“What do you want to make today?” (Click here to see the video)
For Biola University Commencement Address (for undergraduates), 2012
At Beacon High School, a creative charter school in New York City, an incoming freshman class enter first into an art room located at the center of the school. And the first and only question posed to them is “what do you want to make today?”
My daughter had interest in this school, so on a spring day over five years ago, we toured the school near Lincoln Center. We were ushered in by student leaders who gave the tours and many of the class sessions were lead by them; and the first room you must enter is the art room, again, located in the center of the school.
The art teacher proceeded to say that it usually takes several months for a student to answer that simple question: “What do you want to make today?” It’s not an easy question to answer, if we are used to doing what we are expected to do to graduate or to pass this portion of the class. We live in a pragmatic, utilitarian world in which our “bottom line” questions usually deal with questions of usefulness or profitablity; often these decisions are made in a Darwinian competition of who can win out the battle to be the most powerful, to take what you can out of life. In the scarcity mindset of such a de-humanized system, we usually ask “what can I take from you today?” What do I take from others, or to do as little as I can to get the maximum results, and we do not ask “What do you want to make today?”
The teacher went on to say that when the student does decide, let’s say, to pursue photography, then a series of questions follows: “What type of photography?” “Why photography?” “What are you trying to say through your photograph?” Whatever the students end up answering these long lists of questions, they are then relayed to other teachers. Thus a math and physics teacher will take up a conversation on optics, and refraction; a history teacher will show how photography has changed since it’s early silver print days; and a chemistry teacher will help guide the student to understand how the chemical reactions induce remarkable results in those rare silver print photography. The teacher told us that indeed his best art student was now pursuing chemistry with a Columbia university professor, and he considered this student as his greatest success as an art teacher.
Imagine that - answering a simple question can lead to spending four years discovering, pursuing answers.
“What do you want to make today,” is not just a question, it is inquiry, it is a way of life.
Now, you might be sitting there and thinking: “Well, isn’t that wonderful…so idealistic.” Or you might be sitting there excited, with me with and the other parents wondering “can I enroll here?” To both of these reactions, I should note that Beacon High School faces many challenges like every public high school in New York City faces, and though the results are very good, as far as children graduating and going on to colleges successfully, there is a gap between the ideal and reality.
One must pause and ask, though, why is this question so resonant to many teens in New York City that many desire to go here, even if the parents think it is idealistic?
Imagine sitting in that art room, full of art materials mixed with the smell of coffee and freshly baked cookies, like colorful paint, large glue jars and scissors neatly lined up and ready to go; you are surrounded by materials and technology design to help your creative thinking.
You are 13, wondering to yourself “who am I? And what am I to do with myself?” In a confused daze of our chaotic lives, when have you had someone ask you “What do you want to make today?” It’s disarming. Many of these children sitting in the room, including my daughter, survived 9/11, and were “Ground Zero” residents. If you have been traumatized, or simply caught in the degenerative spiral of negativity that pervades our culture, what kind of hope does that question provide?
On the morning of 9/11, the terrorists answered the question “What do you want to make today?” with evil vengeance; the world they desired was a world full of Ground Zeros, and they exercised their imagination to bring down all hope and aspirations of thousands of people with destructive acts of terrorism. They were using their imaginations.
Ironically, the shock of that morning surpassed all of the Shock Art created by contemporary artists of the 90’s. The artists found that the reality was far more cruel, far more bleak and far more destructive than any single artist could ever depict.
To ask “what do you want to make today?” is not an idealist’s escape from reality. To ask “what do you want to make today?” is a quiet resistance against the destructive fears dominating our world; refusing to submit to the inevitability of corruption in our ideologies.
On 9/11, two forces of imagination collided: on the one hand, destructive imaginators who imagined over and over their destruction, and on the other hand men and women who imagined and trained themselves to risk their lives, to climb up the falling towers. The rescue workers’ art was in their supreme, heroic sacrifice. 9/11 made it abundantly clear to me that both are works of imagination. We swim in the ecosystem of imagined actions. Our imagination forces us every moment to choose Life or Death.
