"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Artist Mako Fujimura Redefines the Bottom Line

Pop quiz! Read the following scenario then answer the question that follows. Your stomach growls as you weave your way through rivers of people on a Manhattan sidewalk. Daylight isn’t the only thing petering out this evening; your bank account mimics the low ebb, along with your blood sugar and your inspiration. But wait! Your circling thoughts halt for a moment, as your gaze lands on an unruly spray of color emanating from a vendor’s stand beside you. Flowers! Nature’s irreverent bursts of exuberance defying the dreary atmosphere all around. Question:How will you spend the last of your funds?
  1. Spring for the flowers and go home to eat a can of tuna for dinner (again)
  2. Remind yourself that flowers don’t taste very good, and walk away from the flowers to hunt down meal materials
For Mako Fujimura, world-renowned Christian artist and founder of the International Arts Movement, a situation just like the scene sketched above incited an unexpected change in his point of view. Thirty years ago, Mako’s wife Judy, then in graduate school, returned one evening to their tiny Connecticut abode with a bouquet (but no groceries) in hand, determined to infuse their environment with some life. Mako recalls his exasperation at his wife’s absurdly impractical purchase. How dare she waste money on flowers? “We have to feed our souls too,” Judy responded. In a flash he knew she was right, and that he was wrong. Mako stopped in his tracks and her words reverberated through his mind—and they have ever since. So here we have the answer key: Kudos if you picked answer “A,” but if you chose “B,” you’re in good company—namely Mako! “But I am the artist!” Mako remembers thinking, simultaneously grateful for his wife’s aesthetic vision and astounded by his own blindness to the importance of beauty, brought on by parsimonious bottom-line thinking. Since that day, Mako has reflected on the power of “generative wastefulness,” which defies the much-discussed logic of sustainability. In a recent Trinity Forum Academy lecture, Mako described the concept of generativity as a model for living integrated lives and caring for our culture. When we face difficulties, he reminded us, we often look for solutions that focus on survival and sustainability, losing our vision and patience for living with ambiguity. This is precisely where artists are supposed to help us think and live generatively. Three principles draw the contours of generativity:
  • Genesis: Artists are often gifted to envision the world anew and create new things. Artists create space where we can absorb and live into the creative vision all around us; a deep look at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” sky, or a fleeting “still point” staked out by the words of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” hold the power to refresh our sight and awaken our proper longing within.
  • Generational: Emily Dickinson represents generational perspective perfectly. Sensing that her poems were meant to speak after her own time on earth, she left her unread poems in a box beneath her bed when she passed away. In Mako’s words, she planted them like a bulb, a gift dedicated to people to come after her. Generative thinking accounts for a “long now,” shunning the tyranny of the immediate.
  • Generous: At their best, artists pour themselves out—ideas, labor and resources—in order to release beauty into the world. Art is not all narcissistic, Mako points out, countering the widespread stereotype of our day. In fact, he argues that when commodification and ego are put aside, an artist’s work is inherently generous.
The last of the three principles struck me most. It took me back to the flower story, and to the realization that Judy Fujimura is not the first faithful woman to catalyze new creativity, healing and possibility through a controversial act of generosity. Mary Magdalene set an example some 2,000 years ago, at the start of the week that turned out to be the hinge-point of eternity. As the story goes:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
And so, with an act of unsustainable, scandalous extravagance, Mary anointed Jesus for Calvary. Taking a cue from our artist friends, we can learn to set today’s schedule, quota or to-do list aside long enough to bask in the beautiful paradox of Easter—that Christ “wasted” his life on people like us, and that our Lord’s unreasonable love sustains us all.