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Art is God's idea

Makoto Fujimura and the Culture Care Movement

Makoto Fujimura and the Culture Care Movement

by Victoria Emily Jones

Makoto (Mako) Fujimura is one of the best-known living artists of faith and spokespersons for beauty among Christians today, especially Protestants. Born in Boston in 1960 to Japanese parents and educated biculturally, he became frustrated with the warlike stance against culture, and especially contemporary art, taken by some of his fellow American Christians. In response, Fujimura developed an alternative stance—what he calls “culture care.”[1] “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost,” he says, “but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.” Instead of denouncing and boycotting cultural products we deem “un-Christian” or antigospel, he suggests, what if we were committed to speaking fresh creativity and vision into culture?[2]

Beauty is central to Fujimura’s studio work and teachings; we need to be able to both perceive it and create it, he says. Many artists of the first half of the twentieth century explicitly rejected beauty—and still today, in the contemporary art world, it is often sidelined. As a result, our souls are undernourished. Not just in art but in education, business, politics, religion, and other sectors of culture, beauty tends to lose out to our obsession with utilitarian pragmatism. Art is deemed unuseful and therefore little worth our time, attention, and funding—maybe a nice “extra” for those who have the means and inclination but certainly not vital.

Fujimura tells the story of how his wife, Judy, exposed how much he himself had absorbed this “utilitarian pragmatic” mentality, despite his being an artist. When they were poor newlyweds, subsisting mainly on canned tuna, she came home one day with a bouquet of flowers. He was exasperated that she would spend what little money they had on such a frivolous purchase. Here they were, bare cupboards and unpaid bills, and she goes out and drops a twenty on flowers! Her response, Fujimura said, completely transformed his perspective: “We need to feed our souls too.”

Judy’s act was generous and generative, two qualities of culture care. She lovingly gifted beauty to her husband, a beauty cultivated by some unnamed gardener and then florist, which (once he allowed the bouquet to correct his overly pragmatic bent) warmed his soul and inspired him to cultivate other forms of beauty to gift to others. “Culture care,” Fujimura summarizes, “is a generative approach to culture that brings bouquets of flowers into a culture bereft of beauty.” He continues: “Beauty can sometimes break through our bedrock assumptions and prepare us to consider possibilities beyond the broken wasteland of our world, just as Judy’s bouquet exposed my inner pragmatism, my wasteland vision, and started my journey toward faith and thriving.”[3]

Beauty is essential to our total wellness, and to the development of our humanity.             

        Do we need beauty in our lives? If we desire to be fully human, the answer is yes, absolutely.

        But . . . even this question is ultimately utilitarian, we must shift from asking, What do we need? to          What do we long for?[4]

Artists, says Fujimura, expose the soul’s hunger for beauty and help fill it. They also point to the generosity and abundance of God exemplified not only in Creation and in the feeding miracles of Christ but in the grace God lavishes on us continuously, gratuitously. God is extravagant, and the extravagance of art, far from being wasteful, can be an act of praise: by taking the rich materials of earth and making something of them, artists delight in God’s beauty and invite others to do the same. “Art is not ultimately ‘useful.’ It serves no practical function,” concedes Fujimura. But “this is why it is indispensable, especially in the modern age.”[5] We need art to educate us away from the mentality that what matters is only that which is “useful.”

        Beauty is a gift that we discover, receive, and steward. This is a claim that beauty is found both in            nature and in culture. It is something that is given to us, and it is also something we human beings            can add to—something we can cultivate.

        God asks us to continue as he began. We have the ability and responsibility to create more                        (gratuitous) beauty. [6]

Fujimura’s paintings are in the Nihonga tradition, a form dating back to medieval Japan, which he studied in Tokyo as a National Scholar in the 1990s. Nihonga emphasizes the beauty of natural materials—gold, silver, and minerals like azurite, malachite, and cinnabar, which are ground by hand into powders of varied textures, then mixed with a hide-glue solution to create pigments. Pigment layering and the absence of outlines are common techniques of Nihonga. But Fujimura also integrates influences from abstract expressionism.[7]

“The act of painting with precious minerals is like Mary anointing the feet of Jesus,” Fujimura says, referencing the familiar biblical story.[8] When Mary breaks her alabaster jar of costly ointment and proceeds to rub it on her Lord, the disciples angrily interject: “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and money given to the poor” (an accusation frequently made against artists and commissioning bodies). But Jesus tells them to pipe down, for “she has performed a good service,” he affirms. Like Mary’s gratuitous pouring out of expensive perfume, art making, too, is good—the pouring out of resources and self before God and for others, itself an act of sacrifice and worship.

