The Artist as Prophet by Christa Mazzone Palmberg

When I arrived in Seattle fresh out of graduate school and started interviewing for nonprofit jobs, many people were confused. Why would a person with a Master of Divinity degree- who studied the Bible and theology and Hebrew- be interested in jobs related to social justice? How would my religious training in any way prepare me for leadership in the nonprofit world? More specific to my interest in working at Arts Corps- what is the relationship between social justice, faith, and the arts?

In some ways, these are fair questions. Many Christians in this country have either completely separated their personal faith from public life, seeing no connection between the two, or their faith has been co-opted by the Religious Right; their identity as Christians has become more influenced by cultural conservatism than by theological beliefs. (For a poignant reflection on this new brand of “Fox Evangelicalism,” read this NYT opinion piece.)

But while I understand how someone might question the relationship between social justice, faith, and the arts, to me it is clear. The role of the artist and the role of the prophet is one and the same- a critic of injustice and a harbinger of hope. In his classic book, The Prophetic Imagination, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that the tactics of the prophet include both “criticizing” and “energizing”. The prophet is called to publicly critique societal structures that dehumanize while also providing an energizing message that envisions a new reality grounded in love and justice. According to Brueggemann, prophets help us make connections between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

Arts Corps teaching artist, Kalei

Singer Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Art can penetrate our indifference and move us to empathy and action in a way that news articles and lectures simply can’t. Without literature, poetry and painting, how would we cultivate the imagination necessary to envision a better world? Without music and dance, where would we find the strength and joy to keep going when our souls get weary?

James Baldwin took it further and said that the role of the artist is to disturb the peace. This was definitely true of the biblical prophets. Jeremiah, a prophet in the Hebrew Bible, called out false prophets for claiming, “‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.” Jeremiah could not stand idly by while the religious leaders of his day condoned the injustices of his people and told them everything would be alright; that there would be no consequences for their behavior.   

Dancers from OTS Arts Manager, Cheryl Delostrinos' class
Dancers from OTS Arts Manager, Cheryl Delostrinos’ class

The prophetic role of the artist has never been so apparent to me as it was on a hot Saturday evening in July at Arts Corps’ community fundraiser, Art & Sol. Much of the art on display provided a fierce critique of some of the issues our nation faces- from our deepening epidemic of gun violence to the continual targeting of young black men by our police. At the same time, the beauty, joy, and hope elicited by the artists was truly inspiring (and brought tears to my eyes).

The program began with a powerful performance by young dancers under the direction of Arts Corps’ OST Arts Manager and co-founder of the AU Collective, Cheryl Delostrinos. The grace, strength, and flexibility of these beautiful young women awed all who were present. Dancing to a contemporary pop song, these young artists inspired audible oohs and aahs with the movement of their bodies.

Next up was Arts Corps alumna and outgoing board member, Carlynn Newhouse, who performed her poem, “The Sky is Falling.” Riffing off the folk character, Chicken Little, Carlynn gave a stinging critique of our nation’s historical and ongoing injustices, as well as a beautiful exhortation not to despair because, “What is the end of something if not the beginning?”

Midway through the program, master veteran teaching artist and Arts Corps’ Director of Creative Youth Development, Eduardo Mendonça, donned his guitar and contagious smile and provided us with a delightful reminder of our shared humanity and the universal language of music. His song, “O Pato”, (“Oh duck” in English), had audience members literally quacking in their seats.

Director of Creative Youth Development, Eduardo Mendonça

Among the many other powerful works of art that left an impression on me that evening was a painting by Arts Corps teaching artist, Lester Pearson. Imbued with vivid color, the painting depicted two Black women radiating light and happiness. In a culture that too often dehumanizes women of color and portrays them only through caricatures and stereotypes, this piece conveyed their natural beauty and everyday joy; an honest and refreshing reflection of the world as it is.

The evening included too many notable works of art to describe them all in detail here, but I would be remiss not to mention the final performance of the evening by Kalei, an Arts Corps teaching artist who brings Hula Mai ‘Oe to Hazel Valley Elementary students. From the rapid movement of her hips to her gorgeous red attire to the interactive way she invited us into her culture, Kalei’s performance was stunning. It reminded me of the words of the late rabbi and civil rights activist, Abraham Heschel, who said, “Awareness of the Divine begins with wonder.” For Heschel, awe, wonder and radical amazement are the keys to authentic spirituality. All three were elicited in me last Saturday evening. I suspect all three were elicited in everyone who attended Art & Sol.