ART: MAKOTO FUJIMURA, “Splendor for Kayama.” Mineral pigment on paper. The Dillon Gallery.
Makoto Fujimura is a Japanese-American artist and a follower of Christ, which, considering that less than 3% of Japanese are Christians, places him in an unusual category. Fujimura studied traditional Japanese art at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and graduated with a B.A. from Bucknell University. Most recently, Fujimura has been commissioned to create the illuminated manuscript for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which is his most historic work and is in all likelihood how he will be remembered.
Fujimura’s methods reflect his fascination with the universality of grace, overcoming simplistic cultural dichotomies, drawing from both sides of the globe.
Stewart Lundy: What aesthetic elements or themes—if any—do you consider uniquely Christian?
Makoto Fujimura: I suppose only ones that have the experiential knowledge of God’s grace in salvation can be thankful for that, and let their art speak of that thankfulness. We see works like “Amazing Grace” as an example of such a uniquely Christian work. But, when we speak of “uniquely Christian,” that assumes we know for sure who belongs in the Christian category and who does not. Jesus’ parable on the wheat and tares from Matthew 13 makes it clear that we do not know for sure. Only God knows our eternal destiny. So what is “uniquely Christian” may not be something we have the discernment for.
All human beings are created to be creative, and yet we twist the good gifts of God and turn them into idols, to worship ourselves. So the question is, what art truly glorifies God. But then even if there is to be such an art—pure art that glorifies God—the uses of such an art may turn into idolatrous error, such as Moses’ bronze snake (a uniquely Christological art indeed) being used in King Hezekiah’s time as an object of idol worship. So this is a hard question to answer.
In some sense, though, I believe, because of common grace, that all art is uniquely Christian, in that we cannot have art apart from the conviction of material reality and the reality of communication. Art is at least spiritually neutral to have the potential of being used, or misused (I also argue in my recent book Refractions that the main function of the arts is not to be “used” at all, but that’s for another conversation). But material reality has significance, and potency, because of the Gospel of incarnation, the fact that God became a man. God pours his Spirit in all people: from our cave days to our fog of post-modern time, art is full of signifiers that point to the reality of God.
How and where are those uniquely Christian elements poorly (or well) represented within the Christian community?
We have this “us” versus “them” mentality, and create unnecessary divides—a “culture war” mentality. Art is a gift, a gift that continues to bless, and a gift we continue to twist into idols.
All art (I mean that in an Aristotelian sense of art as “our capacity to make”) can be enjoyed, critiqued, and even “untwisted” for the glory of God. I believe this is our universal calling, whether Christian or not.
What would you say to Christians who are enamored of things ‘Eastern’?
East/West distinction is also a categorization that is very difficult to define. The Bible is an “Eastern” book. The Bible is much more culturally “Eastern” than “Western,” if by “Western” we mean post-Enlightenment rationalism. Certainly, the Old Testament Hebrew culture was far more eastern than what we consider to be western. The Last Supper makes more sense in a Japanese context (that eating and drinking wine can bond a community together) than American. Early theologians like Augustine and Origen were influenced by African and Egyptian culture, which is more East than West, and certainly medieval art and theology has much to do with Eastern influence, while “Western” theology grew out of them. I know what you are asking pertains to our fascination with Japanimation, Eastern New Age mysticism, etc., but I would be careful not to fall into unhelpful distinctions.
I think though there is spiritual danger in paganism, and as Origen stated (and recently quoted by Pope Benedict) paganism is defined by “lacking feeling and reason, they are transformed into stones and wood.” In other words, paganism flattens our perception, makes all experience virtual, dumbing down our senses. Paganism, as in the Matrix movies, is virtual, manageable, flat reality, whereas the red pill takes you down into the harsh reality of pain and suffering. Christianity opens our perception and our understanding of reality. Sensationalism of contemporary art to easy sentiments of animations (excepting, of course, some recent noble efforts like Ratatouille or Up) give up too much of our humanity, and can be dehumanized. It is the “stone and woods” of our times.
