Review: Art + Faith

Art + Faith, Makoto Fujimura, foreword by N. T. Wright. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.

Summary: A series of reflections connecting art and faith in the act of making.

Makoto Fujimura is a world-class painter and committed Christian. Many would not make this association in contemporary art but in this work, Fujimura offers a series of reflections on the seamless connection of these in his life, beginning with the act of making. Fujimura declares, “I have come to believe that unless we are making something, we cannot know the depth of God’s being and God’s grace permeating our lives and God’s creation.” The creator we come to understand through making is one who creates out of love and not necessity. God doesn’t need us but in love invites us to collaborate in God’s creation. We enter into this when we make.

We labor in a fallen world, but our work is not to “fix” broken plumbing but to be restored and participate in creation’s renewal empowered by the spirit restored through the sacrifice of Christ, and refreshed by God’s new wine. Fujimura illustrates this in his own creative process of Nihonga. It is not so much a technique but a kind of imitatio Christi of attending to the materials one works with, as part of a community of those who make the brushes, the paper, and powders with which he lays down wash after wash in creating, slowing down to work at the painstaking pace required of the materials.

It is a process that takes him into sacrifice and an understanding of brokenness, evoking another Japanese art practice, that of kintsugi. This practice works with broken cups and pottery, using lacquer covered with gold to mend the broken pieces, creating new beauty out of brokenness. This art points toward the New Creation of Resurrection that doesn’t obliterate brokenness but shines light and beauty through it.

Art helps renew our understanding of work. Fujimura observes that work wasn’t cursed but rather the ground and the serpent. Art points us toward work as gift, and toward the greatest Gift of the gospel. In the Eucharist, we make the very elements that reveal God’s gift of resurrection through sacrifice. We make not for it all to be burned up but toward New Creation.

Fujimura proposes that imagination and faith are closely linked. We often think of Christian theology and leadership in rational, propositional terms. Fujimura notes how much of scripture is in metaphor, in symbol, and description requiring imagination for understanding. As he has argued elsewhere, this imagination invites us into culture care, contra the culture war, battle of ideas that has framed much of our cultural engagement.

In another reflection, he likens the words “Jesus wept” to the “pinhole lens” that captures the whole story of God from loving creation to weeping over the broken creation to be restored through Christ’s suffering and resurrection. He offers a beautiful reflection on John 11 and 12, and the art form of wabi-sabi, the use of well-worn but well-loved objects like a well-worn wallet. He goes deeper into the tears of Christ in the art of Mark Rothko, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and his own traumatic experience of 9/11, which displaced him from a studio in the shadow of the Twin Towers. He weds tears and fire in a discussion of artistic renewal out of the devastation. He concludes with a chapter on “Lazarus culture” reflecting on what it means to practice resurrection. To make in a fallen, broken world is to enter into Christ’s suffering and be enabled by the resurrection to point toward the New Creation.

The power of this book is in the contention that as we enter into the making of art as people of faith, we open ourselves to a way of knowing the story in which we live. His most trenchant words are those where he asserts the vital importance of imagination and making in the life of faith. His reflections remind me of what a vital role artists play in the life of the church, and perhaps the value of all of us finding ways to be makers and not just consumers, of culture.

Review: The Faithful Artist

the faithful artist.jpg

The Faithful Artist, Cameron J. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Addresses the tensions between the world of modern art and evangelical faith, where opportunities for creative engagement might be found in tensions, and what values might shape the life of one sensing a call to be both faithful Christian and artist.

The world of modern art, and the world of faith, particularly evangelical Christian faith have often been at odds with, or not even in conversation with each other. This is the challenge the author has wrestled with since his teenage years as an aspiring artist who embraced the evangelical faith in which he was raised. In the introduction, he describes his own struggle with the absence of mentors, the disregard of his church for the visual arts, and the parallel hostility toward religious faith he encountered in the art world.

Much of this work explores these tensions between evangelical faith and modern art. He begins by tracing the post World War Two parallel rise of modern evangelicalism as an effort to “guard the gospel” and modern art, as an effort to throw off the shackles of tradition and the “double consciousness” artists struggled with, often by either muting faith, or lapsing into sentimentalized art appealing to their faith community. He uses My Name is Asher Lev to discuss one of the fundamental challenges facing the aspiring Christian artist in training: the practice of drawing the nude human figure, both central to the development of artistic skill and raising questions of whether this is proper, and deeper questions about the Christian understanding of the body, and our embodied existence. Building on this, he considers the senses, and how we think about this aspect of our embodied existence as we engage the arts.

He then turns to the conflicts between word and image that have been at the heart of some of the conflict between faith and art, whether it is the iconoclastic movements, ancient and modern, that favor word over image, and the inconsistency of a faith community that denounces icons while creating its own versions of these. He points toward a theology of word and image that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnate Word. He also explores the radical doubts about language in post-modern thought and its appropriation by artists, sometimes portraying the deconstruction of language. Anderson gestures toward a theology in which word and image cohere, and for the possibility of meaning.

He also gestures toward the transcendental of beauty in art, once again contended territory, both by artists who seek to lay bare the exploitive ways beauty has been used, and an evangelicalism focused on goodness and truth to the exclusion of beauty. Against the art world’s often legitimate protest about the manipulation of beauty for tawdry or oppressive purposes, Anderson holds out the possibility of being beholders of beauty, and for the artist of faith, the seeing in beauty, even co-mixed with pain, evil, and suffering, the hand of the Creator. He acknowledges that this may be a quixotic, yet for the faithful artist, necessary endeavor.

Anderson contends that these collisions of faith and art may “reveal a third way, a great vista where biblical and theological reflection–especially the doctrines of creation and incarnation–become the wellspring of inspiration.” Each of his chapters includes models of this kind of biblical and theological reflection that serve, not to give definitive answers, but to point other artists who wrestle with the same tensions toward this “third way” in the practice of their art. Indeed, his conclusion is an invitation to both the church and artists to embrace this work, and for artists to give themselves as called people to the work of culture-making and good studio practice. He writes,

“…the artists whom most of us deem to be successful share a common trait–they do the work. At some point they set romantic ideas about being an artist to the side and commenced doing the artist’s work. Arriving at this place requires one to accept delayed gratification, the awkwardness that is sure to come from making bad art and the reality of negative cash flow. Pushing beyond distraction and discouragement, they accomplished something Herculean–they pushed beyond musing and imagining to establish regular studio practices, to take on habits of making” (p. 252).

Cameron Anderson is executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) and what he offers in this book is nothing less than an analysis of the recent history of the visual arts and the challenges and opportunities for Christians who are called to work in this field. It reflects his lifelong familiarity with the art world and his presence as an leader, teacher and thinker in the Christian community. I might add, both by way of disclosure and appreciation, that I worked closely with Cam in his previous role as national director of InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry, and owe twenty years in a job I love to his influence. I saw parts of an early version of this manuscript, kind of like the blocking in of shapes on a canvas that mark the beginning of a painting. It is a delight to see the finished work, which reflects the deep reflection on faith and art that I had come to appreciate in presentations by Cam, disciplined by extensive research and enriched by years of experience working with visual artists.

[This is the second work in the series Studies in Theology and the Arts. The first volume in the series, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture was reviewed earlier this year at Bob on Books.]

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.