Toward Cultural Care: Acceptance Speech for the 2014 American Academy of Religion Award in Religion and the Arts – By Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura December 1, 2014 0

Makoto Fujimura, San Diego, November 23, 2014

MRB Slider FujimuraThis speech is a prayer: a prayer uttered in the liminal zone between art and religion, a prayer to repair the schism between the two, a prayer to be — in T.S. Eliot’s words — “reconciled among the stars.”

I pray that some day, in the near future, our children and our grandchildren will see an age when faith and life, art and scholarship, the rational and the intuitive will be so integrated that there will no longer be a need for this award.

I say this not in disrespect but in observation; for the fact that this award is needed reveals already a disintegration of what was once a marriage of art and religion, one in which the interweaving of faith and life and art was never questioned. Now it seems they are alienated from one another, perhaps even formally divorced.

And yet, even today with such a schism, people hunger for this integration. One of the directors of the New York galleries with which I have been associated, who does not share my religious convictions, once said to me: “All great art is religious.”

Perhaps a new type of award will be needed then if that prayer for our children and grandchildren is to be answered — one to celebrate integration, wholeness, healing, beauty and love. Perhaps the artist will no longer then be considered a marginal entity but a critical center of our pursuit of knowledge, of our journey toward abundance and creativity. Perhaps then there will be a new aroma in the air: an aroma of Mary of Bethany, who in response to Jesus’ tears in John 11 and 12 brought her most precious belonging, her most gratuitous, expensive nard.

I pray that artists will no longer have to be on the defensive as was Mary in that aroma-filled room while disciples grumbled that her perfume could have been sold to feed the poor. “What a waste,” they said. What a waste. Is our art wasteful, too?

Art is gratuitous. Art is extravagant. But so is our God. God does not need us; yet he created us out of his gratuitous love. Jesus astonished the disciples by giving Mary the highest commendation anyone receives in the pages of the Gospels:

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6 -9)

I pray that in the days to come, this aroma will fill the air whenever the words of Gospel are spoken, that outsiders to faith will sense this extravagant air and feel it, particularly for them. I pray that when our children speak of faith, this gratuitous, intuitive aroma of the love of Christ will be made manifest in their lives.

But even as I pray these things, I know that it is quite possible that darkness may be approaching on the horizon, may cast shadows over the lives of our children and our grandchildren.

Their faith and their art may be tested. The world might grow colder; they may find their senses deadened. The world may grow more insensitive, violent, may lose completely its ability to contemplate. The world may become more driven by consumerism, pragmatic utility and superficial, shallow trinkets. Worse still, it may be increasingly full of a despair that whispers into our ears that there is no hope at all. Our children’s convictions may be not only be challenged, they may be persecuted.

I started my career by speaking of my faith in the public square: in the New York City art world of the 1990s in Soho, and even back in Japan as a National Scholar at Tokyo University of the Arts studying Nihonga (Japanese style painting), where Christ found me. Perhaps my path was paved for just such a time as now, and for the greying art world of Chelsea. All these professions of faith were perhaps transgressive against the normative reality of those times, but as I look back I realize that they also stood in stark contrast to what was to come — laying a wreath upon the tomb of the culture of death, of a world in trauma, a world full of “Ground Zero” ashes, a world still struggling to understand why God remains silent.

I am currently working on a book about Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”, a 20th century Japanese post-war masterpiece about the 17th century persecution of Portuguese missionaries. “Silence” is the next featured film by Martin Scorsese, and I have been asked to write a book on Endo and Japanese beauty. Our world is indeed full of a trauma that leads us to struggle with the Silence of God.

Facing such a world, I pray.

I pray that out of the “irreversible tragedies of our time” (Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail) with the Wasteland looming before us, we will look up and know — through our uncertainties, fears and our failures of faith — that we all can experience Genesis moments, new beginnings, new paths. We can create the new wine skin.

I pray this sweet aroma of Christ will envelop us, hold us; that even in the darkest hours, this aroma will remind us why it is that we are here, why it is that we can lose everything and yet gain so much. Listen to the prayer of another poet who had lost faith in the world:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —

I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.

When Emily Dickinson wrote this, she was struggling with her faith. Yet she recognized that hope never asks for more than simple awareness and acknowledgment. Hope never asked for “a crumb — (dash) of me.” This dash is significant, because the dash equates her with the crumb. When our horizon is darkened, when we have lost even our self-esteem to become that crumb, hope still perches in the soul, as a “thing with feathers” which does not stop our “tune without the words.”

