Culture Care: Called to be Patrons

Let's lay down our weapons of culture war and become patrons of beauty, tending our culture with care.
Appears in Winter 2013 Issue: Patronage: Why We All Need to Invest in Culture
December 1 st 2013

The original root of the word economy, a friend told me recently, is in the Greek word oikonomos, which means “stewardship.” Patronage is a particular, distinctive facet of stewardship that is essential for cultural formation.

We are all patrons. Patronage is not just for the elite 10% with disposable income. Every decision we make to download music, to buy clothing, to see movies we choose, are all expressions of our “patronage” of culture. Yet most of us rarely see ourselves as patrons of the arts or culture.

To raise awareness of our potential contribution to culture as patrons, I have been writing, lecturing, and teaching on principles of Culture Care (a term coined by Caleb Seeling). I propose that we move beyond the metaphor of Culture Wars and adopt a picture of Culture Care. Culture is not a territory to be won; it is a resource we are called to steward, in the same way that we are learning to take care of our earth “for the next generation.”

Of course, Culture Care does not exclude standing for our values, or using socio-political methods to persuade, or resist, what we deem as forces of darkness. But by changing the metaphor, we ask different questions. Rather than focusing on sound bytes to demonize each other, we ask, “What would it take for all of us to care for culture?” This is easily stated, but not easily implemented.

Let me try to elucidate this notion with a simple example from my own life—the experience of my wife caring for my soul, very early on my journey.

Bringing Beauty Into Our Lives

As a newlywed couple, my wife and I began our journey with very little. After Judy and I got married in the summer of 1983, just out of college, we moved to Connecticut for Judy to pursue her master’s degree in marriage counselling. I taught at a special education school and painted at home. We had a tight budget and often had to ration our food (lots of tuna cans!) just to get through the week.

One evening, I sat alone, waiting for Judy to come home to our small apartment, worried about how we were going to afford the rent and pay for necessities over the weekend. Our refrigerator was empty and I had no cash left.

Then Judy walked in with a bouquet of flowers. I got really upset.

“How could you think of buying flowers if we can’t even eat!” I remember saying, frustrated.

Judy’s reply has been etched in my heart for over thirty years now.

We need to feed our souls, too.

The irony is that I am an artist. I am the one, supposedly, feeding people’s souls. But in worrying for tomorrow, in the stoic responsibility I felt to make ends meet, to survive, I failed to be the artist. Judy was the artist that day: she brought home a bouquet. Perhaps one could also say that she was the patron, the caretaker, of beauty when I failed to be one.

I do not remember what we ended up eating that day, or that month (probably tuna fish). But I do remember that particular bouquet of flowers. I painted them.

“We need to feed our souls, too.” Those words still resonate with me today.

Is Judy still right? Do we, as human beings, need more than food and shelter?

Do we need beauty in our lives?

Given our limited resources, how do we cultivate and care for our souls? And how do these questions apply to the larger culture? How might this change what it means to become a better steward and patron of culture?

My life as an artist, and as a founder of the International Arts Movement, has been spent in pursuit of questions like these— not just internally or for my own sake but with a growing global network of people. What began as an admission of my own failure to be an artist has now given birth to many principles that govern my life as an artist, father, husband, and leader. I call them “generative principles.” What started out as Judy’s care for our own souls has blossomed into an effort to extend that care into our home and our churches, and into a vision for culture at large. Culture Care is a generative approach to culture that brings bouquets of flowers into a culture bereft of beauty.

An Artist’s Journey Toward Generativity

I have found that what I am asked to do often seems impossible. How can I make a living as an artist? How can I support a family and a growing movement as an artist? These challenges seem to expand with every opportunity, but in my mind they come back to the same generative principles.

Much of my energy is now devoted to launching a new conversation on Culture Care, inviting the contributions of artists, curators, critics, patrons, and other lovers of the arts and participants in culture. To help frame the conversation for different types of thinkers, I begin by briefly considering “three G’s” sparked by Judy’s act that have come to characterize my approach to generative thinking: genesis moments, generosity, and generational thinking.

Bringing home a bouquet of flowers created a genesis moment for me. Judy’s small act fed my soul. It renewed my conviction as an artist. It gave me new perspective. It challenged me to deliberately focus on endeavours in which I could truly be an artist of the soul.

That moment engendered many more genesis moments in the years that followed, contributing to decisions small and large that have redefined my life and provided inspiration for me, my family, and my communities. In short, I have committed to becoming a patron of beauty, and I now endeavour to help others do the same.

Genesis moments like this often include elements of the great story told in the beginning of the biblical book of Genesis: creativity, growth—and failure. Two of these are common in discussions about arts and culture. God creates and calls his creatures to fruitfulness. Adam exercises his own creativity in naming what has been created. But the story also runs into failure and finitude.

Generative thinking often starts out with a failure, like my failure to think and act as an artist. I have discovered that something is awakened through failure, tragedy, and disappointment. It is a place of learning and potential creativity. In such moments, you can get lost in despair or denial, or you can recognize the failure and run toward the hope of something new.

The genesis moment is to assume every moment is fresh. Creativity applied in a moment of weakness and vulnerability can turn failure into enduring conversation, opening new vistas of inspiration and incarnation. To remember what Judy did, to speak of it with others, to value her care—all this is generative, as her act can be honoured and become a touch point for others, leading to the birth of ideas and actions, artifacts, and relationships that would not otherwise have been.

The flowers were also an emblem of generosity. Judy’s generous heart—more generous than mine—valued beauty over the dayto- day worries that had so nearly narrowed my focus. Generative thinking is fuelled by generosity because it so often must work against a mindset that has survival and utility in the foreground. In a culture like that, generosity has an unexpectedness that can set the context for the renewal of our hearts. An encounter with generosity can remind us that life always overflows our attempts to reduce it to a commodity or a transaction. Life and beauty are gratuitous in the best senses of that word. They are, simply, gifts.

Judy’s generosity with the bouquet is only one of many instances of generosity in my life. I was able to become an artist partly because of my parents’ generosity and encouragement. Both my father and my mother encouraged me when I desired to pursue the arts. They were my first patrons. That, for an Asian family, was extremely unusual. Music, painting, writing, and creating have always been part of my life. I took this for granted, and thought that everyone’s homes were a nurturing environment for creativity. Then I went to middle school and discovered I was an anomaly! It was then that I started to realize I had somehow to defend my time for creativity in a culture that does not nurture creative growth.

Artists have a deep capacity to develop and share generosity and empathy, to point toward abundance and connections. We learn generosity as we try to communicate with a new audience, or help people express what they cannot otherwise articulate, or say something meaningful into the void. Even an artist who journeys alone, like Emily Dickinson, can develop a sense of communicating or communing with someone—the reader, nature, God—and so strengthen critical generative capacities to bring beauty into the world. An encounter with the arts can lead to generative thinking as generosity supplants our quid pro quo expectations. (In the sciences, too, discovery is linked to the generosity of information shared among its practitioners.) The effects begin with gratitude and lead to places we cannot predict.

Generational Thinking

As I reflect on Judy’s simple act and on my life in the arts, I am more and more convinced that anything truly generative is not isolated. Generative values are given to us as a gift by our parents and predecessors. They grow in conversation with the past and in our intention to speak and create so as to cultivate the values of multiple future generations. Generative thinking requires, generational thinking.

Culture formation is generational, not birthed in a night. Generative thinking can inspire us to work within a vision for culture that is expressed in centuries and millennia rather than quarters, seasons, or fashions. That is the true pattern of patronage. People in the arts work in conversation with artists of the past as they are preparing the future, attempting work with enduring qualities that might in turn speak to new generations.

I have seen gratuitous acts modelled by Judy’s parents and family. I have failed at times to appreciate my own parents’ generosity— but at least have had the receptivity to repent! My father’s generosity in particular has led to so many blessings in the world that he did not expect or even realize—all flowing from his love for art and music. Such acts from our parents are now reflected in unexpected ways not least in the lives of our creative children, all of whom deeply value beauty and model generosity.

Even the term “generative” is a gift to me. My father, Osamu Fujimura, is a pioneer of acoustics research. I was born in Boston because he was doing post-doctoral research at M.I.T. with Noam Chomsky. Recently, I invited him to attend an I.A.M. conference. As we walked together to the TriBeCa Performance Center where I was about to give a keynote, he asked me what I was to speak on. I told him the speech would be “On Generative Culture.” My father responded, “interesting . . . the word ‘generative’ . . . that was my thesis topic.”

I knew that. I had even read the thesis. But for some reason I had sidelined this influence and forgotten to link my theme to his lifetime of work! He was instrumental in bringing Chomsky’s Generative Grammar Theory to Japan. I was grateful for the rediscovery and was able to present my version of generative thinking with a proper attribution of his influence.

