Recently, I visited my father in Japan.
My father is a pioneer in acoustics, phonetics research. I was born in Boston as my father was doing his post-doc research there with Noam Chomsky. My father’s Ph.D. thesis was to bring Chomsky’s generative grammar theory to Japan.
We were discussing the ontological reality of beauty, and my father said:
“That will be a good thesis for the Fujimura Institute: Art, Love and Beauty.”
I almost wept. His words seem to bridge, in three words, all of the division, fragmentation and loss that I battle against every day as an artist and a follower of Christ. These three words seem to be a soothing balm into the wounds of Culture Wars, a balm to my experience that the arts has been culturally orphaned by the world and the church.
The Fujimura Institute is part of International Arts Movement’s effort to “wrestle deeply with issues of art, faith and humanity.” The Fujimura Institute is, initially, a private effort to gather my art, my thoughts and my loves. In doing so I desire to honor my father and mother, and my brother, who is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I am grateful to them for nurturing and supporting my creativity. As I often note, I know it is unusual today to have Asian parents and a computer science engineer brother encourage you to be an artist.
When I told my father years ago that I would like to try to make it as an artist, he said, “Oh, that’s what I wanted to become.”
How unusual: But should it be?
We live in a time and in a culture in which it is nearly impossible to be a full-time artist. When I lecture, I ask people how many of them know a full-time artist who makes a living from their art. Typically, almost no hands go up.
I then say, “I am an endangered species in need of protection, facing extinction.”
I have been making a case in these Culture Care lectures that artists are in need of care and protection. Protection from what? One of the greatest threats to the species called “artist” is the over-commodification of art; just as industries pollute our rivers and air, we live in the Beijing-like smog of culture. This smog comes from a disconnect we have in culture, and the overriding assumptions that determine many decisions made today from boardrooms to homes-what I call utilitarian pragmatism.
Utilitarian pragmatism chokes out art, love and beauty. Before I define this term, let me say that I am neither against utility nor against pragmatism. I like my technology. I am glad we have advanced medicine. I am glad for my Prius. But utilitarian pragmatism is the assumption -an implicit and explicit bottom line- that says that survival and practicality are the only things that are important, that our resources are limited so we must compete for our territories and even fight for them. I disagree.
In the introductory booklet on Culture Care that is now available on Amazon (all proceeds to benefit IAM), I note:
The assumption behind utilitarian pragmatism is that human endeavors are only deemed worthwhile if they are useful to the whole, whether that be a company, family or community. In such a world, those who are disabled, those who are oppressed, or those who are without voice are seen as “useless” and disposable. We have a disposable culture that has made usefulness the sole measure of value. This metric declares that the arts are useless. No-the reverse is true. The arts are completely indispensable precisely because they are useless in the utilitarian sense.
The other key obstacle to art, love and beauty is epistemological. Epistemology is the philosophical inquiry of knowing. That’s a big word, but we have a friend to the Institute who will help us to navigate through this: Prof. Esther Meek, a philosopher. In her book called Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology, she writes this:
Consider the following example. Businesses and corporations often produce technical manuals of their procedures. Entry into the company requires reading the manual. But the question is: is the manual all there is to the kind of knowledge that drives that business? Does it even resemble knowledge? Businesses run into real problems, as their executives retire, finding people qualified to replace them. Why is this, if everyone has to read the manual? They also run into problems finding people who reliably produce new and good ideas. Could this be because people presume you follow an explicit procedure to come up with a new idea? Revising one’s epistemology, then, holds the prospect of very concretely impacting the bottom line. (p. 16)
Esther notes that we need an “epistemological therapy”! She is speaking here of business culture, but this can be directly applied to the arts culture. We have made art’s “knowing” into a conceptual grid, a virtual transaction. Art, love and beauty can truly grow only in an organic, human, relational, communal context. In response to Esther’s book’s title, I will go further. Enduring art cannot be created without a covenantal community.
One would think that churches - as one of the highest forms of covenantal communities - would embrace the role of being welcoming vessels of art making and creation. The churches, as a covenantal communities, should create great art. They were, once; we have the da Vinci’s and Michelangelo’s to prove that. But I want to raise a question to Christians here:
Is your church known to strangers and enemies for “art, love and beauty”?
Do they say that “I do not agree with your views, but I love your art, and thank you for loving me”?
I argue that if not, we have much work to do. We need an epistemological therapy for the churches as well.
In these lectures, and in all of our future activities for International Arts Movement, the board will begin to implement some of these thoughts. What I desire to do is to lead the way toward art, love and beauty through our practice of “epistemological therapy,” toward the larger work of Culture Care. I believe that artists can lead the way to this. As endangered as we are, we still are around. We can begin to speak an integrated language, and draw upon our covenantal community to help the church and the world move toward art, love and beauty.
I am pleased that we can journey forward with someone who I am grateful is part of this lecture series, Fujimura Institute’s first fellow, Pete Candler. Many of you know Pete as a popular professor at Baylor University, but now he is striking out on his own, leaving his tenureship behind him, to be a writer. You heard his affecting stories of how academia needs this “epistemological therapy” as well at the last IAM conference.
In the ensuing lectures I look forward to develop this thesis with you. I will address aesthetic, theological and practical perspectives. I will do this on monthly basis, and the dates will be posted as they become available.
I also look forward to a larger, public discourse with you on the banner thesis of Culture Care, which is the overall theme for International Arts Movement. Let me thank you for your attention, and let me take some questions.
Next “Art, Love and Beauty” lecture will be on 1/30/14 at IAM Space 38|39 in the evening. Please go to www.internationalartsmovement.org for updates.