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)
5 Hear this word which I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
2“Fallen, no more to rise,
is the virgin Israel;
forsaken on her land,
with none to raise her up.”
3For thus says the Lord God:
“The city that went forth a thousand
shall have a hundred left,
and that which went forth a hundred
shall have ten left
to the house of Israel.”
4For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel:
“Seek me and live;
5but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
or cross over to Beer-sheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
and Bethel shall come to nought.”
6Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
7O you who turn justice to wormwood,
and cast down righteousness to the earth!
8He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
9who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
10They hate him who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor him who speaks the truth.
11Therefore because you trample upon the poor
and take from him exactions of wheat,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.
13Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
14Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
15Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
16Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
“In all the squares there shall be wailing;
and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! alas!’
They shall call the farmers to mourning
and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation,
17and in all vineyards there shall be wailing,
for I will pass through the midst of you,”
says the Lord.
18Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light;
19as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him;
or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images, which you made for yourselves; 27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.