Our lives are directed or constrained by paths paved by the generations before us. Sometimes we can trace them, as with my father. Often they shape us unawares. What is true of legacies from our parents is true also for our communities and our racial and national histories. Cultures are not created over night. We are affected by layers of experiences, personalities, and works of previous generations. Cultural histories affect us far beyond what we are able to acknowledge—or sometimes admit. We don’t always recognize our patrons.

Generative principles flow out of generational blessing toward creativity. But the positive example of my wife and parents is all too rare. Many people look back on what seem to be generational curses rather than blessings. I created I.A.M.—and continue to advocate for the arts—from a conviction that all people need a place of nurture toward their creative growth. Acts of generosity can inspire genesis moments even from generational failures. We can all become patrons of culture by caring for culture.

Culture Care Defined

Culture Care is to provide care for our culture’s “soul,” to bring to our cultural home our bouquet of flowers, so that reminders of beauty—both ephemeral and enduring—are present in even the harshest environments where survival is at stake.

We may need to learn to cultivate these reminders of beauty in the same way flowers are cared for and raised. Culture Care restores beauty as a seed of invigoration into the ecosystem of culture. Such soul care is generative: a well-nurtured culture becomes an environment in which people and creativity thrive.

At this point it will be helpful to gather the threads to find a working definition of our terms. At the most basic level, we call something “generative” if it is fruitful, originating new life or producing offspring (as with plants and animals) or producing new parts (as with stem cells). When we are generative, we draw on creativity to bring into being something fresh and life-giving.

We can also approach generativity by looking at its shadow, “degenerate”—the loss of good or desirable qualities (a term also frequently used of generations). What is generative is the opposite of degrading or limiting. It is constructive, expansive, affirming, growing beyond a mindset of scarcity.

One of Chomsky’s early definitions of “generative grammar” refers to the set of rules that can be used to create or generate all grammatical sentences in a language. He was looking in human languages, as did my father in his work in acoustics, for a universal generative principle, an explanation of our ability to generate seemingly infinite phrases by switching out elements from a finite vocabulary and grammatical framework. Building on this, we might say that a generative approach will identify and model the “grammar” or conditions that best contribute to a good life and a thriving culture.

Another key generative principle emerges as we begin to escape the cramped thinking of a culture of scarcity: stewardship. Beyond mere survival, beyond job function, bureaucratic specialization, or social roles, is a wide scope of human concern and responsibility. We are all given gifts for which we all must care. Just as we are learning the importance of taking care of our environment to leave the earth healthy for future generations, so we must all care for culture, and become intentional patrons of culture, so future generations can thrive.

Implied in the above themes is a measure by which to assess principles that claim to be generative: thinking and living that is truly generative makes possible works and movements that make our culture more humane and welcoming and that inspire us to be more fully human. We can be comfortable, even confident, in affirming a cultural contribution as generative if, over time, it recognizes, produces, or catalyzes more beauty, goodness, and flourishing.

What emerges from generative moments is something new, transformed from its source, that is both free and responsible to make its own ongoing creative contribution. Think of a great tree that grows from a small seed. First, the seed must die. If it finds welcoming soil, it morphs into a tiny shoot. In time, with nurture, it comes to full growth, a thing of beauty at many levels, all on a scale out of proportion to the original seed, and full of generative potential in its turn. The tree provides shade and shelter, flowers and fruit, wood for warmth or walls or works of art. It might contribute to a landscape or resist erosion. It might inspire poems or plays, paintings or photographs. It might spark a scientific discovery, host children at play, or lead someone to reflect on the nature of life.

We can say that Culture Care is applied generative thinking. Culture Care ultimately results in a generative cultural environment: open to questions of meaning, reaching beyond mere survival, inspiring people to meaningful action, and leading toward wholeness and harmony. It produces thriving cross-generational community of patrons of beauty.

Culture Care is everyone’s business.

Everyone can—and I gratefully acknowledge that many people from all sorts of backgrounds do—contribute to the common good. These conversations are open to all people of good will. To make culture inhabitable, to make it a place of nurture for creativity, we must all choose to give away beauty gratuitously.

May our work be seeds into the soil of culture. Better yet, may these conversations strengthen our hands to cultivate that soil, so that the good seed can take root deeply and flourish. May our cultural garden, our cultural orchard, become a place of shelter for many creatures, including our own grandchildren. May we always be willing to present a bouquet of flowers, even for a fledgling artist who may not yet know of his need for beauty.

 

Makoto Fujimura is a painter drawing on ancient Japanese and recent New York City traditions. He is also the founder of the International Arts Movement, and served a member of the United States' National Council on the Arts from 2003 to 2009.

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