Today I am pleased to share Makoto Fujimura’s responses to your questions for “Ask an artist…” as part of our ongoing interview series.
Makoto Fujimura is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural shaper. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003-2009, Makoto served as an international advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts. Makoto’s work is exhibited at galleries around the world, including Dillon Gallery in New York, Sato Museum in Tokyo, The Contemporary Museum of Tokyo, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts Museum, Bentley Gallery in Arizona, Gallery Exit and Oxford House at Taikoo Place in Hong Kong, and Vienna’s Belvedere Museum. He is one of the first artists to paint live on stage at New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall as part of an ongoing collaboration with composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra.
Makoto founded the International Arts Movement in 1992, a non-profit whose “Encounter” conferences have featured cultural catalysts such as Dr. Elaine Scarry, Dennis Donoghue, Billy Collins, Dana Gioia, Calvin DeWitt and Miroslav Volf. His second book, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture, is a collection of essays bringing together people of all backgrounds in a conversation and meditation on culture, art, and humanity. In celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, Crossway Publishing commissioned and published The Four Holy Gospels, featuring Makoto’s illuminations of the sacred texts. In 2011 the Fujimura Institute was established and launched the Four Qu4rtets, a collaboration between Makoto, painter Bruce Herman, Duke theologian/pianist Jeremy Begbie, and Yale composer Christopher Theofanidis, based on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The exhibition will travel to Baylor, Duke, and Yale Universities, Gordon College and other institutions around the globe. Bucknell University honored him with the Outstanding Alumni Award in 2012. He is a recipient of two Doctor of Arts Honorary Degrees, from Belhaven University in 2011 and Biola University in 2012.
You asked some fantastic questions, and I hope you are challenged and inspired by Makoto’s responses.
From Red: I have always felt that Christian art (particularly music and written fiction) is of a much lower quality than what you find in the 'secular' world. Despite growing up in church and being fairly comfortable with the church culture, Christian music, novels, and other forms of art have always left me feeling bored, restless, and honestly, a little fed up. I've had many conversations about this over the years, and most people seem to believe that Christian art has become anemic because Christians are afraid to look at the "tough stuff" in life and want everything to be safe and sugar-coated. Others suggest that North American Christians are trained from childhood to follow all the "rules," and that this attitude can subconsciously hinder adults from knowing how to truly "create" apart from a pattern. I was wondering if you have noticed this anemia in the Christian arts, and if you have a theory about the cause?
Let me first address some "macro" issues regarding faith and culture issues. Since I am from a theological perspective that sees culture as a good gift from God, I do not seek to define "Christian culture" verses "secular culture." In John 10, Jesus speaks of leading the sheep out of the gate; thus, in this case, the sheep are led out into the wider pasture of culture. Why? It's because the sheep need to find nourishment outside of their pens that they cannot otherwise find. I believe that Christians’ response to culture need to be the same: We need to be let out, guided by the Holy Spirit, and be nourished by the greater culture - otherwise we will starve!
So in answering the weakness of Christian creative output, I would say that we shouldn’t have a mindset in which we categorize, "Is this Christian, or not?" But instead ask, "Is this good and point toward our thriving?"
From Eric: From Eric: One thing I appreciate about your art is that it's refreshingly free of what people often think of as Christianese clichés. How would you advise artists (and musicians, writers, etc.) to create works that reflect Christianity without restricting their vocabulary to that overly-familiar set of religious symbols? (I'm thinking of the prayer-and-conversion scene in every "Christian" novel, the hymn-tunes quoted in "Christian" instrumental music, the sermonizing in "Christian" poetry, and so on.) Is this just a matter of improving our technical skills, or are there intentional strategies you've found for broadening artistic vocabulary?
First, I would focus on making our Christianity a noun, rather than an adjective. Rather than creating Christian art, make art that is thoroughly and completely in Christ. That means we need to start with knowing Christ, and walking intimately with God. Second, endeavor to learn symbols from all sorts of cultures, including "pagan" cultures. I believe that all cultures have keys to unlock our deeper understanding of the Gospel, but those nuggets of truth have been twisted. We need to go into the Babylons of the world, like Daniel, and first learn to be a better Babylonian than the Babylonians. Then we need to work to untwist the cultural language, and interpret their dreams. We may even, then, create new expressions and new words, which, it seems to me, the Holy Spirit offers.
From Sarah: How can the church start to unleash the artistic talent in the community beyond designing posters and church bulletins (i.e. support the arts in a deeper sense)? What role should the church play in the arts?
