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Ezekiel – The First Performance Artist?

One day. A long time ago. In Babylon. The exiled Hebrew prophet Ezekiel put on a show. In front of a diorama of Jerusalem (etched on a clay tablet) he enacted a siege, with props ranging from ramps to battering rams to iron pans. Then he lay down on his left side for a year, then on his right side for another month, keeping himself alive by eating food cooked over cow dung.

Then he shaved his hair and beard with a sword. He set fire to a third of the hair, distributed a third of his hair round the city and threw a third to the wind. He tucked a few remaining strands in his pockets, and to finish things off, he burnt the last bits.

An audience was (or presumably lots of different audiences were) present throughout and I’m sure as the stench of burnt hair filled their nostrils for the last time, they clapped and cat called in equal measure, and the local papers went wild with conjecture about this bizarre but oddly compelling artistic event.

The precise account can be found in Ezekiel chapters 4 and 5, and while I have put my own spin on it, I don’t think I’m overly embellishing what the text describes. We know Ezekiel today as a prophet, but I think that if he was alive today we’d give him a different title. Ezekiel was a performance artist.

Avanting the Avant Garde

His performances (of which the Bible records at least 5) seem to be pre-emptively in the mould of artists like Marina Abramovic, Joseph Beuys, Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono. In the 20th century, these artists were seen as broadening the boundaries of traditional art from paintings, songs, plays, and the like to ‘happenings’, in which the ideas become paramount, and the audience’s interaction with the artist becomes part of the work itself.

Consider for example Abramovic’s ‘The Artist is present’ in which she sat immobile in a museum’s atrium for 736 hours and 30 minutes, completely silent and still, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. Basically a more comfortable (and fresher smelling) version of the main body of Ezekiel’s previously mentioned work!

And Ezekiel wasn’t the only one. Isaiah walked around naked for three years (Isaiah 20). Jeremiah made and wore a wooden yoke, which another prophet broke (and there could be an implication in the text that he then returned with a new yoke made of metal) (Jeremiah 27-28). For these prophets, while they wrote and announced their messages (usually in carefully arranged poetic stanzas, but that’s another post), they were also known to use highly symbolic actions to communicate what they felt that God was saying. Their performances were striking. The audience were often active participants. They always had a particular point to make, yet they drew people in by raising questions. This was avant garde artistic practice that avanted the avant garde by almost 3000 years.

Now, if you’re still with me, and you’re willing to look at the Old Testament Prophets at least partially through this lens, a couple of conclusions follow. Firstly, there are some examples of artistic practice in the Bible that many of us have overlooked. And secondly, those of us who make art have some new biblical role models to potentially educate our practice.

Not Just Bezalel

Potentially then the Bible’s whole teaching on the value and place of the arts gains another dimension. You see, when Christians go to the Bible for artistic inspiration or even validation, they usually bring up all the old chestnuts: Bezalel, Oholiab and the crafting of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-11), the design of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 2-4) and the Psalms usually being pretty prominent. Now, all of these artistic endeavours have similarities. On the whole, these works are created for the faithful people of God to encourage them in their worship (admittedly the Psalms don’t all fit that description, but it is true of the main body).

Therefore, as aids to worship, for people who presumably already quite want to worship, they have some shared features. They aim at beauty in their appearance (or composition), clarity in what they are communicating and they are largely safe pieces of work (by this I mean, Moses and Aaron were not having pastoral meetings about whether Bezalel was corrupting the minds of the children. Again, there are huge exceptions in the psalms, to which we will return forthwith).

Two types of Biblical Art

However, once you consider the Old Testament Prophets in your survey of biblical art practice, you see that an entirely different type of art exists in the Bible to an entirely different audience. As we’ve seen, these guys are not making art for the faithful, but for the unfaithful. And because of this, their art is not beautiful, clear or safe. It is dramatic and attention grabbing because people didn’t really want to engage with what they were saying. It also has a tendency to be ugly, ambiguous and risky.

When we see this, another thing happens. Suddenly, those awkward psalms that talk about killing babies and languishing in the pits of despair aren’t a strange exception to the rule that all Christian art should be nice and happy and optimistic. Now they find themselves fitting snugly into a tradition of art that runs throughout the Bible that seems to operate in a whole different way to Bezalel, Oholiab and David (on a happy day). In fact (sorry if I appear to be getting carried away), couldn’t we add an even more prominent character on to the roster of difficult biblical art?

Jesus’ parables operate in a very similar manner to the aforementioned prophets. Jesus uses this particular creative mode because of his audience’s likely antipathy to his message (Mt 13:13-15, quoting Isaiah!) and again his work is at times ugly (Lk 19:27), ambiguous (the parable of the dishonest manager, anyone?) and risky (plucking out eyes, hating wives, etc).

In summary, once we start seeing the Old Testament prophets as performance artists, we see more clearly than ever that there are two very different types of art in the Bible. Art that inspires people to worship and art that questions why they’re not worshipping. Art for the faithful which is beautiful, clear and safe and art for the unfaithful, which has the potential to be ugly, ambiguous and risky.

The church has become very comfortable with the first of these and has been ploughing time, money and resources into creatives who practice in this way for some time. I think we need to start becoming a bit more uncomfortably comfortable with the second and raising up and supporting a whole load of modern day Ezekiels.