“The Poetics of the Creation”
A Review of
A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture.
by Makoto Fujimura.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
In the beginning / – before space-time – /
was the Word / All that is, then, is true. / Poem. /
Creation is a poem. /
Poem, which is “creation” in Greek and thus /
St. Paul calls God’s Creation POIEMA, / …
Ernesto Cardenal, from Cosmic Canticle
Cardenal’s description of God as Poet, or of the creation as Poetry certainly finds resonance with Makoto Fujimura’s essays (formerly blog entries) compiled in his new book Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture. Fujimura, an artist living in New York and with close ties to Japan, a member of the Village Church and on the National Council for the Arts, has collected a selection of writings first published on his blog into this book that functions as art theory and criticism, theology and apologetics for the church, and a journal of daily life (the “faith, art and culture” of the subtitle). The writings span a broad sample of Fujimura’s thoughts, but add up to a cohesive vision for art and for the church The essays are seemingly “fragments shored against my ruin,” as one of his favorite poets would put it, or, to continue in Cardenal’s poem, “With finite words an infinite meaning.”
One of Fujimura’s beginning premises is that art be about peacemaking. Quoting from Tolstoy, “art should cause violence to be set aside.” Fujimura elaborates that “the Greek word for peacemakers is eirenepoios, which can be interpreted as ‘peace-poets,’ suggesting that peace is a thing to be crafted or made. We need to seek ways to be not just ‘peacekeepers’ but to be engaged ‘peacemakers.’ In such a definition, peace (or the Hebrew word shalom) is not simply the absence of war but a thriving of our lives, where God uses our creativity as a vehicle to create the world that ought to be” (10). The act of peacemaking, then, a well as of art is bound up in a larger vision of ‘reconciling all things.’
Just as art is an act of peacemaking, it is also an act of re-creation, participating in the ‘new heaven and the new earth;’ Fujimura suggests, against the work of medieval painter Far Angelico, that a place to begin is “by bringing eternal grace into our ordinary, earthly days” (145). There is perhaps rich incarnational theologies to derive from the very process of art, content embodied through form, and continual work for a more perfect union of medium and message.
Fujimura writes about artists throughout the world and history, including Andy Goldsworthy, Christi, writer Jane Jacobs, 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu; significantly, all of these artists work within the contexts of larger social or natural systems; Fujimura says of Rikyu: “[he] redefined art as process-driven, integrated with life and peacemaking. To him, art played a significant role in everyday life or ordinary people; it challenged conventionality and the illusion of power” (52), and this might be true of Goldsworthy, Christo, or Jacobs as well. These are artists working visibly within specific places and larger social structure in which art becomes one process in the midst of ‘seeking the welfare of the city.’
A few essays diverge thematically somewhat, such as one on the possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker compared with the Tyson meat packing plant. Although making some poetic observations, such as “we need the ivory-billed woodpeckers in our lives because we need appreciation of that fleeting vision of the beautiful and of what was lost” (119), considering a large number of books I’ve been reading about said food economy, I wish in a case like this Fujimura might have had a little more to say about that “laser beam aimed at [the Tyson chickens’] necks” (110). Additionally, throughout the book, there is a tendency to romanticize nationalist virtues, which made me more than a little uncomfortable, especially when American democracy is bound up too closely with the church, as in chapters such as “’L.I.B.E.S.K.I.N.D.’,” “Nagasaki Koi Voting Booth,” and “Operation Homecoming.”
Fujimura’s collected essays, though, are a welcome reminder of the poetics of the creation, and the recreating process of artmaking. Both an art practice and a theology rooted in peacemaking, in making whole, are to physically embody the desire for reconciliation. “My art reaches for the heavenly via earthly materials … Lest we fail to glimpse the glory of heaven hidden beneath the earth” (28). For a desire to see the peace of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven embodied on earth, Refractions presents many angles on such a vision.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com