It’s important to note that when Fujimura uses the word beauty, he does mean a cosmetic or superficial prettiness; he means a “terrible beauty” like that which is exemplified in the Easter Triduum, in which evil is acknowledged but not given the final word.[9] The arts “awaken the senses to take in both the challenges and the darkness of our days, but also the hopes and dreams,” he says.[10]

https://vimeo.com/241330572

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001 had a great impact on Fujimura, who lived and worked within blocks of the towers. For one, it cemented his sense of calling to be a minister of hope and healing through art.[11] Recognizing that many of his artist peers were struggling to process the traumatic event, he formed TriBeCa Temporary, a “ground zero teahouse”[12] where local artists of all disciplines could come to dialogue, grieve, create, exhibit, perform, and mend. Fujimura was confident that “God would take the very dust of death and turn it into life”[13] and that relationship would be key. One verse that became a guidepost for him during this time was Isaiah 61:3, in which the prophet says the Lord has sent him to “provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of despair.”

Central to the culture care movement is the conviction that the river of culture, polluted though it is, can still be a site of abundance. Fujimura urges artists to “create upstream, and then what you create will affect the whole stream.” Twentieth-century art as a whole has served to reveal the world’s brokenness; what if today’s artists, he wonders, led the way toward reconnection, reconciliation, and reintegration?[14]

To further this vision of “rehumanizing the world,” Fujimura founded the International Arts Movement (IAM) in 1990, a New York City–based nonprofit that “gathers artists and creative catalysts to wrestle with the deep questions of art, faith and humanity in order to inspire the creative community to care for culture.”[15] In 2015 this ministry expanded into the halls of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the largest theological schools in North America, when Fujimura was appointed to direct its Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, a role he still serves in.

Exhibition view of “The Art of the Gospels” at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, in April 2018, showing the five frontispieces Makoto Fujimura painted for the Four Holy Gospels project. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

One of Fujimura’s major artistic commissions has been the illumination of The Four Holy Gospels for Crossway, a leading publisher of evangelical Christian books. Comprising five large paintings, eighty-nine drop caps, and 140-plus pages of embellishments, the publication was released in 2011 to coincide with the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. It represents a significant Protestant effort to integrate word and image and to promote the spiritual possibilities of art.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eeGbVXM4fY

Another major project Fujimura participated in is QU4RTETS. Moved by T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets poem cycle, Fujimura and his friend and fellow artist Bruce Herman began in 2009 with the the idea of producing, in response, four large paintings each. They later decided to expand the project into the discipline of music, and brought theologian-pianist Jeremy Begbie onboard to advise. Through Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, Begbie commissioned a new Quartets-inspired chamber music composition by Christopher Theofanidis—a piano quintet titled “At the Still Point”—and organized a colloquium where the Four Quartets was engaged as Christian literary and theological tradition. The dual exhibition-performance premiered in 2013 and traveled nationally and internationally.

Fujimura is in high demand as a speaker at Christian events. His immense popularity, especially among evangelicals, is an indicator that many are moving away from a Christ-versus-culture paradigm. Wearied by decades of culture wars, American Christians in particular tend to be attracted to Fujimura’s hope and enthusiasm and his willingness to constructively engage and participate in mainstream culture.[16] Inevitably, this has caused people and institutions outside the church to take notice of his work.[17] But Christians remain some of his most avid supporters. It is no small accomplishment that he has been able to reach churched people who may never have set foot in an art museum or taken an art class but who find themselves compelled by what he has to offer. Through short videos, essays, books, and lectures, Fujimura teaches about Japanese aesthetics, the materiality of paint, the (nonutilitarian) value of beauty, and a bit of art history; he also lets us in on his artistic process and describes his sense of vocation as an artist. Many Christians who were previously averse to or uninterested in abstract art have become more receptive to it through his work. Part of what makes his talks and writings so engaging is how personal they are, incorporating anecdotes from his life, and also his use of accessible metaphors.

