Besides my summer reading to prepare for teaching a new class (I read Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Othello, and King Lear. I have Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserable left to cover first semester.), I read two books on art and faith that really challenged my way of thinking.
Refractions, by painter Makoto Fujimura, is a collection of blog posts Fujimura wrote after 9/11 (click the link just to check out the website…it’s amazing). He lives a few blocks from Ground Zero and spent time reflecting on a new world that was created when the towers fell. As response, he formed The International Arts Movement to bring artists, writers, musicians, and dancers together. Here are some tidbits:
Art, and any creative expression of humanity, mediates in times of conflict and is often inexplicably tied to wars and conflicts. Art can play a central role in the making of peace. . . When jazz musicians travel around the world . . . their music carries a message of collaboration, the freedom of improvisation, and community–really the fruits of democracy. Jazz communicates beyond the barriers of politics and ideologies, as music speaks a universal language.
The arts provide us with language for mediating the broken relational and cultural divides: the arts can model for us how we need to value each person as created in the image of God.
Artists are often found at the margins of society, but they are, like the shepherds, often the first to notice the miracles taking place right in front of us. Since sensationalism, power, and wealth dominate our cultural imaginations, we may not be willing to journey to the ephemeral, as the Japanese poets of old have, to see beauty in the disappearing lines or to see poetry in a drying puddle of water. The world seems to demand of us artist-types that we be able to explain and justify our actions, but often the power and mystery of art and life cannot be explained by normative words.
Will we artists admit the vulnerability and unguarded innocence of a true artistic experience? Will we, the church, allow a community of broken, brutally honest, creative people lead the way for admission of our errors? If so, then the culture at large can espouse a deeper and authentic confessional experience, giving it permission to have a powerful experience of forgiveness and healing.
Art is a building block of civilization. A civilization that does not value its artistic expressions is a civilization that does not value itself. These tangible artistic expressions help us understand ourselves. The arts teach us to respect both the diversity of our communities and the strength of our traditions.
Our culture of betrayal goes way beyond individual failures; it is a culture that has lost belief in the good, the true, and the beautiful. Without the a priori conscience that believes in civilization’s own integrity–that wronged can be righted and that creativity is a gift to society–no art, and now work of our hands, can be infused with a transcendent vision. The culture of betrayal denies the potential to hope and is determined to quickly self-destruct.
Artists smell the poisoned air and sing.
In our culture of betrayal, we are quick to impose our own views on layers of established systems. Thus, even a work of art is to be distrusted. Rather than trying to “under-stand” (context: these thoughts are reflections as Fujimura stands under Da Vinci’s Last Supper) the work, we stand over it and dismiss it as unreadable. Or worse yet, we impose a critical ideology upon it without first allowing the work to affect us.
In doing so we miss out on experiencing what the work of art can offer, and consequently we do not journey into the power of genuine art. . .We are drowning in a deluge of despair, and our memories of the good, the true, and the beautiful have nearly faded completely.
Refractions is a beautiful publication with lots of visual art (in color too!!). More important than good visual aesthetics, Fujimura challenges his Christian readers to rid themselves of a me versus them mentality, to be a part of culture, to pay attention, to love, and to create community with artists.
I have heard Matthew 18:20 many times in churches across the country: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Fujimura asserts that people gathering to create also invites the presence of Jesus–whether they are Christians or not. I’ve said many times here before, but there is power and mystery in the act of creativity. Fujimura suggests that such power should be used to unify, heal, and connect. I like that. Now I need to figure out how to be a part of that.