

    “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
    Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
    Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”
    — Gerard Manley Hopkins

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