Do artists take themselves too seriously?

Do we take artists seriously enough?

These are the questions I’ve had coming out of my post last week, where I offered a few preliminary thoughts (in response to a well-intentioned but generally frustrating video from the Gospel Coalition) on the question of whether artists serve some kind of “priestly” role in contemporary (pop) culture… and if so, if such a thing is altogether self-serving or may in fact serve a greater purpose as far as “theology and culture” is concerned. Following the twists and turns of the original video – and with those two opening questions in mind – I would also like to consider the artist as “prophet.” Is this a role that artists should avoid or embrace, and is their “prophetic” voice one we (especially as the church) need to heed?

A recent article in SPIN magazine noted the fact that protest music, even in the age of Occupy Wall Street, is “stuck in the past”: old-school icons like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan still rule when it comes to sticking it to the man, while the past decade has seen “clear, strong musical dissent dwindle to a whisper.” It’s a point worth considering; the other day I watched Sinead O’Connor’s infamous SNL appearance from the 1980s where she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II, after a provocative (and very “in-your-face”) performance of “War”… it’s hard to imagine something like that happening on American television today. However, one might profitably point out that even if Sinead O’Connor, U2 and Rage Against the Machine are yesterday’s news, advances in technology have allowed an even broader range of artists in all media (music, painting, film, dance, theatre, new media) to speak out in strong tones against societal ills both on and off stage. Many are able to do so without sacrificing artistic quality – in fact, having a strong “message” may enhance, rather than sideline, the aesthetic dimensions of their work. Although, as SPIN points out, this generation may not have its own Bob Dylan or Chuck D, political and social “protest” still drives much wonderful creativity in all media, from street art a la Banksy to provocative performance pieces to thousands of YouTube videos (though of varying quality!) creatively responding to particular issues.

But are artists “prophets”? Or is such a designation only appropriate when it comes to intra-religious issues? There is, to be sure, a difference between “protest” and “prophecy” when it comes to art. The biblical prophets called for reform in the context of corporate repentance and divine judgment; protests may invoke the language of eschatological judgment (crumbling edifices, smashed-out Starbucks windows) but don’t usually frame their message in terms of turning back to a benevolent deity. (Although perhaps “repentance” is not such a foreign concept when it comes to effective protest – the most fruitful resistance movements are arguably those that call for “conversion,” a complete about-face from one way of doing things to another.) However, secular art that is “protesting” something (can we call it “protestant” art?) aims – just like the OT prophets  – to challenge the status quo with what Walter Brueggeman calls a “counter world,” denouncing the present reality in the strongest terms possible and offering up an alternate vision of society. This twofold “prophetic” task is one for which the arts are particularly well suited. Firstly, one can creatively “negate” and subvert through sign and symbol in a unique way:

Art may have a prophetic function, laying bare perceptions we would otherwise have missed – but prophetic in the sense that, like prophetic disclosures through other media, it arises out of a vision of reality that reflects its negation. (John Dillenberger, A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities, 244.)

And secondly, on the more positive side, art can also offer us an alternate vision of reality, apocalyptically transforming and rehabilitating our imaginations. Are artists, then, “prophets,” bringing a challenging message from God to the people? We might ask the same question in reverse: are prophets a certain type of “artists”? (Perhaps we can think of Ezekiel, Hosea and John the Baptist as effective and subversive “performance artists.”)

I’m not sure the Gospel Coalition pastors would dispute any of this outright… their specific qualm seems to be, put plainly, Derek Webb. Webb is a singer-songwriter, formerly of the band Caedmon’s Call, whose past albums have criticized the Western evangelical church for its complicity in violence, poverty and oppression and who is thus, in the words of the video, “deadly serious” about presenting himself as a prophet. Following Webb on Twitter, it’s hard to think of him as “deadly serious” about anything… but nonetheless, it is true that many of his songs (“Rich Young Ruler” and “I Don’t Want To Fight” are two examples) explicitly “protest” particular injustices and call the church to accountability. Webb sings as a Christian criticizing his own tradition – speaking from within, implicating himself, rather than the “outsider” stance of the secular protester – and so calling his art “prophetic” in the context of the Christian church rather than simply “protest music” seems somehow appropriate. While he certainly does not present himself as God’s mouthpiece – as did the biblical prophets – he is suggesting that injustice and oppression are things God is concerned about, and ought to trouble us too.

The GC seems to think the mantle of prophet is too heavy for an artist to bear. I agree that artists are “artists” first and foremost, rather than “priests” or “prophets.” However, undermining the “prophetic” role that all artists, even ‘secular’ ones, can play in calling church and society to imagine a more just future by suggesting that having a “message” is a form of self-aggrandizement simply makes it easier for us to ignore the valuable insights these artists are presenting to us. Even outside of the church, art may call us to conversion. Artists (from Dylan to Webb to De La Rocha) may not be “prophets” in the strictest sense of being God’s messengers – just as they are not exactly “priests” – but they may well play a valuable “prophetic” role that goes beyond “protest” to genuine mediation between the kingdom of God and human culture.