I Have a Dream
Commentary by Jennifer Allen Craft
Perhaps one of the most famous lines from all the prophets comes from Amos 5:24: ‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’.
Amos’s words come in the midst of his indictment of an unfaithful and unjust Israel. The northern kingdom in which Amos preaches has created a society in which God’s commands to care for all people have been ignored. Instead, a wealth gap and a misremembering of God’s commands pervade Israel’s society.
Martin Luther King Jr. echoed Amos’s admonition in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and quoted the prophet in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ recalling God’s commands to create societies that promote justice and care, and calling all people of the modern world to action.
In this painting, African-American artist Jack Whitten responds to King’s speech with a brilliant and bold illumination of that dream. Each face that emerges from the abstract colourful surface of his canvas powerfully asserts itself in the context of the whole, its identity pronounced not by virtue of race alone, but in relationship to the whole composition and to one another.
The simultaneous chaos and beauty of this image reveals a central aspect of the prophetic promise and works powerfully on the emotions of the viewer. It is raw and material, even while it expresses a profound spiritual reality through its entrancingly bright palette. Amos speaks of justice in the mess of society, while the wild brushstrokes of Whitten suggest that in the mess of it all, there is still hope to be found. His image evokes a garden of colour, an Edenic space of promise that embodies the dream of justice.
The Needy in the Gate
Commentary by Jennifer Allen Craft
The work of German Expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz is perhaps one of the best modern examples of the way in which art can speak for communities of the oppressed.
Kollwitz’s oeuvre communicates a belief that art should influence social change. Most of her works explore the injustices of society and question social location as an adequate determiner of identity.
In particular, she exposed society’s treatment of the poor and of women, using her art to reflect on the difficulties of those groups when faced with oppressive forms of power. This was a theme she pursued throughout her career; it even found expression in her use of relatively accessible and affordable printmaking and drawing mediums (Prelinger 1992: 120).
Kollwitz’s The Downtrodden can be aligned with the message of the prophet Amos, who was a protester against social injustice and a communicator of divine pathos. The prophet reveals God’s anger over ill-treatment of the downtrodden, speaking to those who:
trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, … [those] who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5:11,12)
Kollwitz places viewers into a conversation with those trampled poor, those who—in her own context—have been pushed aside at the gate. The words of Amos ring true more now than ever, as does the divine response to society’s evils. The woman in this image gently holds the head of her dead or sickly child, and the man standing beside them is turned aside in anguish. He cannot bear to look on the reality before him.
But God will not look away, and only those who hate evil and love the good (v.15) will, according to Amos, be recipients of God’s mercy. All of Kollwitz’s works are imbued with an emotional power that invites the viewers’ response to such weighty subjects. The characteristic black and white of her prints here only intensifies our sense of the emotional distress of the downtrodden family.
The prophet Amos warns of divine justice to come, while Kollwitz powerfully asserts the injustice that remains present today.
Prelinger, Elizabeth. 1992. Käthe Kollwitz (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Rolling Down Like Waters
Commentary by Jennifer Allen Craft
The English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner stands as a symbol of changing times. Breaking the rules of representation that he had inherited, Turner’s emotionally expressive brushstrokes asked viewers to make an inventory of their experience of a sublime world. This was perhaps especially the case in his celebrated seascapes.
In Slave Ship, Turner produces a vision of overpowering natural forces in the specific context of an immense human evil. The slave ship presses through the tumultuous waters, throwing bodies into the deep, which remain barely visible amidst the swirling strokes of his paintbrush.
As our attention is claimed by Turner’s all-consuming sea, a resonance with the words of the prophet Amos may also assert itself. Is the power of the Lord discernible in this chaos?:
…who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress. (Amos 5:8b–9)
Turner’s full title for the painting was Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), and he provided an accompanying text when submitting it to the Royal Academy in 1840, which ends:
Hope! Hope! Fallacious hope!
Where is thy market now? (May 2014: 113; Joll, et al 2001: 302)
The Royal Academy exhibition that year was happening at the same time as the Anti-Slavery League Conference in London. Turner’s painting fiercely interrogates the morality of the transatlantic slave trade, which had only relatively recently ended for Britain (Joll, et al 2001: 303). Its accompanying text and unapologetic presentation strike an Amos-like prophetic chord.
‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (5:24). This painting evokes the raw emotion of Amos in its calculated yet unrestricted presentation of the slave ship amid rolling waters.
Turner leaves us, as in Amos 5, with a vision of impending doom: the typhoon coming on. As long as injustice prevails, divine judgement draws near. We are left to contemplate our own moral failings as the ship sails toward the darkened horizon.
Costello, Leo. 2012. J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History (Surrey: Ashgate)
Joll, Evelyn, Martin Butlin, and Luke Herrmann (eds). 2001. The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
May, Stephen J. 2014. Voyage of the Slave Ship: J.M.W. Turner’s Masterpiece in Historical Context (Jefferson: McFarland and Company)
Jack Whitten :
King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968 , Oil on canvas
Käthe Kollwitz :
The Downtrodden, 1900 , Etching and aquatint on paper
Joseph Mallord William Turner :
Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840 , Oil on canvas
Turning Deep Darkness Into Morning
Comparative commentary by Jennifer Allen Craft
There is no direct art historical tradition for the book of Amos. The images chosen for this exhibition either tap into the emotional power of the text or reflect on the injustice to which the prophet Amos speaks. Amos provides a cornerstone text for the development of contemporary theologies that prioritize social justice, recognizing that the biblical calling is to turn our backs on evil and pursue goodness not only on an individual level, but more importantly, on a social and communal scale.
Those who read Amos in relation to contemporary culture will know the impact his most famous injunction has had: ‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (5:24). While Amos prophetically speaks to the injustice within the kingdom of Israel, Martin Luther King Jr. directly revealed the realities of racism in his invocation of those words in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, suggesting in a prophetic tone that the justice of the Lord will finally win out over evil-doers.
Two of the images chosen here directly represent the history of slavery or racism. J.M.W Turner boldly reprimands the slave trade through his tumultuous Romantic seascape, and Jack Whitten directly responds to King’s speech with expressive and abstracted faces that reveal identities born in moral character rather than in colour of skin alone.
Käthe Kollwitz, a Jewish artist, speaks not so much about race as about poverty, but when put into conversation with Turner and Whitten, her artwork joins the others in revealing a larger religious imagination to which the prophet Amos speaks. In their later historical contexts, all of these artists’ representations explore the power of exclusion and the injustice that inevitably results.
Ultimately artists and prophet alike reveal something of God’s way of shaping the moral order of the universe.
The imagery that Amos conjures up helps us to see the pathos of the divine. The biblical prophet’s words are exhortative and persuasive. He reveals both divine compassion and divine judgement. God is profoundly concerned with justice for the weak, the poor, the downtrodden. As the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel emphasizes when discussing this prophet, God’s primary demand here is justice (Heschel 2001: 42). Amos knows that the prophetic calling is to motivate the actions of the people to whom the prophet speaks. Turn your actions toward the good, he pleads. Hate evil, and love what is right.
Each artist in this series of artworks does just that, calling attention to the dead or dying, conjuring emotional response in order to call forth contemporary action, representing profound beauty within the midst of chaos. In these various respects, they signal the complexity of the moral universe.
All of them do it in their own way. Kollwitz’s print invites us into a space of lament, and produces perhaps the most direct engagement with social injustice of the three. We feel the words of the prophet: ‘Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?’ (5:20). The justice of God is not for the faint of heart, and just as Amos implores his hearers to understand the gravity of what is being laid before them, so Kollwitz places suffering directly in our line of sight.
Turner, on the other hand, obscures the moral point at first with his exaggerated brushstrokes and colours, but any attentive viewer will notice the moral insight being invoked. The space created for viewers is one of peril—and, again, justice is presented as a complicated animal, with both the immoral slaveholders headed into the typhoon and the innocent slaves dying in the waves seeming to be at the mercy of divinely-controlled nature.
Whitten’s painting, finally, is the most hopeful, and provides a future glimpse at the outcome of the prophetic message. His spiritually-moving interpretation provides the eschatological hope towards which many prophets point. Divine justice is coming, and the chaos that we experience will bleed to beauty.
All three artists respond in their own way to Amos’s summary of divine command: ‘hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate’ (v. 15). Lest we wish to call forth divine judgement on ourselves, we are likewise summoned to act in response to the evil that we see now, seeking to provide avenues through which the downtrodden and enslaved will experience divine compassion, justice, and goodness in the present age.
Heschel, Abraham. 2001. The Prophets (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics)