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Art + Faith: A Theology of Making

Makoto Fujimura
Published by Yale University Press in 2021

It may be hard to imagine, but before around 1800, almost every human product in the world was handmade. Every object was unique and wrought with time, sweat, and effort by artisans who had trained decades to master their craft. Most people, therefore, owned very few “artful” objects—maybe a few clothes and a few pictures—many of which became heirlooms, treasured and kept for generations. In fact, before around 1450, even most of the writing in the world was “handmade.” Letters, reference books, Bibles: all bore the indelible hands of their makers and were painstakingly inscribed on natural surfaces, whether layered plant fibers or stretched animal skins. In such a world, everything must have pulsed with presence; everything smelled of blood or tears.

It is difficult for us, in the twenty-first century, to grasp the “feel” of this preindustrial world—the world of almost all of our ancestors. But just consider: in such a “handmade” world, everything in one’s house had been caressed into shape by human fingers. As a result, everything bore its creator’s trace, whether through fingerprints, brushstrokes, or chisel marks. Furthermore, all of these things had been crafted specifically for their place and circumstance, solely and uniquely. This meant that all of them were precious, dear—dear in the dual sense of both expensive and beloved.

Today, however, our lives are filled with factory-made, carbon-copy, disposable products. Consider the phenomenon of “fast fashion”—shabby garments worn once and then thrown away. Or party and holiday décor: colorful and glitzy and meant to last for a season, or less. Or children’s toys handed out in fast-food meals, or advertising swag—things that end up in the trash sometimes minutes after their acquisition. Our world today is one of distraction, surfaces, landfills, and cheapness—crass utilitarianism that can’t see beyond the moment. This is the world that Makoto Fujimura critiques in his new book, Art + Faith: A Theology of Making.

Makoto Fujimura is a successful multimedia artist, a widely published art writer and the founder of IAM Culture Care, formerly known as the International Arts Movement. He is also likely the most prominent American visual artist to grapple directly, devoutly, and prolifically with Christian theology. As a result, he is something of a hero among a rising generation of Christian arts professionals (artists, critics, curators, theologians of the arts) striving to integrate their faith and practice. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s art (combining Japanese Nihonga techniques with American Abstract Expressionism) and his theory of Culture Care (celebrating all artists as “pollinators of the good, true, and beautiful”) share a cosmopolitan allure that is attractive to people of all confessions—or none.

In this book Fujimura articulates an approach to human life that understands all human action as analogous to the artmaking process—which is a handmaking process. For Fujimura, all of our actions ought to be thoughtful, effortful, and intentional—not disposable or automatic, in rapid conformity to social expectations or commercial bottom lines. Because all such thoughtful action participates in the “making” of Fujimura’s title, we can all be “makers” at every moment, no matter our tools or materials. We can “make” even by such humble means as cooking, walking, and listening—as long as our actions heal and redeem. By opening our hearts to meet intuited needs (rather than following slick formulas) we join in the Holy Spirit’s renewing work. We can “make,” in other words, through our gentle, deliberate attentiveness to the needs of the world.

It is important to stress that for Fujimura, such “making” is definitely not “fixing”—erasing flaws to conform to a pre-existing ideal. Rather, “making” is a creation into the New, taking up one’s given materials (whether they be paint, stone, time, or circumstance) and using them toward beauty and healing. As God’s children called to share in Christ’s resurrection life and privileged with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we are not simply to mend what is broken. We are instead to transform, elevate, enrich, expand. Taking his cue from the theologian N. T. Wright (who pens the foreword for the book), Fujimura argues that our goal is not a patchwork return to Eden, but progress toward a new, resurrection kingdom of unforeseen splendors that take up the shards of time and creatively redeem them.

To help us understand this idea of making-as-resurrection (and perhaps all human action-as-resurrection), Fujimura invokes the classic Japanese art form of kintsugi. In kintsugi practice, precious ceramics that have been broken (often Japanese tea bowls) are restored with bonds of lacquer and gold. The result is a new object—an augmented one—whose still-visible cracks and breaks have been made beautiful. Because Japanese tea bowls are very precious and personal objects, often felt to be irreplaceable, kintsugi has been an important Japanese practice for centuries.

Fujimura’s suggestive invocation of kintsugi illustrates the fruitfulness of ancient Japanese aesthetic principles for combatting today’s “throwaway” culture. In recent centuries, Western industrialism and commercialism have promoted disposability and planned obsolescence on a global scale. In the face of this onslaught, Japan has retained, and even developed (sometimes under the surface), an ancient sensibility that treasures the unique and handmade—together with a knowledge of how craftsmanship resurrects and transforms. Japan, notably, resisted the march of modern industrialism far longer than many other developed countries, opening its borders to the global economy only in 1854. The Nihonga school in which Fujimura was trained, in fact, is a synthesis of ancient techniques purposely codified around the year 1900 in order to resist Western trends and shortcuts. With its painstaking methods and its devotion to difficult natural materials, Nihonga is “slow art”—open, attentive, reverent—for a hurried and distracted world. It can be understood, in fact, as the influential predecessor of contemporary “slow” movements in general, including “slow fashion” and “slow food.”

Since their first modern contact with Japan in 1854, Western culture makers have been reckoning in fits and starts with the implications of classical Japanese aesthetics. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were famously inspired by the compositional techniques of imported Japanese woodcuts. The American Catholic artist John La Farge, who visited Japan in 1886, worked with the Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo to popularize the spirit of the Japanese tea ceremony—with its attention to the moment and its focus on small, simple joys. In the mid-twentieth century, the Abstract Expressionist painter Franz Kline channeled the austere, autographic spirit of Japanese Zen painting into his large black and white canvases. Meanwhile concepts like “wabi sabi” (celebrating the weathered and rustic) and “mono no aware” (a sort of melancholy regard for the ephemeral) have become popular in Western design circles. There is even a Wabi Sabi Magazine.

In the face of Western industrialism, all of these things have cried out in support of the unique and the slow: the woodcut artists’ humble details, La Farge’s Shinto-Catholic spirituality, Kakuzo’s celebrated “way of tea,” Kline’s layered surfaces, and designers’ turn toward the organic and rusticated. Yet while some early theorists made oblique connections between religion and Japanese aesthetic principles (a few Arts-and-Crafts-era writers come to mind), no one has striven as thoroughly as Fujimura to synthesize this spirit of “making” with the major outlines of the Christian faith.

“All truth is God’s truth,” goes the famous phrase, variously attributed to John Calvin, St. Augustine, and the philosopher Arthur Holmes. The cross-cultural work of Makoto Fujimura, which discovers Christian meaning in ancient Japanese practices, puts this principle into action. And indeed, Fujimura is adamant that all true art, regardless of the beliefs of its creators, participates in the generative power of the Holy Spirit. This is because all true art, like the practice of kintsugi, resurrects broken matter (even pulverized matter, in the case of natural pigments) into something glorious, eye-opening, New. In this regard, all true artists honor the resurrected Christ who, as Fujimura points out, bore the wounds of his crucifixion in his resurrected flesh. Artists, like God Himself, gather and honor and keep. In a culture of easy disposability, they cherish and foster rebirth.

And because we are all, in some sense, “makers,” we can all be artists of rebirth. Thanks to its embrace of all kinds of human expression, Fujimura’s concept of “making” can be understood as a fundamental heuristic for all properly Christian action. It offers a powerful lens through which to understand both the Christian story and our individual roles in its unfolding. God, of course, is the first—and really only—Maker, having fashioned all that exists in its beauty. As dependent creatures, our making can only, ever, echo God’s original work. Nevertheless, in our small way, we can “make new” through love and healing—by stopping to listen perhaps, or by sharing a spontaneous meal. Every time we lean into the future with eyes and hearts open, attentive to circumstance, we can “make” alongside God in the slow redemption of the world.

But we are also surrounded by unmaking—by actions that press reality toward crudely pre-conceived ends. Since the murder of Abel—a delusional shortcut to God’s favor—such unmaking has been wounding, slashing, igniting, shattering. For Fujimura, an erstwhile New Yorker, this unmaking appeared most vividly, perhaps, on September 11, 2001. And it continues at every moment, both in acts of outward destruction and in the simmering contempt that dwells in human hearts.

Yet God anticipated all of this, and Christ’s life embodied it, embraced it, redeemed it. Christ’s death and resurrection both figured and contained the experience of evil—along with its ultimate defeat. The Word “was made man”—a thing made—and was utterly subject to the shattering violence of evil, even descending into the loveless void of Hell. But he was then re-created (in his resurrection) in a form newly splendid and impervious. Moreover, this form—this resurrection body—did not deny the pain it had suffered, but rather transfigured it, galling completely the forces evil with their lust to mar. In Christ’s resurrection body the wounds of the crucifixion—vindictive scratches on the face of God—were no longer grotesqueries, but marks of love, summoning trust, such that Thomas could see and joyfully believe.

Fujimura’s project suggests, I think, where modern Christianity must go to reclaim its birthright. In recent decades the practice of Christian faith (particularly the Protestant, evangelical kind) has been corrupted by commercialism and industrialism. It has become associated with mass-produced pamphlets, slicksters in business suits, churches that look like shopping malls, and an obsession with quantity over quality. In the realm of political discourse, it has become associated with shallow sloganeering—the verbal equivalent of the mass-produced tchotchke, eye-catching, and easily trashed.

In addition, and perfectly in keeping with our shallow, high-promising, capitalist ethos, recent Christianity has ignored the reality of pain. It has striven to ignore brokenness, to run away from ugliness and to gloss over trauma in its wild-eyed, wide-smiling efforts to attract followers. Shiny, new churches promise quick fixes and easy answers—and bloat with hopeful bodies, for a time—but they lack the tools to grapple with the deepest human hurt. They do not take the time, or acknowledge the subtlety, necessary for matching up our jagged edges and mending them with gold.

Meanwhile—and intriguingly—the contemporary art world itself wrestles with the concept of “making.” It is worth noting that since about the 1960s, the world’s leading artists (figures like the Pop artist Andy Warhol, Minimalists like Donald Judd, conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth, and post-Pop celebrities like Jeff Koons) have upended the notion of artmaking as fundamentally craft—that is, gathering and reconfiguring in beauty. Through ever-more ingenious aesthetic case studies (inspired by the early experiments of Marcel Duchamp), these artists turned the ship, pointing the art-world vessel, as it were, toward audiences and their capacity to be manipulated. Artworks ceased to be precious objects whose inner properties and textures were summoned and celebrated and became instead polished surfaces for simple messaging. Later movements toward “activist art” and “shock art” only extended this tendency, though toward different moral ends.

In this regard, Makoto Fujimura’s art (and his philosophy of making) are decidedly conservative. Many of Fujimura’s materials and techniques derive from centuries-old Japanese traditions. His other great artistic influence, Abstract Expressionism, is also a bit “old school,” having been rejected as pie-eyed and melodramatic by many critics. Nevertheless, Abstract Expressionism is the last great modernist movement to have been truly earnest in its devotion to deep craftsmanship and serendipitous collaboration with one’s medium (rather than heavy-handed manipulation). It’s no wonder Fujimura has been able to combine these movements to such satisfying effect.

Through his art, writing, and leadership, Makoto Fujimura encourages us all, in some sense, to be similarly “conservative.” For Fujimura consumer capitalism, with its shortcuts and rationalizations, has been an intrinsically corrupting force, and Christians’ efforts to assimilate it have been deeply wounding. A better way forward must involve a rediscovery of ancient wisdoms—a renewed understanding of the basic conditions, winnowed through millennia of human striving, that obtained at the time Jesus walked, and at many other times besides. In a plastic world such as ours, blind to the spirit of land and labor, even the simplest biblical metaphors (about seeds, sparrows, wheat, and chaff) lose their force, as Fujimura eloquently discusses. To embrace a theology of “making,” then, is to reclaim the human experience—an experience raised to divine heights when God became man.

But history marches forward; we cannot turn back the clock. Fujimura’s own art combines elements developed centuries apart, and his book is a cry for the “New.” How, then, can late-modern consumer capitalism itself be redeemed—at least in certain particulars? Which of its mechanisms can be made innocent and pure? And if our environment and our bodies have been ravaged by certain consumerist abuses, what of our spirits? As the art world (and increasingly social media) shows, I think we are now a people marked by tender, over-sensitive, hyper-vigilance in the face of aesthetic messaging. This reaction has been honed through years of defensiveness against sensory manipulation and against the erosion of personal space and privacy. How can even this hyper-vigilance, this acute sensitivity, be redeployed to heal? If we are all raw nerves, in this age of assaulting plenty, how can we lovingly brandish even these wounds as Christ brandished his?

Katie Kresser

Seattle Pacific University
Katie Kresser is Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University.