BookTrends - A Journey of Art, Faith, and Culture
By: Makoto Fujimura|Published: August 5, 2009 2:50 PM
In my studio, I use ground minerals such as malachite and azurite, layering them to create prismatic refractions, or “visual jazz.”
Via my art I hope to create a mediated reality of beauty, hope, and reconciled relationships and cultures. As a founding elder of the Village Church, I have found that mediation of any kind is never black-and-white but prismatic and complex, too. In order to find hope, even in the midst of the broken and torn fragments of relationships, in order to begin to journey into the heart of the divide, we must first wrestle with the deeper issues of faith. We must be willing to be broken ourselves into prismatic shards by the Master Artist, God, so that Christ’s light can be refracted in us.
Three months prior to September 11, 2001, I wrote the following for a Santa Fe art exhibit called Beauty Without Regret:
Prayers are given, too, in the layers of broken, pulverized pigments. Beauty is in the brokenness, not in what we can conceive as the perfections, not in the “finished” images but in the incomplete gestures. Now, I await for my paintings to reveal themselves. Perhaps I will find myself rising through the ashes, through the beauty of such broken limitations.
Outside my window I see the young sycamores, once covered in the ashes of September 11, now turning to autumn hues casting their golden shadows on those passing by. Those who walk beneath the sycamore trees are of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Similarly, the culture at-large is neither “Christian” nor “secular” but fantastically pluralistic, defying conventional categorizations. In each culture we will no doubt find evidences of trauma, like the ashes of Ground Zero, as we all find ourselves building upon our pulverized and fragmented past.
We can choose to disengage from such intractable reality, as our hearts will struggle to find rest in such exilic ground as Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Darfur, Afghanistan, and so on. Or we can accept the splintered condition of culture as a kaleidoscope of common struggles, a reality that only the golden rays of God can restore and recreate via broken humanity. The latter is my starting promise in writing this book. As you journey with me in this refracted light, I pray the Spirit will indeed reveal God’s presence in the undiscovered recesses of our creative journeys.
Excerpt from Introduction, “Refractions: A Journey of Art, Faith and Culture” (NavPress) by Makoto Fujimura
As an artist, I often find myself trying to answer the question, “Why art?” Why is art necessary in our lives and in our education? How can I justify investing so much of my time and expenses in being an artist and in helping others by advocating for their artistic expressions? Why do we need the arts in our local communities? I could begin to answer these questions by pointing out that we now have a lot of research pointing to the economic benefit of bringing art into communities. We also have efforts to scientifically prove that the arts help us directly in education, in improving children’s school grades, and in helping them to engage better with their worlds. We are hopeful that in a few years we will have several reports give hard data to the positive effects of the arts to aid in education, giving data to what we all recognize anecdotally. We already have evidence that the arts help slow down dementia and reduce stress and give great benefit to the lives of the elderly. But usually, in these gatherings for advocacy of the arts, I end up listening to people. I want to know what deeply matters to them. And I often find that art is already present in the areas that they are most engaged in and most passionate about. The man I may be speaking with may not know anything about art in New York, but he may talk about his child’s dream to become a dancer or an actor. Or about a movie that affected him deeply. He may speak of his business enterprises and may point out that businesses are starting to realize that the “bottom line” is not really sufficient; there is a “second bottom line,” or a third. Business schools are now inviting designers to discuss creativity and design and are beginning to apply these principles into business practices because workers are no longer content to work in bottom-line-driven companies. They want their whole person affirmed, and they want community. What I hear these workers stating is that they want their humanity back. And in that conversation, art always presents itself as an expression of humanity.
I was recently speaking at a church in New York, and I asked the congregation what they enjoy doing on Sundays apart from going to church. Everything they listed had something to do with the arts and entertainment. Art is everywhere, from the food we order in restaurants, to the clothes we purchase, to paintings hanging in museums. Aristotle defined the arts as “our capacity to make.” So, we could broaden our discussion into medicine and the sciences. Even if we do not include these sister disciplines in our conversation, one thing is for sure: Our cultural productions and our art will define us, whether we like it or not. Art expresses who we are. One of my most frustrating moments as an arts advocate was seeing the Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime fiasco, knowing that the show was being broadcast in China for the very first time. What do the Chinese think of us now? We in the United States have come to define ourselves by how we degrade ourselves, and we have exported that vision to the world.