I can sympathize with seeking what art really is, regardless of the particular “unique” religious elements. You claim that art is a gift, and you quote Lewis Hyde claiming that art is a gift only so long as it remains in “motion.” These terms remind me of the Parable of the Talents. As you say, art is not to be “used” or “misused”—is this because it is not part of a market economy, but is rather part of a gift economy? How is artwork as a gift different from other forms of gifts?
You are right on here. Art as a gift captures both her power and her limitations. Most of the misuse can come from the market economy side. Art is a gift that keeps generatively giving, and in some ways is not complete until others benefit from it.
How can a particular work of art be “untwisted” for the glory of God? What is an example of “bad” art? Or is the term “bad” art a bad way of phrasing it, since all art, if actually art, is good art?
Hezekiah’s snake is a good example (see II Kings 18:4). By having the right understanding of our trust of God, which Isaiah the prophet proclaimed to Hezekiah, and only by surrendering to trust God did Hezekiah begin to see the proper perspective to untwist the misuse of Mose’s snake.
Only when the King trusted God did he see the need to reform worship and correct the misuse of the object which Moses created to heal people under God’s guidance. Proper worship is central to our understanding of reality, the arts, and it affects everyone, Christians and non-Christians. Culture is affected by how we worship God (Bill Dyrness makes this point in many of his books).
Thomas Merton says that Zen is “an ontological awareness of pure being.” He claims that there is a Zen “core” to all religions. You seem to be in a unique position to speak of this. You said before that “Christianity opens our perception and our understanding of reality.” How does this opening of perception differ from other approaches such as Zen?
Yes, a wonderful quote. Thomas Merton was singularly able to assimilate Zen thinking into the gospel, and not lose anything in the process—a very rare synthesis. While he is correct in noting that Zen is “an ontological awareness of pure being,” the object of faith is clearly needed for the direction of that awareness to grow towards. We are blind unless the Spirit opens our hearts. The Spirit also gives discernment, which is key to me. Zen does not assume the depravity of our hearts as a reality, but considers all suffering and depravity as a temporal illusion. Christianity is after the narrow gate of focus to see reality as it truly is.
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The example you give of Hezekiah’s snake reminds me of a possible distinction between an icon and an idol. Does art serve as an icon? Is “good” art purely a matter of interpretation—such as Hezekiah’s snake, which only became bad when it was misinterpreted? While the serpent was seen as a manifestation of God’s power and not worshiped as God, it was good. Is art “untwisted” or is it oneself that is “untwisted”?
Yes, that’s a wonderful way to look at the potential of art. Although Icon writing is specific for the purpose of worship, there’s much overlap. Take for instance the work of Kazimir Malevich, considered the father of modern abstraction. He was painting abstract, white images partly because creating Icons was forbidden in the Stalin/Lenin era in Russia. In this case, he positioned abstraction as a way to convey transcendence when Christianity was banned.
Contemporary artist Damien Hirst consciously, I think, has this icon/idol relationship in all of his works. He is a very smart artist who sees art serving an iconic function in society, and he is able to manipulate both his art and the marketplace to toy with this powerful role that art plays (and make lots of money in the process!).
What needs to be “untwisted” is both how the work is perceived, and the context in which the work functions to signify its meaning. A buddhistic statue is somewhat neutralized in a gallery setting, rather than used as an object of worship, for instance. Andy Warhol’s images would blend in within kitschy, 10-cent stores, but is revered in a museum. (Rightly so, as that is exactly how he intended them to be read).
You speak of “proper worship”—how is the propriety of our worship determined? And, to apply it to art, how is the revelation of something holy evaluated in art?
By “proper worship,” I mean a distinctively Christological way of looking at God, the world and ourselves that is driven by understanding and experiencing God’s grace. I am not merely speaking of liturgical elements, denominations, or traditions. If you follow Tim Keller’s reasoning in Prodigal God, you see that Christ saw the world in grace-filled and extravagantly compassionate ways.