How we allocate our funding has to do with fundamental bottom line issues. Churches are operating under a utilitarian pragmatism, with a "zero sum game," of resources competing with one another, much like a big businesses. We do not see beauty as valuable. Why? Well, I believe this mindset has as much to do with how we view the gospel as how we view the arts.
Jesus commended Mary of Bethany (in John 11-12) for extravagantly offering perfume valued at a year’s worth of wages to anoint him for his burial. She broke open the nard of mystery of our being, of who Christ was, and Jesus stated the she "has done a beautiful thing to me. And wherever the Gospel is told, what she has done will also be told." My question is this: Is our gospel accompanied with just as gratuitous, generous, creative and beautiful acts as Mary's? Perhaps both the quality and the power of our art would reach a different height and depth if we created from that perspective. (See my essay "Beautiful Tears" on my website.)
From Rachel: Oftentimes, particularly in a religious community, there is the assumption that artists should essentially work for free. While we wouldn't expect, say, a roofer to put a new roof on a church without compensation, we often expect artists to contribute to our churches/ holy spaces/ programs/ events without getting compensated for their time. How have you navigated this somewhat awkward territory? And why is it important for the Church to support artists, not only spiritually and emotionally, but also financially?
In answering more pragmatic question about how an artist can deal with "working for free" issues, I always advise artists to set expectations first, whether the task at hand is a) volunteer work, or b) professional. If I am asked to volunteer, I will say yes or no based on my time commitment availability. If it is professional, I will be honest about how much my work is worth. I am fine to discount so that the church can still afford my work, but they need to know the sacrifice (of me and my family) going into such a project.
From Cassie: Growing up Chinese, my parents found any visual depiction of Christianity to be idolatrous, which I believe is due to the fact that much of the trappings of high church tradition were too similar to the ancestor worship with which they grew up. How do you respond to claims that visual art can be idolatrous? And what do you do in your painting process to maintain faithfulness to the text? Do you think being a Japanese artist gives you any unique perspective on religion and art?
The Second Commandment does not prohibit making of images. It prohibits making of idols. Idols are "a good gift of God that has been made into an 'only thing.'" (Tim Keller, my pastor). Sex, money, love are all good things that can become idols. The Old Testament is full of images and art, from representational to abstract (see Solomon's Temple). We need to understand that at the same time the Decalogue was given, strict instructions were given to Bezalel and Oholiab to carve the Ark of the Covenant. Thus the expression in the Second Commandment "You shall not make for yourself a carved image," is tied to prohibition of "not bow down to them." Bezalel and Oholiab carved images, but in accordance with God's design. After Christ's incarnation, the author of The Book of Hebrews tells us that Christ, the perfect Temple and Sacrifice, fulfilled the design that Bezalel and Oholiab executed in Christ's Body. I take that to mean that all manner of expressions (much like in Peter's vision of eating forbidden animals) are now freed from the curse.
Therefore ALL expressions are permissible, but that does not mean that all expressions are created toward our full thriving. We twist the good gifts of God to make idols (Madison Street Ad agencies do this all the time!) We are to, in Christ, liberate all mediums and expressions from "our bondage to decay...to bring into the glorious freedom of the children of God." (Romans 8:21) We are not only children, but heirs, with full authority to bring to our materials and mediums to steward over them.
Ancestor worship, I suspect, began as a good effort to remember and honor the dead, to pass on the family history to the children. It has been twisted into a type of duty, a legalistic bounds that require offspring no freedom toward thriving or full experience of love. We need to remember that our reaction against such idolatry, even in our religious duty, can also become just as legalistic. The enemy, and our orphaned hearts, always twist good intent to create bondage to others and ourselves. Christ came to liberate us from that, and the Holy Spirit guides us to live our identity as Christ's heirs, God's Princes and Princesses, to co-create with the great Artist.
From Annie: Your thoughts on creating in a generative way have been transformational for me. How do you hold the tension of sharing your art generously and letting it incubate? Do you always lean towards sharing and giving art, or are their seasons (or pieces of art) that you hold close for a season?
The tension between being too generous and cultivating your own work and time is much like being a gardener. First you must spend much time tilling the soil, planting and nurturing. Unless you have a beautiful flower to share, we cannot share beauty at all! It's ok to say "my flowers are not ready to be picked yet...”
You may also be interested in learning Makoto’s Top 5 Books on Creativity, via Christianity Today. You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” "Ask a Liberation Theologian," "Ask Shane Claiborne," and many more—here.
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