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James Allen Walker for WORLD

'Envisioning the future'

Books | Makoto Fujimura says the arts are a 500-year conversation on philosophy and theology

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

It's five years since WORLD named Makoto Fujimura its Daniel of the Year for 2005, so it was time to check on how he has persevered. "Mako" is still living and painting in Manhattan; he finished serving his term on the National Council on the Arts; and he came out last year with Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture (NavPress).

Refractions is a book to give to artists, especially non-Christian ones. It includes philosophy about art, specific detail about the process of painting, and soulful meditations about living and thinking in the moment: "The process of creating renews my spirit, and I find myself attuned to the details of life rather than being stressed by being overwhelmed."

We spoke earlier this year about how creativity led him to Christ. Fujimura said, "If you are gifted in the area of the arts, you're doing something very transcendent in your work. You're creating works that may contain more beauty than you're ready for. You might be an opera singer and you just did a performance that you knew you weren't capable of. Those things can haunt you if you're honest about it, because backstage, you sit there feeling empty, because you can't account for the very transcendence that you possessed."

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Fujimura recalled, "That happened to me over and over, and I got to the point where . . . I became very uncomfortable with just accepting at face value what I was taught in college, and all the assumptions behind postmodernity that were being exposed." In the late 1980s, studying in Japan, he compared three religions: "What surprised me the most about Christianity is that it's utterly consistent. With Buddhism and Shintoism you can't say that. There's a lot of necessary syncretistic cultural accommodation with whatever the belief systems are. In Christianity, over centuries, the message was consistent. That's what surprised me the most. I wasn't expecting that."

When Fujimura became a Christian he did not abandon the Nihonga tradition of art, but viewed it with new eyes: "The Nihonga tradition goes back to the 13th century. It's a medieval way of painting with natural pulverized minerals and paper and silk stretched over a canvas. The pulverized minerals are not perfect: They're prisms that refract. That whole principle has become a centerpiece of how I view my art and my life: We are creating layers and layers of pulverized pigments in our lives. As they build up, they start to refract God's light."

He soon founded the International Arts Movement, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. IAM is "a non-profit arts organization dedicated to seeking a deeper wrestling of art, faith, and humanity. By faith we mean Judeo-Christian faith: People who work with us may or may not be Christian, but we are open to wrestling with them through these deeper issues of culture so that we can be engaged in the culture at large."

Fujimura has engaged American culture by doing paintings-"lamentations," he called them-based on the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the 9/11 tragedy two years later. One of his "refractions" notes that "the fires of September 11 exposed the rules of postmodernism as irrelevant and narcissistic. If you're in the art world you see so much art that is self-expression only, finding that 15 seconds of fame that Andy Warhol talked about. You can only explore yourself so far, and find that it is rather bleak."

Where are we right now? Fujimura says, "The arts are a 500-year conversation. Art is about looking at works by the Angelicos, Michelangelos, and Da Vincis. It's about finding yourself on this path and looking 500 years ahead. If the Lord returns before then, that'll be great, but we have an opportunity to leave something for the next generation and the generation after that: a conversation that is rehumanized and can speak of philosophies and theologies of the past, bringing art as well as science into envisioning the future. Great art will always do that."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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