Just back from New York City. Had never visited it, having visited so many, many US cities over the years. San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many Californian points in between (Santa Barbara, Carmel, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Palo Alto…). Portland and Seattle, of course, just down I-5 from Vancouver. Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque; Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Gatlinburg; Abilene, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston; Little Rock, Eureka Springs, Tulsa; Tampa, St. Pete’s, Orlando–but not Miami or Tallahassee; New Orleans and Atlanta, but not much of the South in between or up the coast (except for Sea Island and Greenville, SC); Virginia Beach, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia; and, of course, our beloved upper Midwest: Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Omaha, Rapid City, Des Moines, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and, above all, Chicago.
That leaves a few more American cities unexplored, of course, but oddly I had never been to New York City…until December. Kari and I finally had an occasion to go: to visit our middle son, Joshua, a composer who is attempting to move from Vancouver’s tiny musical theatre scene to the Greatest Shows on Earth.
We did it up right, as Kari insists we do: only a few days, but we toured Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Empire State Building, the Public Library, Rockefeller Centre, the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, the big stores and a few boutiques, and we even took in a show. A splendid whirlwind.
Last weekend, I was back already. Lecturing and preaching to smart and spiritual Presbyterians up in Darien, CT, I extended my trip a couple of days and Josh and I did a little more touring: the American Museum of Natural History and the “Cubism” exhibit at the Met, and then jazz up at a club in Harlem, recommended by friend Steve Bell. We also hunted for a new apartment for him and his friends. And on my last night, we went to dinner with artist Makoto Fujimura and his assistant (and my former student), artist Debra Fung.
Mako and I met through his coming to teach at Regent College a few years ago. We’ve had several conversations since. But Tuesday night Josh and I toured the space of Mako’s International Arts Movement tucked away in Midtown, and then we adjourned across the street for a Szechuan hot pot feast.
We talked first about my upcoming move to Crandall University and how he is enjoying getting more involved with Cairn University, a similarly ambitious school near Philadelphia. Both schools aim at greater quality of piety and scholarship, and particularly to help students not only feel and think as Christians, but to head out into the world and act like Christians as well.
I tend to interact with culture in terms of ethical discourse and particularly in the fields of law, education, religion, politics, and popular media. Mako is best known for his encouragement of artists. We both want Christians to more fully, critically, and boldly undertake shalom-making (one of my favourite phrases) and culture care (one of Mako’s).
The conversation turned to our recent visit to the Met. I noted that the curators had done us the service of grouping Braque and Picasso together so that one could see clearly their relationship, both the sharings and the differences. A subsequent gallery displayed the work of Juan Gris, whose art then stood out as a bolder, more colourful, but still rather derivative outflow of the original genius of the others. And the fourth Cubist, Fernand Leger, properly ended the exhibit as he pointed the way toward Futurism, pop art, and more.
Mako then recalled an exhibit he had seen in Philadelphia that lined up self-portraits of Picasso and Rembrandt. Picasso’s, he said, became more and more empty, as if he were disappearing, while Rembrandt’s became golden, almost luminescent, in his relatively old age.
I recalled reading Michael Jones’s powerful essay on Degenerate Moderns, in which he accuses Picasso of a pattern of rendering his succession of paramours quite realistically lovely in the early, infatuation stage of the relationship, only to turn them into various forms of monster by the end—portraits for which no woman conceivably would thank her portrayer. Mako nodded at this, and we agreed that Picasso, whose talent was boundless, was yet sometimes hollow and frightening. Indeed, Mako said, he was like a black hole, sucking in everyone else, leaving nothing and no one.
That set Mako off on a reflection about artistic absence. Earlier in the conversation he had spoken of Japanese negation and self-abnegation in particular…how sentences could be reversed at the very end by the Japanese equivalent of adding “not.” He spoke later of Marcel Duchamp, of the sublime “Nude Descending a Staircase” and the hilarious toilet-as-“Fountain” (to which I could not help but add, “Ceci n’est pas un potty”)—who withdrew from public exhibition for years into a devotion to chess, only for his art to then emerge with fresh power in a more receptive milieu.
