art & the prophetic imagination

On Saturday night here in Sydney TEAR Australia hosted the first of its Art of Resistance events. We had a really fantastic set of works, both visual and performance-based, which provided a wonderful witness to the prophetic power of art. (You can download the catalogue of works here.)

Here is a very rough text version of the short reflection I gave during the night’s proceedings:

In talking about art I don’t want to take long, since too much talking can interfere with the power of art. It’s like the story of a dancer who, having completed a dance piece, was asked what it meant. She replied that if she could explain what it meant, she would not have had to dance!

Why are we doing this? Why would an organisation like TEAR, committed to fighting poverty, bother spending time on art?

Because art is important, because art is powerful.

I think Bono said it well:

The world demands to be described, and so, painters, poets, journalists, pornographers, and sitcom writers, by accident or design, are just following orders, whether from high or low, to describe the world we’re in.

Even the pornographer describes the world we are in. Art has an incredible power, for better or for worse, to describe the world, to point out the beautiful and the ugly. Bono goes on:

…as much as we need to describe the world we do live in, we need to dream up the kind of world we want to live in … above all to glimpse another way of being.

Art can give us a vision of the world we want to see. It can go beyond describing the world – it can demand change!

Bono’s words are very similar to the work of a theologian by the name of Walter Brueggemann, a man whose work has been deeply influential on the thinking behind Art of Resistance. He talks about what he calls the prophetic imagination – that the role of the prophet is to both critique of the evils of society and to offer an alternative energising hope.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the prophets in the Bible frequently used poetry and song to express their words of justice to Israel.

And it is no surprise that the greatest times of positive social change are also times of great artistic awakening – from the American Civil Rights Movement to the anti-Apartheid movement and the varied anti-war movement of the past century.

John Dear, a Catholic priest in the US, has said:

… every peace and justice movement needs every possible creative outlet – music, painting, poetry, drama, film, and literature – to help uphold the vision of a new world without war, poverty, and nuclear weapons. These movements need every one of us to contribute whatever we can.

Art has the power to be profoundly prophetic, critiquing the current order of things, the injustices we see daily enveloping our world. But more than that, art can offer a prophetic gaze into a new world which has not yet come to pass, a better world, a world in which God’s kingdom of love and justice and peace for all people reigns.

What would this world look like? We need artists to imagine…

So where are the prophetic artists? In a world of consumerism art has become another commodity – we buy it, we download it, we consume it. Our society certainly does not value the arts – very little is invested in the arts compared with other areas of society. Even the Christian Church has too often seen little value in art, making it into the proverbial frilling around the edges of the real focus, whatever that may be.

But art is not the pretty icing around the edge of a cake called “real life”…

It is a window through which we look at the world. It is a mirror in which we examine ourselves.

My vision for Art of Resistance is a community of artists who are committed to and support each other in using their artistic talents to tell a different story about the world. I see it becoming a movement of artists known for their passion for the kingdom of God, for justice and peace in all the world, and for creating nonviolent social change through the use of the prophetic imagination.

I see an expression of the arts that goes beyond the pretty icing on the cake or the downloadable commodity: I see an expression of the arts that is a window to a new world.

I believe that we are called to witness to God’s new world, and that art is one of the most powerful and prophetic ways to do that. Our prayer is that the Art of Resistance community would embody this creative, prophetic, imaginative spirit which seeks to see the oppressed released from the captivity of injustice.

I hope you will continue to walk with us in this little pilgrimage called the Art of Resistance. Thank you.


Posted on August 20, 2012, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Culture & Art and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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