So that means that the enemy of expression is not just waywardness of culture but also legalism of culture, and this often starts at the church. For Christ, we are (and the universe as it pertains to us) the object of affection, his masterpieces. So we need to bring people in to see that we are far more beautiful and transcendent to God as the best of the arts do are to us. But the arts train us, make our hearts and mind more aware, of things excellent and beautiful.
Are there any extrabiblical “eastern” works which seem to show a particular affinity towards Christianity? Conversely, are there any that are particularly anti-Christian? Asking what is anti-Christian, of course, asks what you consider to be essentially Christian. What makes Christianity stand out to you as the Way? Do you think others of other religions are saved?
Yes, my whole journey has been discovering, discerning these matters. Tohaku Hasegawa’s masterpiece Shorinzu Byobu is a great example of that particular affinity. Any art that dehumanizes, and celebrates waywardness—like some of Jeff Koons’ works—can be considered “anti-Christian,” but again, we need to be aware that grace has the power to overrule any of our judgments.
Jesus is the Way, and He is the “Way, Truth and the Life.” It’s not religion that saves us (any religion) but Jesus.
Your methods employ “Western” and “Eastern” elements. You seem to want to avoid uncareful distinctions, but I was wondering about your thoughts regarding Christianity and the resistance to it in Japan. I have been wondering if there is an essential conflict between Japanese culture and Christianity since reading Shusako Endo’s book about the persecution of Japanese Christians, Silence. If there is, how is Japanese culture peculiarly “twisted”?
Actually, Endo’s work twists the reality of Japanese culture, which has a greater affinity to Christian truths than any other cultures I know. He was extremely cynical—being in a country of marginalization and persecution can do that to you. The resistance is there precisely because the core of culture is manifested to align itself to Biblical notions of grace and beauty.
Does Christianity—the rigidity of the cross, the disrespectful manner of death, the cowardice of Peter—present a peculiar problem to Japanese art? Does fluidity, in contrast to rigidity, present a special problem? Does the starkness of two intersecting lines present an aesthetic difficulty?
Interesting question. I think the Cross offends all, not just the Japanese, but I see what you mean, and it has been said that Japanese do not respond well to confrontational, disrespectful presentation. But deep beneath, they are just as interested in sensationalism, blood, and disregard of conventionality as any other culture. The aesthetic potential is enormous, though, as the whole language of culture is layered and nuanced; such a view can help tremendously to unlock the beauty of the gospel to the rest of the world.
You say that Japanese culture has a “greater affinity to Christian truths than any other cultures” you know of. Could you elaborate? Would you say that Japanese culture shows more affinity than Western culture, which at least considers itself to be the most Christian? What about Shinto and ancestor worship—are these idols just more obvious than idols in western civilization?
Christianity, and the culture in which Jesus was birthed, is more Eastern than Western—especially of the rationalism, individualism sort. And we have many hidden idols more powerful and dangerous—power, fame, etc.—than many of the idols of the East. Certainly, Jesus is the only true avenue to God, but the way cultures understand that principle may vary. If you look at my essay “A beer toast at Sato Museum” in Refractions, I elaborate more.
While “proper worship” is not legalism or any particular form of liturgy or denomination, what place does orthodoxy play in salvation—or art? What do you consider to be orthodox? What do you consider to be heretical?
Orthodoxy, to me, is Jesus and him alone. But we need to not only invite Jesus into our hearts as a Savior, but continue to invite Jesus into our lives as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Every heresy comes in a form of legalism, though sometimes it is disguised as “free for all” tolerance, and grace as universalism.
What is the “beauty of the gospel”? How can a work of art especially convey this?
The beauty of the gospel is in the foundational reality of God’s created universe, and there are deep mysteries there for the arts to probe. It’s not something you can grasp, but only intuitively recognize and point to. I would not say, though, that grace is non-rational. Rather, I believe Jacques Maritain was right in noting that the intuitive core is at the heart of all knowledge. Grace is knowable, but in a most profound supra-rational way. I think an effort to define beauty will ultimately fail, but we can speak of beauty, and point to the source of beauty.
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