Artists As Sages, Heralds & Prophets
How are artists sages, heralds and prophets?
To create profound art, artists look deeply into reality, past the surface to investigate the meaning of the way things are. Why does the world function this way? What does a certain social practice really mean? What are the presumptions that lie behind common comments? Artists seek to recognize the true meaning of things, beyond the norms, fads and trends that may present things at face value. Insight – that is what artists aim to gain and to express to open the eyes of their viewers and give deeper understanding of truth-claims about reality. Insight was exhibited in Da Vinci’s Christological understanding of Jesus in The Last Supper, in van Gogh’s and Bacon’s portrayals of the hypocrisy of the church, in Picasso’s capturing of the genuine atrocities of war in Guernica, or in Turner’s revelation of how our improved industry results in dehumanization in Slaveship. I think of Durer’s drawings of spiritual realities in the heavenly places that exist behind our physical reality. I think of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and its exposition on the real meaning of human worth and why we fight in atrocious wars. My favorite is Michelangelo’s David statue that shows the meaning of faith as the true weapon and victory. With their insights, they reveal to the world what the world does not normally see. Artists are sages in that by looking deeply into reality, exploring meanings of things and investigating truth-claims that lie beneath, they offer us wisdom in the way things are, so that we may not live on the surface, take for granted the daily exposures presented to us, and go about life blind to the philosophical undergirdings behind our experiences. And when there is a brilliant truth, a shining wonder or a magnificent beauty that we tend to miss in the clutter of the mundane and crowdedness of social media, artists illuminate it so that we don’t miss such enriching things.
On the next level, artists may not only reveal what is, but they may also call for what ought to be. They discern the difference between is and should. To see the way things should be takes another level of sight – moral insight. The moral dimension is the artist’s ability to recognize what is that falls short of a noble standard or principle and, therefore, things should not stay as they are. So, moral insight assumes the former ability of insight described and takes a step further to posit a reality that is not yet but ought to be. The artist with moral insight exposes the present brokenness and charges us with a new insight or philosophical principle that is the basis for a different reality. Expressions from moral insight present a goal, and where there is a goal there is a call for movement. The factory of change is the crying result of the artist with moral insight. An artist who cries for change is a herald. A herald calls people to embark on a quest, to leave homebase and venture out to seize the elixir that is necessary for improving the current world. I think of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart about freedom from oppression and tyranny and van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan about loving the stranger with tangible acts of kindness.
On the third and highest level, artists may bear foresight, the ability to see and express artistically how things will be. Such artists see that change not only ought to happen but will happen. It is an inevitable future based on an understanding of a greater narrative and the eventual fulfillment of a higher purpose. The change comes about by both human effort and a superintending divine guidance. Artists with foresight create visions of what things will be, offering both hopes and warnings depending on which side on the tide of change one is standing on. Artists with foresight are prophets. They have looked deeply into Scripture and captured a reality that is not-yet and they have received dreams and visions from God that correspond with Scripture about the eventual future. Artists with foresight remind us that there is ultimate purpose in our universe and, like a painting, our reality is bound to reach a vision. Foresight offers us hope that things will change for the better. In the knowledge of the should be and the will be, we can live out the not-yet realities in the is because that is an essence of faith (Hebrews 11:1). No matter what suffering you are going through, in Christ every tear will be wiped away. No matter how broken you are as a person, in Christ you will be a completed new creation. No matter how many wrongs there are in this world, in Christ there will be a renewed earth. I think of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, van Gogh’s The Sower, and many films and stories that portray a promise of the future.
N.T. Wright writes, “Art at its best draws attention not only to the way things are but also to the way things will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. That remains a surprising hope, and perhaps it will be the artists who are best at conveying both the hope and the surprise” (Surprised by Hope, 224-5).
Many individuals of the Bible were artists as sages, heralds and prophets, from Isaiah to John who painted images with their words. They saw what really was, called for a change to what things should be, and cast visions of what will be. Imagine God’s churches cultivating their artists by embracing, discipling and mobilizing them. Churches can be the creative home for artists to be nurtured, challenged and empowered. What vision and wisdom artists can offer our generation through profound expressions that illuminate understanding on deep, soulish levels. What priceless agents of grace and truth our artists can be to the forging of our culture.