Artists as stewards of culture
A Review of Makato Fujimura's "Culture Care" (2017)
Makato Fujimura has been deeply concerned with the arts and their place in the broader culture for a long time now. In 1992, he founded the International Arts Movement, which works to develop a closer relationship between the arts, culture, and Biblical principles of human flourishing. His book Culture Care outlines his philosophy of art making and the responsibility that artists have toward the culture around them.
It’s easy to look around at contemporary art and find things that work against human thriving. Artists can sometimes seem like the enemy, with their outsized egos, their bizarre and often incomprehensible behavior, their constant tendency to act in transgressive and even offensive ways. The average art lover might say “Damien Hirst is selling dead sharks and cows for millions of dollars—how does that aid in the cultural project of human thriving? If that is the current state of art these days, are the arts even worth our attention?” No wonder the common people have essentially given up on fine art. How can artists shape culture into something which will affect human flourishing in a positive way? That is the question that Fujimura concerns himself with in this book. Although a small book, it is filled with valuable insights into how artists can conduct that stewardship of culture.
Fujimura identifies two major problems in culture and describes how they work against human thriving. Reductionism—the tendency to view efficiency as an end goal, and to discount the whole person, seeing in them only their tightly-defined social roles—can lead to excessive isolation in many areas of life, such as narrowly-defined academic specialization or political tribalism. Commercialism is the idea that everything needs to be transactional, and nothing should be given away. The more a culture allows these ideas to dominate, the harder it is for that culture to sustain the people living in it. Spiritual starvation occurs, because the culture is polluted. Fujimura develops a metaphor of mountain streams flowing into a river and then an estuary. If the streams (the arts) become polluted, then the estuary (culture at large) will not be able to flourish or support life. It is the responsibility of artists to ensure that what they create does not pollute the broader culture, and that they don’t themselves bring the pollutants of reductionism and commercialism into their stream.
Artists have an obligation, then, to create art that nurtures and nourishes culture. His philosophy centers around what he calls “generativity”—the concept that artistic activity is generating something new, something of value, and that that value enriches the world and makes it a better and more fruitful place. This does not mean that the products which artists make will always necessarily conform to some standard of artistic taste, or even beauty.1 It is a common temptation, for Christians especially, to say that certain kinds of art are “beautiful” in some arbitrary sense, and that other art is not worthy of serious attention—especially when that art makes us uncomfortable or brings up inconvenient truths.
But why artists, specifically? Isn’t everyone involved in culture, and therefore, isn’t everyone obligated to care for culture? Yes, Fujimura says—and in so doing, everyone becomes an artist. Thinkers as diverse as Joseph Bueys and Seth Godin have discussed how everyone has the capacity and opportunity to act in the world in creative ways. This creativity—this artistic activity—is where culture happens. What Fujimura is really doing when he focuses his attention on artists is acknowledging the truth of Percy Shelley’s remark that poets (and by extension all artists) are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”2 Our current society is fond of attempting to solve all the problems using political means, but politics, Shelley is saying, is downstream from culture. To return to the watershed analogy: Artistic productions happen up in the mountain streams. Political activity is down in the estuary. If the arts pollute the culture, then no amount of political powermongering will clean up the river.
Key to Fujimura’s conception of culture care is the idea of a borderstalker—a person who inhabits more than one sphere of cultural activity and is involved with both. Artists fit this role very easily. They often exist on the margins of society; they are weird in unpredictable ways; and their concerns don’t tend to coincide with those of the people around them. But Fujimura sees this as an asset. As he says, “Artists are instinctively uncomfortable in homogenous groups, and in ‘border-stalking’ we have a role that both addresses the reality of fragmentation and offers a fitting means to help people from all our many and divided cultural tribes learn to appreciate the margins, lower barriers to understanding and communication, and start to defuse the culture wars.” This is the part of the book which resonated the most with me, because I feel personally drawn to the borderstalker role which Fujimura describes. As a Christian and also an art writer, I’m a part of two worlds which often seem in fierce opposition to each other.3 I don't think the situation has to stay this way, however; there is much that the art world can learn from the church, and much that the church can learn from artists. By acting as a bridge between these two spheres of culture, I hope I can bring them closer together.
At one point in the book, Makato Fujimura says “Art is ultimately not ‘useful.’” Where else have we heard this before? In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde states that “All art is quite useless.” But there is a subtle difference here. When Wilde says art is useless, he means that art does not have any purpose, and the actions of artists have no goal or significance, beyond providing aesthetic pleasure. But Fujimura’s philosophy is different. He means that the value of art is at a level beyond that of its immediate utility. Wilde’s approach seems to be a form of nihilism. For Wilde, nothing matters in a moral sense; the only thing of importance is what can be immediately apprehended by the senses. Wilde makes this point throughout Dorian Gray through the mouth of Lord Henry Wotton, one of the most inwardly rotten, polluted characters in all of literature. But Fujimura’s philosophy is quite different—it treats all cultural activity as having a moral value. Culture itself has so much value that we must care for it and become stewards of it. Later in the same paragraph as the “art is not useful” quote, Fujimura says “Arts are not a luxury but a path to educate the whole individual toward thriving. They are needed simply because a civilization cannot be a civilization without the arts.” The arts are, indeed, decorative, but that is their purpose—their usefulness, even—and they need no other.
As Picasso said, “painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” In Culture Care, the enemy is the twin evils of reductionism and commercialism that were mentioned before. It might seem strange to think that a painting as a weapon. But by the very act of existing as an object of aesthetic interest, a painting (or any art for that matter) fights for the importance of a view of humanity at odds with the reductionist or transactional worldviews which would reduce humanity’s purpose to self-centered survival. Fujimura begins his book by describing the time when, as newlyweds, he and his wife had almost no money coming in and a budget so tight they had to ration tuna cans to get through the week without starving. One day, his wife brought home a bouquet of flowers. Her defense of this extravagance was that “we need to feed our souls, too.”
In a sense, Fujimura’s ideas seem a little subversive. But instead of a nihilistic subversion, a destruction of the old ways without thought of what comes next, Fujimura’s agenda is a creative substitution of a set of decaying and rotten social values with another, living, positive set. This subversion has profound implications, but it can be easy to accomplish—as easy as buying flowers for the dining room table.
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For example, I mentioned Damien Hirst’s dead sharks and cows earlier in a negative light, but I am convinced that Hirst was doing something of generative value when he made these pieces—although that value is not apprehended immediately.
The idea that Christianity and the art world have agendas in opposition—and how those agendas can be reconciled—is treated at length in Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds, edited by W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley, which I reviewed in this blog back in November.