Author: Makoto Fujimura
Publisher: IVP Books
Publish Date: February 14, 2017
Paperback: 160 pages
Beauty is gratuitous. It is not necessary for living, but it is necessary for flourishing. God did not need us or this world for his existence; he created us because he is an artist. And as his image-bearers, we do the same when we create beauty for beauty’s sake.
In his book Culture Care, Makoto Fujimura describes how our culture is influenced by a post-industrial, utilitarian view of life: life is a battle to compete for resources, which are growing increasingly scarce.
He recalls a time when, as a young couple, he and his wife were struggling to make ends meet. One day, his wife came home with a bouquet of flowers. Aghast, he asked her why she had purchased them when they were struggling to buy food. “We need to feed our souls, too,” was her response.
Too often Christians can fall prey to a utilitarian approach in art. Art is reduced to a vehicle for a message, a means to save souls. This can be seen in a variety of media: Christian movies, Christian music, or Christian literature.
But, Fujimura argues, even these categories are concessions to modernism. “I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being. It’s time for followers of Christ to let Christ be the noun in our lives, to let our whole being ooze out like a painter’s colors with the splendor and mystery of Christ, the inexhaustible beauty that draws people in.”
In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright notes that in the postindustrial West, many communities are poverty-stricken and ugly. This can have a dehumanizing effect on those who live in such places. “When people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope,” he writes. “They internalize the message of their eyes and ears, the message that whispers that they are not worth very much, that they are in effect less than fully human.”
The artist’s role is to bring beauty back into this world. Whether it is teaching painting or sculpting, playing music in coffee shops, creating community gardens or festivals, artists—and Christians—should be generators of beauty. This beauty brings with it hope, pointing those who experience it towards the source of all beauty.
On the morning of October 27, a gunman opened fire inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, where Jewish congregants were worshipping. He fired for 20 minutes, resulting in the loss of 11 lives that morning.
In the weeks leading up to the shooting, Robert Bowers had publicly posted his feelings towards Jewish people on Gab, a social network with content banned from Twitter or Facebook. Though seeking to promote “free speech,” the site has become a platform for white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and other extremist groups.
“Jews are the children of Satan,” read Bowers’ Gab profile. Bowers was particularly angry about the work of HIAS: the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which aids refugees coming into the United States.
Moments before he began shooting, Bowers posted these words: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
“Every age seems to find its own ‘other,’” Fujimura writes. “The temptation to dispense a rough ‘justice’ against some individual or group flares up whenever we lose our focus on our common humanity and succumb to fear.”
How, asks Fujimura, are we to respond in the face of such fear, anger, and violence? How can artists—and Christians—view and care for culture differently?
In response to this question, Fujimura describes a scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The protagonist Atticus Finch learns that the town mob plans to lynch Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape. Finch stands in front of the prison door, prepared to stop them. In this tense moment, Finch’s young daughter, Scout, suddenly steps out into the crowd and addresses the mob. But she addresses them, not as an angry mob, but as individual people—her neighbors.
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham?” she asks one of the men. “I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember…? I go to school with Walter… he is your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, Sir?” Her innocence defuses the situation; the men, confused and humbled, return home.
Fujimura argues that those who wish to be reconcilers of culture must view the world as children do. They must be “innocent of pretense and full of determined hope, confident in our own experience of beauty and joy in life, connected with the highest potential and calling of our common humanity, and expectant of finding this good in the lives of others.”
This cultural reconciliation does not mean simply abandoning our differences. The things that divide us are often real and legitimate, and they should be acknowledged openly. “Our responsibility, then, is to rehumanize this divide,” says Fujimura. “An emphasis on our role as neighbor as part of our identity begins this process by reminding us of our shared cultural and geographical spaces, and the fact that proximity brings responsibility.”
Our family recently watched the documentary on Mr. Rogers titled, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Rogers’ “Neighborhood” is a microcosm of what our world could be—a place of kindness, empathy, and understanding. In the ‘60s, black and white Americans could not swim in the same pool. An infamous image from 1964 shows a hotel manager pouring acid into a pool where a young black woman is swimming with a white man. In 1969, an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood shows Rogers soaking his feet in a plastic pool. Clemmons, the African-American policeman drops by, and Rogers asks him to share the pool. The camera lingers on the brown and white feet, side by side in the clear water. The point is made. And it is made, not through violent resistance—but through art.
Artists are uniquely equipped to teach empathy. “The arts present the most powerful form of nonviolent resistance,” says Fujimura. “The generosity of an artist in this sense can mean mediation in the culture wars, beginning by overcoming caricatures and injecting diversity, nuance, and even paradox into the nature of the conversation, and then moving on to teach society a language of empathy and reconciliation.”
When humans encounter beauty and goodness, when we see what life could be like, it can create a holy dissatisfaction with the way things are in the world. This dissatisfaction should push us to want to bring this beauty, goodness, and hope to the world around us.
Thanks to the lingering effects of modernism, our society still often views culture as a territory to be won or lost, or as a battle of survival amidst scarce resources. But Fujimura offers us an alternate vision. Culture, he says, is not a territory to be won. It is a garden to be tended.
“Our work should aim to surprise our jaded culture with delight and remind others of what we humans truly long for. Artists in the last century have been functioning in society to reveal brokenness; in this century, can they lead the way towards reconnection, reconciliation, and reintegration?”
This work of culture care will not happen overnight. The builders of medieval cathedrals worked for an end that they would not even see in their lifetime. So too, we must work in faith, inspired by a vision of culture that may take generations to come to fruition. We must act as little children, innocent and full of hope, speaking empathy to a broken and hurting world. We must take up our spades, and together tend the garden.
Interested in Art and Culture? Come hear from Makoto Fujimura, world renowned abstract painter, writer, and culture shaper, on Monday, November 5th, 2018 at Dordt College.
11 a.m. – “Cultural Stewardship” Lecture, BJ Haan Auditorium
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Kate, I agree with everything you said. Thanks.