Fujimura’s contributions to the understanding of the relationship between Christianity and art were recognized in 2014 by the American Academy of Religion, who presented him with their annual Religion and the Arts Award. (Recipients from other years include Martin Scorsese, Marilynne Robinson, and Bill Viola.) His legacy extends beyond an internationally successful art career to the promotion of a movement of “creative catalysts” who commit to nurturing culture for the sake of Christ’s kingdom.

***

Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at http://ArtandTheology.org. Her educational background is in journalism, English literature, and music, but her current research focuses on ways in which the visual arts can stimulate renewed theological engagement with the Bible. She serves on the board of the Eliot Society, a DC-based nonprofit that fosters discussions about the role of the arts in the life of the church, and is a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture, an online biblical art project being developed by King’s College London.


[1] A similar movement is afoot in the church as relates to the environment, known as “creation care”; just as Christians should make conscious choices that lead to the flourishing of the natural world, leaving the earth healthy for future generations, so should we strive to cultivate a culture where beauty grows and thrives, one that we are proud to hand down to posterity.

[2] Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017): 40, 137.

[3] Fujimura, 16, 96.

[4] Fujimura, 136.

[5] Fujimura, 81.

[6] Fujimura, 52–53.

[7] Makoto Fujimura: “Often I am asked about the abstract nature of my works. People see abstraction as esoteric and/or evasive, considering ‘real’ art to be works done in a realistic style. My answer to their inquiries tends to be more experiential. I preface my comments by saying, ‘Actually, we experience abstraction all the time. Fireworks, sunsets, and music (especially jazz and classical) are all abstract.’ And I add, ‘My works are not pure abstraction, but they are re-presentation of the mysteries of Reality.’” http://fourholygospels.makotofujimura.com/illuminations/john.html

[8] Makoto Fujimura, River Grace (New York: Poeima Press, 2007), 6. For the Bible story, see Matthew 26:6–13 and parallel accounts in Mark 14:3–9 and John 12:1–8.

[9] “There’s the cosmetic beauty of the superficial, then the terrible beauty of Good Friday/Holy Saturday/Easter Morning. The latter is what I am after in my works. From Creation to New Creation” (@iamfujimura, Twitter, March 28, 2018, 7:55 a.m., https://twitter.com/iamfujimura/status/978963775373135872). Also: “A culture care approach will encourage truth telling about alienation, suffering, and oppression alongside truth telling about justice, hope, and restoration” (Fujimura, Culture Care, 56).

[10] Makoto Fujimura, “Makoto Fujimura: The function of art,” interview, Faith and Leadership, May 9, 2011, https://www.faithandleadership.com/makoto-fujimura-function-art.

[11] Art critic Robert Kusher wrote in 2005 that Fujimura is “at the vanguard” of “forging a new kind of art, about hope, healing, redemption, refuge, while maintaining visual sophistication and intellectual integrity”—a balance that can be difficult to strike. https://imagejournal.org/artist/makoto-fujimura/

[12] Makoto Fujimura, “Tea Shalom,” https://www.makotofujimura.com/writings/tea-shalom/.

[13] Makoto Fujimura, “Home Bound,” https://www.makotofujimura.com/writings/home-bound/.

[14] Fujimura, Culture Care, 129, 37, 56.

[16] Two examples of Fujimura’s activity outside a Christian institutional framework are his service as a consultant on Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence, an adaptation of a Japanese novel about an apostate priest, and his collaboration with composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra on Drum Sketches, a Brecht Forum commission that premiered at the famed Carnegie Hall in Manhattan in 2007. Furthermore, he served as a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003 to 2009, speaking with decisionmakers and advising governmental policies.

[17] His paintings have been acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri, and the Cincinnati Museum of Art in Ohio, among other secular institutions and collectors.


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