Prophets and performance artists

May 11th, 2015

Marina Abramovic, a performance artist, sat quietly for eight hours a day for three months across from an empty chair. She did not speak or move from the spot. Visitors would sit opposite her and stare. She’s been doing this kind of performance art for decades. She once carved a communist star into her abdomen as a sign of protest.

One college student, Emma Sulkowicz, performed an action on her college campus that she titled Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight. She began carrying a fifty-pound mattress with her everywhere she went on campus. The mattress was a public witness to her claim that she was raped by a fellow student. It became a rallying symbol for students who wanted to raise awareness of campus rape. (The man accused of the rape filed a lawsuit for harassment.)

Another performance artist, Chris Burden, once had himself crucified to a Volkswagen Beetle.

While a few individuals may do outlandish things for mere attention, the great majority of performance art makes a statement about the way we live. It asks us to be introspective about our own psychology, or to examine our own cultural norms and values. Sometimes it is a form of protest or a critique of the status quo. For all of these reasons, observers often respond with confusion, mockery or hostility. They say, “That’s not art!”

Performance art reminds me of the prophets. (Others have also noted the similarity.)

Ezekiel was definitely the most extreme performance artist of the prophets. He regularly performed actions that were intended to shock people out of their complacency. At the command of God, he built a diorama of Jerusalem. He then lay on one side for a year, and then the other for a month (Ezekiel 4:1-17). He was instructed to cook his food on a fire made of human dung — although God let him off the hook and allowed him to cook over cow dung (4:12-15). All of this was meant to symbolize the conditions of siege and exile.

When I read this story, I can’t help but think of Marina Abramovic, and the hostility she encounters by simply being passive and sitting still. I also think about artists who have used dung or raw meat in performance pieces that shock and offend. I wonder what people said to Ezekiel as he lay there on the ground. “What do you think you’re accomplishing?” they must have asked. I imagine bystanders hissed, “Disgusting! Pointless!”

Isaiah, like many performance artists, used nudity to make a statement as well. According to Isaiah 20, he went around naked for three years to symbolize his people’s captivity. I suspect most religious leaders who attempted such a thing today would be defrocked or disfellowshipped quickly. I imagine what people must have said to him. “You’re going to lose all credibility. You’re a pervert. Can’t you make this argument with your clothes on?”

Jeremiah used soiled and ruined underwear (a loincloth) to symbolize Israel and Judah. God had intended his worshippers to feel like a fresh pair of undies, says God (13:11), as intimate with God as cloth that clings to the loins. But after their idolatry, they weren’t fit to wear anymore.

Imagine the outcry today if an artist today framed a pair of soiled underwear and hung them in a gallery with the title “God’s Underpants.” Not surprisingly, Jeremiah was eventually accused of being a traitor and jailed. In his case, we know what people said about him: He was a threat to national security.

When I read these stories in the Bible, I can’t understand how Christians can be shocked by performance artists. While I don’t think these Bible stories legitimize every shocking or attention-seeking public spectacle, they should make us a bit circumspect about joining in public outrage when artists do something offensive. If the greatest prophets of our tradition walked around naked, cooked over dung fires, and performed a piece entitled “God’s Underpants,” why should we freak out over actions or imagery we think are indecent, irreverent or unappetizing?

One of our greatest heroes, King David, danced mostly naked in the streets (2 Samuel 6:14-21). And he wasn’t even the first. His predecessor, Saul, did something similar (1 Samuel 19:24).

Saul’s action was interpreted as a “prophetic frenzy.” David’s action was probably interpreted similarly. When the early church received the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 and began speaking in tongues, bystanders thought they were drunk. There is something of madness both in prophecy and in art, among religious mystics and edgy performers.

The truth is, most Christians don’t actually know these stories of prophetic performance artists. Most of us only read certain Bible stories, and then only through the lens of conventional interpretation. While those of us in the pastoring professions talk about speaking “prophetic” words, and use words like “radical,” “revolutionary” and “reform,” we say them so often that they lose their meaning.

Of course, Christian critiques can be made of any prophetic performance art, public demonstration, or protest that makes us uncomfortable. We could ask, “Does this action draw attention to human ego or to God? Does it highlight a change that needs to be made? Does it point only to itself or does it point beyond itself to a God who wants to communicate with humanity?” But our answers to any of these questions depend largely on our biases. Like everyone else who observed the actions of the ancient prophets, we will see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear.

At the very least, though, we Christians ought to be circumspect about how we criticize performance art. Too often we confuse politeness with righteousness, and public decency with holiness. In truth, righteousness and holiness sometimes call for indecency.

Compared with Isaiah’s nudity, or Ezekiel’s year-long public lying-around-and-cooking-over-dung spectacle or Jeremiah’s soiled loincloth, our acts of protest are pretty tame. Some of us sign petitions. Braver ones of us hold signs and march. A few of us have the courage to become artists.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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