“This Generous River”: Makoto Fujimura and Gift Economies

Little Gidding by Makoto Fujimora, 2007

This past April, our community was given the opportunity to gather for a video talk by the esteemed visual artist Makoto Fujimura, on his 2020 book, Art + Faith. The 60 people present were joined by an additional 40 Zoom screens, as we considered together the role of the artist in the life of the church.

For those not familiar with Mako’s work, an overview of his art is available on his website, while a deeper look into his project “The Four Holy Gospels” can be viewed on Youtube.

It was an extraordinarily rich afternoon, such that it would be all but impossible to summarize it all in a short article for the Rupert’s Land News. There was, however, one point that many of us found striking, and that months later some of us are still finding a compelling call. Drawing on the 1983 book The Gift by Lewis Hyde, Mako pressed us to consider what he identified as “the gift economy.”

“We are all makers,” he insisted. “We are created to be creative. That’s what makes us distinct in the world. We have a distinctive role to play.” And while God is clearly revealed to us as the Creator, our calling is to seek to be what Mako called “sub-creators.” Perhaps somewhat ironically for a successful visual artist, Mako insisted that art is to be given away to the world. “Yes,” he commented,

…we have to make a living, but what you want at the basis of your creativity and imagination is to be able to be generous. To create this generous river that flows into culture and rejuvenates people. And because we’re not doing that and we see art as a transactional reality, we lose our souls in the process… Art is a gift that is given to us to steward, and we work very hard when no one is looking. To be able to create something that is enduring, that goes beyond the marketplace.

Similarly, in his book Art + Faith, Mako has commented, “Art is part of our work, yet art must be treated as a gift, not merely a commodity. Art needs to back into the pristine river of the gift economy.”

Yet this is not an economy that has an easy place in our current culture, and so he writes,

But given the current conditions of the river of culture, the arts will always be impoverished. The river of culture has led to a dehumanized view of art, its beauty robbed by overcommoditization. Thus, rebuilding a vigorous ecosystem of art depends on the existence, and the recognition, of the principle (a principle learned from Lewis Hyde’s book) that ‘where there is no gift, there is no art.’

Two saint ben’s study groups were formed in the months prior to Mako’s video conference, to take an in-depth look at Art + Faith. For many of us in those groups it was his reflections on the Eucharist that were particularly striking.

“During communion,” Mako writes, “the Gift literally passes through our bodies and leaves us altered—both transforming and sanctifying us. There is no reciprocity in this transaction: God likes to give one-way gifts that cannot be reciprocated. We cannot outgive or out-gift God.”

Yet even as receivers of this Gift, the Eucharist calls on us to be what he calls “culture makers.” “Bread and wine,” he writes, “are both realities that would not exist on their own, but earthly materials must be cultivated by human beings and require much time to create.” At some level we all know this, but perhaps the depth of that role is obscured by our use of manufactured wafers and massproduced communion wine? For Mako, these tangible elements must come with a sense of being made by someone, perhaps someone from our own communities. And so, he writes,

God, for some mysterious reason, waits upon human making and chooses to use our ability to make bread and wine to reveal Jesus’ resurrected presence known at the table of the Eucharist. Imagine that! The resurrected Christ waits until we create, until the soil we cultivate is harvested, and until we make, to reveal himself to us!

Still, for all that this simple, symbolic meal of bread and wine should impress upon us, calling us to sub-create or co-create with God, too often the churches have forgotten that truth. Too often, he continues, “in our churches, we have often treated the gospel like a commodity, shopping it around as if we were peddlers, or worse yet, savvy performers.”

Challenging us to move beyond such a debased view of our Church, ourselves, and the Gospel itself, he presses us all toward what he calls “The Theology of Making,” which he insists “encourages churches to prioritize the gift economy, to restore our message as a powerful antidote to greed, thereby freeing culture from its ‘bondage to decay.’”

In Mako’s view, there is a great and liberating freedom to be found in turning away from a thin, transactional, consumer economy, and embracing instead this gift economy, which is both a new thing and something with ancient sensibilities. It is an economy that values things that will last, that may well outlive us, things that are not to be thought of as too easily or quickly disposable. And while he speaks as a visual artist, he recognizes that things like the clothing we wear, the food we eat, and the furniture we choose for our homes can also be considered within the frame of a gift economy. If, for instance, I choose to purchase clothing made to last instead of “fast fashion,” I may be paying more, but the quality I receive will be lasting, and the people who have laboured to produce those goods will have received a living wage. This is a kind of “gift” that cuts in both directions, and in the long run we are all better served.

Makoto Fujimura’s book Art + Faith is published by Yale University Press, and is available directly from their website.

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