Art and poetry are a “thing with feathers” that awaken us to the inevitable reality of our senses, the aroma of the new. But we must learn to see, hear and feel beyond our senses: We must learn to see with the “eyes of our heart.”

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 1:18):

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.

To see with the eyes of the heart so that we may know hope: that is what is required of us today. This journey will require all of us; Christians, Jews, atheists, Muslims and Buddhists: Artists, plumbers, teachers, nurses and truck drivers to pursue what I call Culture Care, to develop this “eyes of (our) heart.”

When Yasunari Kawabata received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, becoming the first Japanese writer to receive a Nobel, he quoted from the tenth-century Tales of Ise:

“Being a man of feeling, he had in a large jar a most unusual wisteria. The trailing spray of flowers was upwards of three and a half feet long.”

And he continued:

A spray of wisteria of such length is indeed so unusual as to make one have doubts about the credibility of the writer; and yet I can feel in this great spray a symbol of Heian culture (8th to 12th century). The wisteria is a very Japanese flower, and it has a feminine elegance. Wisteria sprays, as they trail in the breeze, suggest softness, gentleness, reticence. Disappearing and then appearing again in the early summer greenery, they have in them that feeling for the poignant beauty of things long characterized by the Japanese as mono no aware. No doubt there was a particular splendor in that spray upwards of three and a half feet long. The splendors of Heian culture a millennium ago and the emergence of a peculiarly Japanese beauty were as wondrous as this “most unusual wisteria,” for the culture of T’ang China had at length been absorbed and Japanized.

My name, Fujimura (藤村), literally means “Wisteria village.” This integration of nature and culture, a foundation for this Culture Care, is a fusing of nature (wisteria) and the cities (village) indicated in my own name. I was born in Boston, but I spent my grade school years in the historic town of Kamakura, where Kawabata lived a few doors down from one of the homes we lived in. Japanese Mono no aware, literally translated as “the pathos of things,” is also the awareness of a moment, a moment that has the potential to become generative.

Culture is a garden to be lovingly tended by stewards, not a territory to destroyed by hungry wolves. My work and my entire identity, including my name, witness to this “particular splendor” of the Japanese aesthetic.

“Makoto” (真), my first name, is an ideogram for “the Truth,” the same Kanji used in John 14 when Jesus announces, “I am the way, the Truth and the life.” When I became a member of the National Council on the Arts, we were invited to the Supreme Court, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor swore in the new members. After the ceremony, instead of making a speech as expected, she sat down and said, “Rather than me speaking, I want to hear about you.”

My mind went blank at that moment, and I ended up saying, “My name means ‘the Truth’ and my art is a way to seek that Truth, by connecting beauty with Truth and Goodness. In that way, beauty accompanies truth and goodness, on a journey to justice.” Thus, my given name has always been a light unto my path. Beauty accompanies Truth and Goodness.

I want to end with a story. I was just in Grand Rapids, Michigan to participate in the remarkable phenomenon called ArtPrize. I wrote about this experience in my Refractions blog site. I was very thankful for The Acton Institute who hosted me and made this exhibit possible, but while I was there I fell in the same gap that Emily Dickinson fell into: a world that saw no need for poetry, for her dashes, for gratuitous beauty.

I came back to the hotel exhausted, and there was a maid there turning my bed for the evening.

“What brings you here to Grand Rapids, sir?” she asked as she fluffed up my pillows.

“I am one of the artists…here, here’s my invitation card [with this painting, Walking on Water, printed on it, see the above image] … please check it out.”

She looked at the card and paused. “Oh, oh, it’s like how Jesus felt walking on water, isn’t it?” Then she winked at me; “you’ve got to use your imagination, right?”

I felt like a spell was cast over me in that moment. She understood, in a single second, just from the reproduction, what I had just tried to explain for about an hour at the institute, trying to emphasize why my work is impossible to get simply by glancing at it. I feel it takes at least ten minutes to “see” the refractive surface of my paintings. Yet she went to the heart of the painting even from the reproduction. These encounters with angels keep me going!

Ultimately, all I have said is a prayer and invitation to encounter the mystery of the Gospel, one which is still filled with the aroma of Mary of Bethany. I pray that this aroma will invade us too with love and hope. If my work has witnessed in some way to this extravagance of the Gospel, if it has refused these reductions or separations of art and religion, if I have brought my whole self to this work, filled with a great desire, then I have been one steward of this great garden. Without reduction, in the grace of this encounter, let us continue our work in the extravagance of the flower, in a tune that somehow keeps propelling us without words.