When I traveled with The First Lady to represent the United States at the UNESCO general assembly several years ago, one of the UNESCO officials told us of her fears in America’s reengagement with UNESCO: “We are struggling to believe that the U.S. can bring more than McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, or Hollywood movies.” (I might add pornography to that list, but she was too polite.) We tried to convince her and other UNESCO leaders that we have a very unique patronage system that encourages democratic patronage of the arts, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. But when the official connected NEA projects with the Shakespeare in American Communities program, the Jazz Masters program, and the touring of Martha Graham dance troops, she became convinced that we were committed to a higher vision. These distinctively American forms of art, I would argue, are the greatest fruits of our democracy. And we have every reason to celebrate and broadcast with pride what freedom has brought us.
Tolstoy stated, “Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man’s reasonable perception into feeling.” Art is a building block of civilization. A civilization that does not value its artistic expressions is a civilization that does not value itself. These tangible artistic expressions help us to understand ourselves. The arts teach us to respect both the diversity of our communities and the strength of our traditions. I encourage people not to segment art into an “extra” sphere of life or to see art as mere decorations. Why? Because art is everywhere and has already taken root in our lives. Therefore, the question is not so much “why art?” but “which art?” In other words, our worlds are filled with art that we have already chosen for our walls, our iPods, and our bookshelves. We become patrons of the arts by going to see movies, plays, and concerts or by watching television. We are presented with a choice, and this choice is a responsibility of cultural stewardship. Just as we have responsibility for natural resources, so do we have responsibility to be stewards of our culture. What, then, does the current cultural ecosystem look like? NEA research, such as Reading at Risk, is pointing to a cultural epidemic of disengagement. We are reading less and less; but even more problematic, in my mind, is how we are less engaged with civic activities, with nature, and even with sports!
The Columbine High School incident and 9/11 taught us that we can use our imagination either to destroy lives or to save lives. At Columbine we had on the one hand a girl in the library reading Macbeth (she wanted to be an actress) who experienced a recent conversion to God, and on the other, a teen pointing a gun at her head, asking her, “Do you still believe in God?” and shooting her. Cassie Bernall’s diary shows a girl struggling with similar issues as the perpetrators, and yet she chose to embrace faith, rather than to embrace nihilism. The account of her transformation inspired countless others to express that belief. Her killer’s actions prompted others to copy his destructive acts of horror. On 9/11 we had on the one hand militant hijackers who turned their imaginative vengeance into determined evil acts. On the other hand were firefighters who climbed the falling towers. We have to realize that before any of these terrorist acts were committed, they were imagined. We swim in the ecosystem of imagined actions. We are responsible for how we respond to that power. We do have a choice between saving lives and destroying lives.
If we do not teach our children, and ourselves, that what we imagine and how we design the world can make a difference, the culture of cynicism will do that for us. If we do not infuse creativity, if we do not take the initiative to help our children imagine better neighborhoods and cities, despair will ruin their imaginative capacities and turn them into destructive forces. These are the lessons of Columbine and 9/11.
I get to spend my days thinking and imagining, painting and writing. I think about my journey, which started when I was a child simply wanting to draw and express. I had encouraging parents, and I am blessed with a wife who suffers alongside me. The life of an artist is never easy, but I take it seriously because I know that imagination has consequences.
But I do on occasion go back to that question, “why art?” because it was a question I addressed to myself in a diary for a creative writing class in college many years ago. My professor wrote back in his comments, “Your questions are valuable, and I encourage you to push that question further, as many of the writers and artists have done in the past: Why live?”
Perhaps that’s why we need the arts. By continuing to create and imagine a better world, we live. We have no alternative today. The path of apathy, the path of cynicism, and the path of the terrorists have incarnated their realities in our back- yards. To have hope is no longer an optimist’s escapism — it is the only path to the future.
© Makoto Fujimura 2008 Used by permission of NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO www.navpress.com
Photographs used with permission from Makoto Fujimura.
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