The Aroma of the New
My own paintings have become a lament of sorts over the years, weaving in and out of our Ground Zero conditions into what Eliot, in Four Quartets, calls "the still point of the turning world." I use the traditional Japanese materials of Nihonga to paint with—pulverized pigments, gold, silver, and platinum. These materials themselves have to be pounded to become beautiful. It seems that the refiner's fire continues to burn, and we have no choice but to go through the process. And in such a journey, every ideology is tested and found wanting. Our faith in God, too, is tested.
My effort to develop the International Arts Movement has become an effort to seek the World That Ought to Be at a grassroots level. This may come across as inconsistent to some—how can you seek the ideal while lamenting? Should you not be honest, and paint despair? Isn't the world limited to the reality of what IS? In the heart of creativity, such tensions exist; artists are often said to live in a liminal space between the ideal and the reality. To many, the "Ought" is a trope to be suspected, but as a good Presbyterian, I hover between what "is" and what "is not yet." I want to exhort you not to be afraid of such ideals and dreams, or to work with those who believe in them.
Zygmunt Bauman, a sociologist, has suggested that postmodernity is "liquid," constantly shifting. The old solidities of modernity are now replaced by pervasive uncertainty. Our foundations are shifting under us. We have seen in recent times the seeming solidity of our economic system collapse in front of our eyes. We are facing urgent questions about the safety of nuclear power. We are finding that in every sphere—in the arts and sciences, business and politics—there has been a tsunami of sorts. Paradigm shifts are taking place. How many times have we heard the word "unprecedented" in the news lately? Bauman writes:
It would be imprudent to deny, or even to play down, the profound change which the advent of "fluid modernity" has brought to the human condition. The remoteness and unreachability of systemic structure, coupled with the unstructured, fluid state of the immediate setting of life-politics, change that condition in a radical way and call for a rethinking of old concepts that used to frame its narratives. Like zombies, such concepts are today simultaneously dead and alive. The practical question is whether their resurrection, albeit in a new shape or incarnation, is feasible; or—if it is not—how to arrange for their decent and effective burial.
Because of this uncertainty, we will have to confront increased cynicism and despair. The path of despair is what I am afraid many Japanese will choose in the coming years—to give up hope, imbibe despair, and end their lives. If we do not teach our children and remind ourselves what we imagine and hope for, if we do not seek to define that elusive "world that ought to be," then the culture of cynicism will define our time for us. We are awash in apathy and terror. To create in such waters, we must have more than an optimist's escapism. Today, to create is to hope. To create is to live.
In my field of contemporary art, the tsunamis of ideologies have washed away beauty, goodness, and truth in the past century. Art has chased after novelty and fame, becoming synonymous with greed. Meanwhile, the business of art danced with Wall Street and suffered from the financial collapse, with nearly half of the galleries closing after the Lehman shock. But the marketplace of art had long been dehumanized. If you speak of "creativity" in the MFA crits today, let alone truth, goodness, or beauty, you will be told to mend your ways. We have lost the essence of what it means to be an artist.
True Art does not chase after novelty—it is a sensory quest for the new order of what God is creating, toward fully realized humanity. Using our senses, Art poses deeper questions rather than giving easy answers. To be truly human in a liquid reality, we must resist the culture of fear and cynicism. The World That Ought to Be is not a utopia, an unrealizable fantasy; it is instead created out of sacrificial love. To love is to quest for the World That Ought to Be. Love is enduring, and love uses all of our senses. Love is generative, and will create the stage for the New to appear. The role of the artist in a liquid reality is to awaken all of our senses through creativity and love. Our quest will be to live more fully in the liminal zone between heaven and earth, the old and the new.