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The thorny embrace: art and religion


Makoto Fujimoro is a painter of startlingly beautiful abstract paintings. As far as I can tell, he’s not just an inventive painter but a wonderfully exemplary man. He is devoutly religious and explicitly bridges his art to his faith–something lots of folks, as it happens, do in Asheville as well, though in a more laissez-faire manner. When he speaks, or others on website speak of the Holy Spirit, I am hardly an inch away from my New Age or metaphysical friends who speak of the same spirit or spirits. The difference is that the former is cross-stitched with an institutional embroidery of dogma, and for me, alas, is clouded by the dark haze of an adolescent crash and burn with church.


In a lecture years ago called Modern Gold, I talked about Fujimoro’s work. He employs at times a lavish snowfall of gold. The point of that talk, as I recall, was to point out a resistance to gold in modern art (Gustav Klimt being a prominent exception) because of its unwanted spiritual, or metaphysical associations.


Abstraction carries the same stigma. As one may see with early 20th century painters like Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian and so many others, the origin of modern abstraction was itself deeply spiritual, most explicitly laid out in Kandinsky’s famous, slightly muddled book, On the Spiritual in Art. The psychotherapy of Carl Jung arose in the same European context of viewing the mind as deeper than the topsoil of reason alone, discerning in traditions of mysticism universal hallmarks of what came to be known as the unconscious or the subconscious. Though Jung had deep qualms about God, set forward in his great short book, Answer to Job (in which God needs, and cruelly uses, man for his redemption, not the other way around) his defense of mysticism, like the users of gold and the makers of abstraction, was a drastic new note in a monotone symphony of secular pragmatism.


The paradox for a religious artist is that her own community is apt to be more hostile to her work than the gatekeepers of any secular milieu. My own country preacher-grandfather thought that modern art was satanic. Consequently, most religious art now, lacking much indigenous nutrition, is mediocre and derivative. Christian rock music, U2 excepted, is as awful as almond milk. Religious artists I know wonder where their collective Giotto/Michelangelo/Bach mojo went and why their own people have turned against them. Western art, they point out, even at its most secular, is, at root, religious. Picasso is Giotto. Le Corbusier’s architecture is a hundred different medieval monasteries. Dylan is the music of Hildegaard of Bingen. Most explicit of all, the exquisite dolefulnesss of Leonard Cohen is Jeremiah.


That said, the pluralistic Artworld has no reason to like religion as it stands now, for all its earnest whispers of redemption and compassion, of breaking and mending, when it insists that if you believe as I do, you’ll go to paradise and if you don’t (the terroristic nuance) you’ll go to hell. Why O why O why can’t religion shed this recriminative medieval terror and be the great, rigorous, compassionate spiritual university it might be without it. Hand in hand with that is a bizarre lust in Christian circles for the world to end. No Sunday passed that I did not hear this hope expressed. I hated it then; I hate it now. The current indifference on the right toward climate crises (Australia, California) is rooted in just this wish for our resplendent world to crash to an end. You too, I’m sure, have heard the religious applause for climate disasters as the necessary prelude to God coming back. That feels satanic.


When I was a boy, the future was a world’s fair acreage of glowing, utopian hope. That future has been methodically crumbled. Not by religion alone, but equally so by salvational forces on the left. The world can’t bear so much salvation, souring as it so easily does into militancy. All the more reason for art, beautiful and abstract as that of Makoto Fujimoro, to remind us of our most heartening instincts for decency, delight and deep spiritual amplitude.

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