We stood in the Columbus Museum of Art, all of us a little damp from the downpour outside, and listed to Melissa Wolfe, Curator of American Art. We had come to the museum to view the Modern Dialect exhibit, which features paintings from the 1920s through the 1940s, paintings that offer a stirring critique of American society in that time period. We wanted to explore the question of how our faith communities can support prophetic voices, and standing in the gallery we found ourselves in the midst of such prophesy, and a little awed by it.
Melissa told us about how artists in the 18th and 19th centuries used busts of eminent people and scenes from great moments to coax viewers towards emulation. If we want, for instance, to be as brave as Washington crossing the Delaware, we might gaze on a painting of that subject to train our souls in bravery. But after the Jacksonian revolution in American thought, we became less interested in the consideration of great people and moments, and more interested in scenes from everyday life. We were saying, in essence, that American greatness lies in the ordinary lives or ordinary people.
In the 1920s this became complicated, since the lives of ordinary people were being disregarded by the very rich. So paintings that showed people at a fair or a barn dance had a political subtext – they defiantly celebrated people who were otherwise being ignored. As she walked us through the exhibit, Melissa led us from this low-key type of prophetic voice to more clearly stated and strident prophecies. As she pointed out, prophecy is almost always the voice of the disenfranchised and disinherited, a voice from the margins of society to critique the whole. We spent some time looking at James Guy’s “On the Waterfront,” which borrowed from European surrealism to exaggerate figures and landscape, but for a social rather than psychological purpose.
We talked, during the tour and afterwards, about how prophecy roots itself in history, and becomes louder and more understandable when we understand the contexts into which it is spoken. We looked at Clarence Carter’s “Down the River,” which was painted in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1937, after the Ohio river flooded. More than three hundred and seventy-five people died in the flood, many from exposure in the January cold because they were made homeless by the disaster. Carter painted a scene of two women, looking over the flood wall in Portsmouth before the flood. Melissa pointed out that these women act as prophetic seers. Plainly dressed, they symbolize the people whom the flood will effect, and seem to be looking where we can’t look, onto the flood plain that will soon be under water.
After the tour we ate lunch together and talked about this painting, and the others we had seen. Maybe, someone suggested, our faith communities can best support prophetic voices by cultivating seers, people who can see over the horizon to the coming disasters. Maybe they can teach us all how to bear witness to those disasters, particularly the silent, unobserved disasters of poverty and hopelessness. In order to do this, someone suggested, we need to cultivate an understanding of beauty and truth that doesn’t rely on pleasure. If we’re to prophetically present ugly, sometimes aggressive truths to our faith communities, we have to foster communities that can hear those truths without being offended by the fact that they’re not pleasurable. Finally, prophecy calls us to action, and the best support a prophetic voice can receive is a willingness to share in the work of righting the wrongs that such a voice brings to our attention.