To speak of the artist as a prophet is to confer praise. But it is important to remember that even in biblical times the prophet was not completely independent of the community. Prophets might have been more free to speak their minds than the average members of society, but they were not autonomous. The office of prophet was not the same as that of priest or king, and the prophet had no right to arrogate those roles to himself. Of course, that sort of aesthetic aggrandizement has been all too common in the modern era. Sadly, the defenders of the NEA—and the arts in general—cannot articulate an argument that moves beyond the idea of artistic autonomy.
The prophet and the artist may seek to disturb the existing order of things, but they should do so in the name of a deeper order, not in the name of their own genius. The artist will serve the community best not by worrying about either his own autonomy or the community’s immediate concerns but by remaining open to the transcendent sources of order. By keeping an eye fixed on the distances, the artist will do justice to both art and community.