Likewise, Mako said, Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds of poems and stashed them away in her room, to be found by her sister only after her death. We recalled Van Gogh’s ignominy, and Kierkegaard’s, and others whose work would have to await appreciation only posthumously. (Indeed, were it not for Mendelssohn, who knows how long it would have taken for Bach himself to be recognized as something other than an organ virtuoso?)
That conversation about absence and innovation and death reminded me of several essays I’ve read of late that declare that painting is, effectively, dead: there is nothing new to do, and thus everything is just a repeat of the past. I asked Mako why novelty of style was necessary to declare art alive. If someone were to paint, say, the Brooklyn Bridge over twelve successive mornings in the style of Monet’s haystacks, why would she be condemned (as she almost certainly would be) as wasting everyone’s time with mere mimicking of a long-dead master? If she painted them well, wouldn’t they still be valuable art?
Indeed, why would Monet’s second, third, and fourth haystack pictures not be tossed as merely derivative of the first one…while, instead, art lovers thrill to seeing a whole group of them at the Met or the Musée d’Orsay?
I remembered my professor of music history telling me that J. S. Bach had pretty much done all that could be done with Baroque, so it was time to move on. It was as if Bach (and, to be sure, his progeny) “used up” the style and thus Haydn, Mozart, et alia had to create another style in order to create worthy music.
This idea has always struck me as bizarre. Granted that musical styles are, in many respects, organically connected with their times—a minuet simply “fits” powdered wigs and satin shoes with big buckles—still, why couldn’t a composer in the nineteenth century devote himself to new themes in counterpoint, or a twentieth-century composer write a Romantic symphony, or a composer in our own day explore Renaissance polyphony? Were fad and fashion that dictatorial? “You can write only in the following styles or fail to be taken seriously”?
No more sonnets because everything that can be said in those fourteen lines has been said? No more epics or haiku? No more Gothic cathedrals or Prairie Style houses?
Mako responded that he has long enjoyed bringing the ancient Japanese style of nihonga to bear on contemporary themes. (In fact, Debra, a skilled sculptor already, is learning the art, and showed us some of her experimental exercises at the IAM space.) He feels no obligation to develop some new form as the legitimation of his work, but sees art as needing no such legitimation. “Make something beautiful, profound, true,” he seems to say: “that’s what matters.”
I was reminded of contemporary icon painters, delighted to be learning the centuries-old traditions and working gladly within them, the very lack of novelty confirming the glory of walking in the ancient paths.
Mako then made me a lovely present of his new book, Culture Care. I marvelled at its extraordinary design, and particularly its double-cover, a translucent dust jacket (Mako called the material “vellum”) that both veiled and revealed the title and author’s name.
I turned it over and was startled by what wasn’t there.
No blurbs. No sales pitch. No author’s bio. No price or ISBN. Nothing.
Mako wanted a book that looked a certain way, and he therefore had to publish it with a friendly private press in order to avoid the trappings (and the traps) of conventional commercial printing. The book therefore costs about 50% more than it would have otherwise. But it is, truly, beautiful. And it thus is, itself, a work of art reinforcing the values set out within.
The hot pot had, by this time, long since bubbled over from the spicy side to the bland side, and we had all eaten as much as our tongues and tummies could comfortably endure. So we rose to go—to the relief of the waiters, who had quietly been readying the room for the next day, as we were the last patrons of the evening. And we exited into the cool New York night.
After embraces all ’round, Mako headed for his car to make the hour-long drive back to his home in Princeton. Josh and I walked Debra to her subway stop, and then moved on to our hotel near Times Square.
And how ridiculous did ridiculous Times Square look after such a conversation.
And how deeply glad I am that Makoto Fujimura, and Debra Fung, and Joshua Stackhouse are dedicating themselves to gifting the world with much, much better things to see and hear.