“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” The God of the Bible implores us (Deuteronomy 30), “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
When we answer the question, “What do you want to make today?” we can choose life. We must have faith in the future to create; hope is the base material, a foundational reality of what is to be built, whether it be on the ashes of Ground Zero, or in the classroom of a charter school, or in any of your future endeavors.
On the way back in a taxi from Beacon High school tour with my daughter, I had a revelation. What if, I asked myself, our churches asked the same question, “What do you want to make today?” What if every single person harkening the church door on Sunday morning were asked the same question? “What do you want to make today?” What if the church was ready to respond to the answers given with resources and a network of experts? What if?
We serve a Creator God, and this Creator created us to also be creative. In the same way that God gave Adam the authority to name the animals in Genesis 2, God invites his children to co-create within God’s parameters. We cannot create ex nihilo, but we are all artists with a small “a,” and we are asked to work through our brokenness and fears. We are created for love; and love is creative. So what would happen if every single person who follows this Creator asked the same question “What do I want to create?” And further, if we became an ambassador to the world to help ask, “What do you want to create, and how can I help you?” What if we answered this question filled with the Creative, Holy Spirit of God every moment that we are awake, and helped others to do the same? Would we have a world more beautiful, compassionate, caring and daring? Would we see our occupations differently? Would we see our universities differently? Would we see our motherhood, our fatherhood, our brotherhood and sisterhood differently?
My sister-in-law is an accountant, and she recently told me that when she has the numbers all organized in the right way, she finds a thrill, and a kind of beauty presented in the numbers. No matter what we are called to do, we are not only Homo Sapiens, but we are Homo Faber. We are marked with our capacity to make, and we are artists in that sense.
So today I ask you, the graduating students of Biola, “What do you want to make today?” It’s a question posed to those leaving a school instead of being asked as you enter one. Deep questions of life are the same whether you are at a starting point or at an ending point. Would you make today a future that is worth beholding? Will you choose to dedicate your days to creating a world that is worth passing onto your children?
Do not be washed away in apathy, entropy and decay. Instead of threatening the world with terrorism, and deny the fundamental endowed capacity to create in love, we need, in the quiet of your daily service, give sacrifice so that others may live. Art and love are fundamentally the same act, operating on the same sphere of our lives. You see, art is not a frivolous, peripheral activity, but it has to do with the deepest core of existence; it is to love yourself, and your neighbors. Art defines what makes us human; and fully human, we will be making things.
We either create toward that love or away from that love; if we sit Idle to this reality, we abdicate our responsibility to steward culture: to say that we do not create, while consuming culture all the time, is to let the commercial forces determine our identity as a nation.
So instead of consuming, go and create. Be an entrepreneur, a nurse, a teacher, a missionary, an engineer, a politician, a scientist or a chef. Are you called to the arts? Do not forget to learn to ask yourself “what do you want to make today?” I find that artists are guilty of not asking this question today. Art has become a kind of game you play in an elitist circle, divorced from everyday concerns. Artists are more concerned with “being in the right circles” to be recognized, rather focusing on creating art that only they can do. By the way, if anyone, institution, ideology or an art school crit tells you that you cannot use the word “creative,” transgress. But if you must transgress to make a point, do transgress in love.
Choosing life is to create; to create is to love. “What do you want to make today?”
I am asked when I tell this story, “What did your daughter end up doing?” She was accepted by Beacon, but chose to go to a different school, a Quaker based school whose mission statement is to “do more than prepare students for the world that is: we help them bring about the world that ought to be.” So she could not escape the idealism. As I am proud of her, I am sure your parents are proud of you today. Congratulations, and may our lives be marked by choosing life, to create in love, even standing on the ashes of our ground zero conditions.
Makoto Fujimura, May, 2012