The Road Behind Us
Image’s Founding Generation
When Image was founded in 1989, the cultural landscape looked different than it does today. Religious writers and artists felt cold-shouldered in the public square and often ill at ease within the church. The need for a journal that demonstrated the continuing vitality of contemporary art informed by faith—art that upheld high standards, grappled directly with historic faith traditions, and avoided false uplift—seemed more or less obvious. We asked several members of Image’s founding generation, writers across a number of disciplines, what they see as having changed over those years, whether there’s still a need for a venue like Image, and what our new calling might be.
From Culture War to Culture Care
IN 1995, AT DILLON GALLERY in SoHo, I held my first exhibit in New York City, a two-person show with my friend Hiroshi Senju. At that time, the prevailing bias was that if you created something beautiful or decorative, it was automatically rejected. Beauty was out, and despite underground whispers like David Hickey’s eloquent defense of beauty in The Invisible Dragon, an artist was not to touch on the subject.
To me, though, the challenge was not articulating a defense of beauty as much as responding to my call to create, and figuring out how my Nihonga technique (a Japanese style of painting I had apprenticed in for seven years as a National Scholar in Japan) would be applied to contemporary art. I exhibited paintings filled with azurite and malachite minerals, gold and silver. And I gave my first artist’s talk, explaining the method that Hiroshi and I had learned at Tokyo University of Fine Arts, and why I use these extravagant materials.
Then, I quoted Isaiah 61:3, in which the prophet says that the Lord has sent him to:
provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
I said that my Nihonga materials point to the “crown of beauty instead of ashes.” I probably transgressed against multiple laws of contemporary art with that one statement. The dark waters of the New York art world shimmered, and I could feel predatory fins circling.
But I survived. I worked to build International Arts Movement (which I first started in Japan) to help steer the communal conversation between art, faith, and culture. I began to publish a few of my essays in our monthly newsletter.
Greg Wolfe contacted me after reading one of those essays. He invited me to write my first piece for Image, “River Grace,” a testimonial of my falling into faith in Christ while studying Nihonga. For me, a product of Bucknell University, where writing was just as central as painting, this was a deep encouragement. For a bi-cultural person like me, writing has always been a struggle, in any language, and yet Greg recognized in me a writer as well as a painter. That essay, with others Greg later invited me to try, launched my writing journey.
I invited Greg to participate in an IAM conference, where he spoke on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I took notes. He said something like, “if you ever feel a sense of disaffection or dislocation, read the Four Quartets.” Reading Eliot transformed his life, he said.
In early 2001 Image and IAM collaborated on a conference at New York University called “The Return of Beauty.” We invited Elaine Scarry, the author of On Beauty and Being Just, to speak. She was delighted that we had created an audience to tap into the “metaphysical mysteries.” An artist friend recently told me that beauty returned to New York City soon after.
I do not take credit for bringing beauty back to New York, but I am grateful for my calling to paint and write for the glory of God in the midst of a city of confluence. Image became a sanctuary, a place to find my footing in fast-moving waters.
It was, of course, Greg who I contacted after 9/11 when I was turned into a Ground Zero resident, living a few blocks away from the towers, in a fog of trauma, furiously trying to keep my sanity by writing what ended up being “Fallen Towers and the Art of Tea,” an essay Greg published in Image and then included in its twentieth-anniversary anthology, Bearing the Mystery. Throughout the post-9/11 fog, I carried the Four Quartets with me, reading them aloud in the subways (not really a strange thing to do in a New York City subway). Often I did not know which direction the train was headed, whether to Brooklyn where we were exiled or to my studio below Canal Street. My head, as well as my heart, was deep in Eliot’s “East Coker”:
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark…
I emailed Greg and asked him to guide me through the poem. He sent back a long reply, answering some of my questions and giving me a list of other books, including Dante, to read. They were my roadmap out of Ground Zero’s ash-filled mud. My post-9/11 journey began in Eliot and Dante. I spent a decade responding through my work as an artist.
Image awoke in me a sense of the collaborative nature of our salvation. Salvation has to do with baptism, both by water and by fire. Jesus saves us, and then sends friends for a journey toward the dark waters.
Soon after those foggy days, as I organized a makeshift gallery space called Tribeca Temporary (I wrote about this in “Fallen Towers”), a place where artists could gather and create, I received a call from the White House. They wanted to interview me for the position of chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. My first question was whether Dana Gioia was still being considered. “I don’t think I am the right person for this job,” I said, “but I know Dana is.”
They later asked me to serve on the National Council on the Arts, working with Dana as a volunteer. I then spent six and a half years helping him, traveling around the country, and representing US interests in the reentry of the US into UNESCO in Paris, and being on the first official cultural delegation to China since the Nixon days.
Leaving Ground Zero to jump into national and international cultural rivers was at times thrilling, at times deeply discouraging. I’ve learned much from Dana. Most artists, I found out, have become bottom dwellers, catfish, eating anything they can find in the pollution-infested waters of consumer-driven culture just to survive. The waters shift unpredictably from day to day, and wide-ranging storms sweep through, throwing up dangerous debris of dehumanization. I learned to swim toward the storms rather than away from them, as is the propensity of artists. The key, I found, is to keep swimming until you find the storm’s eye, the “still point of the turning world” (to again invoke Eliot).
Once in an appropriations meeting, someone asked Dana about funding religious organizations. He replied that the NEA should fund all of the arts and serve all Americans. “Last time I looked,” he said, “there were still many religious folks left in America.” Dana’s estuary accommodated diverse thinkers, from Nat Hentoff to William Safire. As a Catholic believer, he found in his faith not monolithic walls of protection against culture, but a journey of imagination, with Eliot’s “still point” as his anchor.
Dana called the NEA “the Poland of the culture wars: everyone wants to fight on your turf, but no one cares about its inhabitants.” In Washington, I watched him diligently work the aisles, quoting Shakespeare and Longfellow (often an entire poem) to house members and senators, convincing them that their constituency needed the arts. He reinvigorated the Jazz Masters Awards. Leaders who opposed the NEA would change their minds after they got to know Dana.
I have come to think of what Dana did in Washington to quell the strife of the culture wars as “culture care.” As a poet and former business executive, he spoke peace to the storm, and for a time the storm did abate, even in DC.
What Image has done throughout its twenty-five years is also culture care. The journal has stewarded an estuary of complex influences, a rich biome of expression, and provided a haven for many suffering from war wounds. As with all estuaries, the abundant variety requires careful attention and protection: If an estuary is compromised, then the whole ecosystem suffers. Image is a significant body within the water system of culture. It pulls us toward Eliot’s understanding of culture as “that which makes our lives worth living.”
In this cultural ecosystem that we inhabit, we should assume diversity, even a healthy competition. But a vision for culture care moves beyond Darwinian competition, and beyond complementation: culture care is driven by the generative power of the Spirit, as an ongoing creative act that constantly unsettles and reorders culture. As Greg gave me a map for my post-9/11 journey, Image now is a library of maps for the next generation of artists and writers, showing them how to swim upstream in the waterways of culture. This is not a culture-war victory to celebrate but a lasting change in climate, to the benefit of all.
Makoto Fujimura’s paintings are exhibited around the world and represented by Dillon Gallery. His writing and art have appeared in Image, Books and Culture, and other journals. He is the founder of International Arts Movement and the Fujimura Institute. www.makotofujimura.com
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.