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Jack Whitten

King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968, Oil on canvas, 172.4 x 131.4 cm, Collection of the artist, © Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth; Photo: John Berens

Käthe Kollwitz

The Downtrodden, 1900, Etching and aquatint on paper, 30.8 x 24.8 cm, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, Photo: akg-images

Joseph Mallord William Turner

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840, Oil on canvas, 90.8 x 122.6 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 99.22, Photo: © 2020 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Turning Deep Darkness Into Morning

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

Heschel, Abraham. 2001. The Prophets (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics)