Makoto Fujimura: “A Letter to North American Churches”
Acclaimed artist Makoto Fujimura has written “A Letter to North American Churches” regarding the often contentious relationship between artists and the church.
You began to believe in the late 18th century that we needed rational categories, to try to protect “faith” from “reason.” Reason began to win the battle in this false dichotomy. As a consequence, you began to suspect the mystery of our being and the miraculous presence of God behind the visible. What you call “Secularism” is your own offspring*, given articulation by the division and fragmentation within the church. As a result of this dichotomy, you began to exile artists whose existence, up to that point, helped to fuse the invisible reality with concrete reality. An artist knows that what you can see and observe is only the beginning of our journey to discover the world. But you wanted proof, instead of mystery; justification instead of beauty. Therefore you pushed artists to the margins of worship, while the secular world you helped to create championed us, and gave us, ironically, a priestly role.
Instead of having quality artists at the core of your worship, we were forced to operate as extras; as in “if-we-can-afford-it-good-but-otherwise-please-volunteer”, Extras. Meanwhile, in the institutions called museums, concert halls and academia, we are asked to be gods. You gave away artistic expression to the secular culture. And yet do you not know that Our Father in Heaven owns all of the earth? You might have given back the power of creativity to Egypt, and acquiesced to Babylon, but the true and living God still owns all the powerful institutions, and the hearts of critics and curators. Artists still have an instinct for worship, but they must do so now in sterile, minimalist boxes called galleries to the “unknown gods” of our time. Rather than giving devotion, they had to become a celebrity merchant, selling their goods; instead of giving of themselves to the Giver of gifts, they have become purveyors of a commodity. Artists have insight into the invisible qualities of the Reality; but you have forced them to serve only the visible, utilitarian and the pragmatic.
I think Fujimura’s article pairs quite nicely with this fascinating NY Times profile of Arvo Pärt.
I adore our culture’s deification of art and artists. It’s just so precocious. Reading stuff like “Artists have insight into the invisible qualities of the Reality; but you have forced them to serve only the visible, utilitarian and the pragmatic” just makes me squeal with delight. Like watching Groucho Marx in top form. Or Dwight Schrute being perfectly maniacal.
Neither Groucho nor Dwight nor the self-important Artist have any foothold in reality and that makes their antics all the more adorable. At least they’re not harming anyone.
In other news what’s with the last decade’s hate on the sacred/secular distinction? Is it just that people misunderstand it and so argue against something that they think exists but doesn’t really?
So… are you agreeing or disagreeing with Fujimura? I thought Fujimura made it clear that he thinks the deification of art and artists is a bad thing, that it is something to be avoided because it obscures the true purpose of art.
As for the sacred/secular distinction, I agree with you that it doesn’t really exist — or at least, doesn’t exist in the way that most people think it does. However, for so many in our culture, it does exist, and that’s where the knickers start to get in a twist.
I don’t think I do agree with Fujimura. I’m happy for him to produce his art and to invest in them whatever meaning he feels appropriate. At first I thought he was over-estimating the value of art (and he may still be doing that) but I think that more clearly he is mistaking the place of art. And in mistaking its place his misunderstands artists to have been exiled simply because there is little place for them to ply their hobby within the scope of the worship service.
At least that’s how I’m interpreting him. Which could be a huge mistake.
Here’s the thing—and I say this as an artist and as the son of an artist and hopefully as the father of an artist—art is great. It definitely has its place in society (and certainly in Christian society). Just like baseball and plumbing and tax preparation do. Art is communicative just like Morse code and the backs of cereal boxes are communicative. Art is not unique and it is not transcendent. It is functional, personal, and sometimes beautiful.
Art is cool. It’s neat. It’s worth the time that people who appreciate it will put into appreciating it.
Saying something like “Artists have insight into the invisible qualities of the Reality” is ridiculous because it’s either patently false as an elitist proprietary statement or patently true in that the exact same thing could of anyone. Pastry chefs have insight into the invisible qualities of the Reality. Drunkards have insight into the invisible qualities of the Reality. Terrorists, homemakers, politicians, and race car drivers have insight into the invisible qualities of the Reality.
Every time the poor artist trots out his complaint at how misused he has been by the church I struggle not to roll my eyes. “Artists at the core of your worship.” I scoff as deeply and derisively as I would at the idea of lumberjacking at the cor of worship. Should artists and lumberjacks find themselves at the core of worship? Certainly. In like manner with every other child of God, coming together as a single entity, basking in the radience of their bridegroom. Should they paint a picture or prepare a dance routine or weave in a musical masterpiece? Only if we also want to include awesome, diving Willie Mays style catches and flawless executions of espionage practice and humbling performances of neurosurgery and facepainting and power-napping and veterinary work.
Fujimura strikes me as someone who bought the line that the world has been telling artists forever: you are a beautiful and unique snowflake. “We are often in the margins of your communities, being the misfits that we are.” Exclusivism. Elitism. Bah, humbug.
“God is an artist.” Artists adore this one. They love to feel that they are the closests mortal relatives to God, tied by the fact that as God is an artist, so too have they taken up the noble work. God’s not an artist, he’s The Creator. There’s a difference and its pretty huge. Artists doodle either out of their imaginations or create facsimiles of reality. They build impoverished little worlds that are incidental to the real world. If artists want to genuinely praise the creative impulse of God, they should put the brush down, stop drawing attention to themselves through the artifice of eccentricity, and sit back and glory in the only thing they’ll ever witness that truly reflects the Creative Impulse they deify: the world around them. Instead of pretending their mockeries of that impulse reveal God for who he is.
Fortunately, the reality of it is that art doesn’t have this higher purpose. Art is a fun pasttime and the works artists create can enrich the lives of those who behold them depending on what each individual puts into the piece he views. The sooner artists take stock of reality and welcome the fact that they are no different than crossword puzzle enthusiats, the sooner their lives will become a whole hell of a lot easier. (Since by buying into the hype, they’ve purchased themselves a kind of living hell of not being appreciated enough.)
On Popularly Dismissed Distinctions:
As far as the sacred/secular distinction goes. Of course it exists.
Sacred and secular. Cult and culture. Holy and profane. Time and place. These are biblical patterns and they’ve only been confused because someone down the line believed that in the secular God was supposedly absent. Probably a person who had never heard or never understood the concept of common grace, the idea that Pink Floyd and Monty Python are, in their way, gifts from God.
We are to worship God with every moment of our lives (secular) but also have an ordained set of rituals specified overtly by God to his own honour through specific ceremony (sacred). In the secular realm, we are free to worship God in any number of ways. Through video games and playing guitar and selling a good shoe at a good price. In the sacred realm, we worship God in the manner he has proscribed. Fried chicken and a glass of Basil Hayden’s is not the Lord’s Table. Stage diving into a crowd is not baptism. Despite the fact that all of these things can be worship in the secular sense.
I’ll be honest, I’m closer to Fujimura’s end of the spectrum. I find it a little troubling that you brush aside the idea of art being transcendent and just leave it at being nothing more than “neat”.
Now, I do agree with you — if I’m understanding you correctly — that artistry can be found in all corners and aspects of life, from the way someone plays baseball to how a neurosurgeon operates on someone’s brain to how someone bakes a load of bread. Speaking from my own profession, I think there’s a certain artistry involved in the creation of a website and achieving a balance between the aesthetic and technical. But I think that’s due precisely because art’s nature is transcendent. It can’t be locked down into a single format. Rather, it’s all over the place, and can be found everywhere there is human expression.
That being said, is it possible that there are certain “manifestations” of artistry — e.g., music, sculpture, literature, poetry, theatre, painting — that are perhaps closer to, or more capable of, really capturing the essence of art than other “manifestations”? I don’t want to get all Platonic here, but looking back over the course of human history seems to bear this out.
We remember the great composers, painters, and writers but not the great athletes, doctors, and chefs. Not because the latter are worth less than the former, but because there’s something about the former group’s accomplishments — their art — that sticks with us, something that rings true throughout the centuries. To me, this indicates that there is something about what the composers, painters, and writers have done that is, indeed, transcendent — something that causes them to that stand out and above time in a way that other accomplishments have not.
Re. Fujimura’s statement about “God is an artist”, could we possibly be quibbling about semantics here? Of course, an artist is not a creator in the sense that God is. Artists can’t achieve creatio ex nihilo in the true sense of the word. But who would argue that artists don’t create in some sense of the word, even if they’re simply doodling? True, the physical aspects of the art — the paint, the wood, the paper — were there all along and are simply being reorganized and pushed around. But what of the non-material aspects of the art, the spiritual and intellectual aspects?
Re. your breakdown of the sacred and secular, I really like that, especially as a fan of common grace. The problem is that “secular” has become a dirty word, such that engaging in any “secular” behavior is automatically seen as sinful and less-than-holy.
Semantics? I’m always up for some antics! But yes, I suspect that a lot of nuance is being lost due to semantic attrition. We’re almost certainly using some operative words in differing ways. Case in point:
When i use the term art, I’m almost exclusively using it very narrowly, to refer to those physical productions of creative endeavor that one could hang framed on a wall or display upon a pedestal in a gallery or museum. You seem by my reading to be taking the broad view and are able to apply the term across a wide swath of disciplines, as your use of artistry to describe a manner of baseball and neurosurgery may indicate. I’m not necessarily pinning this to you, but that’s wear I’m currently reading you to be. Still, despite these differences, I think we’re making some headway in the discussion and I find talking about it helpful.
Before I respond to the main thrust of your argument regarding transcendence, let me say I’m glad you found my mention of sacred/secular helpful. You’re right that secular has become a dirty word. At least in some particular circles who misunderstand—and therefore misappropriate—the term and its usefulness. I’m not sure where to find the origin of the error, whether in Puritanical neo-nomianism or in American Fundamentalism, though it’s certainly present in Fundamentalism (and therefore has a strong strain of presence in Evangelicalism—and especially in Dispensational Evangelicalism, which seems to have little defense against it). In any case, this is why continual reconstruction of our doctrine and practice is important and we should take every opportunity to recognize the nuance of the terms we’ve inherited, such that less-than-holy is not the same as less-than-righteous and that God can use the things he has not ordained to be set apart for worship just as well as the things he has—each for their own ends.
Now then, To the Art!
When you speak of transcendence, I should explain what I mean when I say I’m uncomfortable with you saying art is transcendent (in counterpoint to your own discomfort when I describe it as neat. There are two avenues to take: 1) what it is that is transcendent, and 2) what is meant by transcendence.
1) Where transcendence lies.
Rather than point to the vessel (i.e. the work of art itself) as the natural host to this transcendence (whatever we mean by that), I would suggest that anything we’d care to label “transcendence” occurs in one of two places: a) the art of production, or b) the reading of the piece by an appreciator (i.e. the interested viewer/reader/audience/what-have-you).
I suggest this because it is only in those interpretive acts (creation and absorption) that whatever we propose by transcendence occurs. The Mona Lisa is not in itself transcendent. It (and I say it instead of the popular she to underscore my meaning) only gains meaning when appreciated. (This is doubly true for Pollack!) Show the Mona Lisa to the unsophisticant and you’ll be met with an unenthusiastic, “Oh. A picture of a not-super-attractive lady. Neat. Am I supposed to like it?” Show it to a fan and transcendence is unlocked as the appreciater rhapsodizes about all the things it means and the beauty it contains. The fact is, those things are contained not so much in the Mona Lisa but in the artist and in the critic. The Mona Lisa is just a trigger to unlock those transcendent observations.
I was recently reading Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and while this was not her purpose, I will co-opt an idea she explores. In the novel, a twelve-year-old girl named Paloma is writing notes about these “transcendent” moments she witnesses—she calls them movements of the world. In them she detects all the great aesthetic joys that we so often attribute to art. Yet these movements are entirely mundane and natural things. In fact, though Barbery never describes them so, there are really only triggers that propel this girl to think transcendent thoughts.
It is in Paloma that the real movement of the world occurs. Every time she appreciates one of these triggers.
2) What is meant by transcendence.
transcendence is, in itself, a pretty murky word. We can’t possibly mean by it something like wholly apart from human experience because we could not experience it if that were the case. Do we simply then mean that a thing is of elevated status? And if so, elevated from what? From the mundane? And what if, as Paloma’s experience can be verified, the mundane can be as transcendent as anything we might suggest is elevated? (And my experience watching Sir David Attenborough’s nature documentaries would suggest Paloma’s experience is easily validated.)
Murky, murky territory.
What I would suggest then is that what we mean by transcendence is something easier to break down. Something like: transcendence refers to those culturally established traits that are viewed within the society as being excellencies in attribute, action, or form. Therefore, suggestions of peace, love, honour, spirit, beauty, strength, imagination, and supreme competence (a partial list) are all things that excite this feeling of quote-unquote transcendence within us. And moreso when these things find themselves in combination. A exciting in us an apprehension of beauty, humanity, nobility, and heavenliness may overwhelm us, may feel more deeply transcendent, than a work that merely excites our apprehension of beauty, simply for the fact of its multiplied triggers.
Moving on, at one point, you rightly point out that we remember great composers, painters, etc. (those traditionally considered Artists) better than we remember the great plumbers, teachers, or ballplayers. This is, I suspect due to the nature of traditional art’s permanence. We readily have examples from the arts to submit to ourselves for interpretation, but its less likely to find sublime extant examples of plumbing or roofing ingenuity from across the ages. Add to that the fact that most of us wouldn’t know how to judge sublime plumbing any more than the five-year-old has the aesthetic training to find the superlative in Picasso.
Of course, as our ability to record increases, we are culturally finding ourselves able to exhilarate in less artistic endeavors in the same ways we have traditionally in the arts. When one views The Catch by Willie Mays, it’s very easy to experience much the same transcendent feelings that are often experienced in art. The same could be said of The Immaculate Reception, The Play, and any number of other named athletic moments. Same with Cirque du Soleil. Those who care might find the same feelings in historical military strategies or in famous chess plays.
And as with Paloma, the same feelings can be generated by the mundane. Contemplating a blade of grass. Witnessing otters stand down a crocodile. Seeing a double rainbow. In all of these cases, it’s not the trigger that is itself transcendent, it’s the human capacity to discover transcendence that is. To misappropriate something else, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It truly is, for if everything is a trigger for beauty, then where else could it be?
Thanks for responding to my comment in such detail. There’s a lot in there to process, so apologies if I don’t respond in detail right away. That being said, I would like to clear up one minor detail/point of confusion. You wrote:
I guess I’m a little confused because my taking the “broad view”, as you put it, was simply because your earlier comment seemed to be taking the “broad view” first. In your October 19th comment, you wrote:
D’oh… the last paragraph in the above comment is by me, and shouldn’t be part of that quote of Seth’s comment. That’s what I get for trying to format HTML at 10:30pm.
Oh, I see where the confusion came from. Really I just meant that those attributes that people commonly use to define “art” are worthless as definitonals. In the first quoted paragraph, I’m pointing out that art is not unique or special in its ability to communicate and is just as common an activity as plumbing. In the second case, I’m arguing against any value in Fujimura’s statement that artists hold insight into the reality, by saying, “So what? So does everybody.” I put art on a level with these things in this way to show that what makes art different from plumbing or wrestling isn’t in its worth or ability to communicate.
My view is that art is unique in that it results in an object who reflects (and primarily so) the creative impulse of the artist. Generally, I include in this category drawing, painting, and sculpture. I do not include film or literature or music or videogames, because they are film and literature and music and videogames. Under my definition there is no reason for gamers to insist their hobby is Art, because art is not inherently better than games. Just like music is not inherently better than literature. There is no reason to hope one thing will fit into one catergory rather than another because there is no value-difference between them.
Things are much simpler in my world.
p.s. you’re clearly living in the wrong time zone.
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