Starry Night revisited  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

On his blog my friend Johnny Price called attention to the fact that Biola University invited artist Makoto Fujimura to speak at their 2012 Commencement Ceremony. For his topic he chose to meditate on “Starry Night” (1889), the famous work by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) that draws our eyes into the dancing swirl of stars in a lovely sky of blue.

Makoto’s speech is a fascinating example of art interpretation and a warm reflection on vocation, creation and art in an age when the Spirit of light seems to left the church. “Because the heavens declare the glory of God,” Makoto insists, “we must carry the torch of truth, justice and the aroma of beauty outside the walls of our institutions.” Makoto’s speech is brief, thoughtful, and worth careful reflection—whether you are an artist or not.

I would love for you to leave comments here about your response to what Makoto says.

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I'm still pondering the last post! I appreciated this. I had no idea Van Gogh had the background described here. I guess in public school, the salient points are that he was ahead of his time and chopped off his ear.
This is so much more than that.
I love this painting, always have. It never occurred to me that the church was dark though! This is an interesting message, that church happens out in the community. At least that's part of what I heard. I also really appreciate that he distinguishes that he is an artist, and separately, he is a Christian. I love the idea that it's not about labeling things as Christian, but illuminating the beauty that is already here, that is already the Lord's. He doesn't need labels. He Is.
Now, every time I see that image, the swirling feeling I feel will be associated with the Holy Spirit, and His beautiful movement.

June 5, 2012 at 9:45 PM

Like you, I have always been drawn to van Gogh's paintings but never saw them from the perspective Makoto presented in his speech. Makoto is a precious grace given to the church, someone who has something to say that embraces both truth and beauty in a way that makes the gospel all the more attractive.
Thanks for commenting,

June 6, 2012 at 10:41 AM

Hello Dennis ,
thank you for posting this speech.I wasn't aware either of Van Gogh's background.
Perhaps its a renaissance hangover that we have to separate beauty and truth and value more the later than the former?
Maybe this explains why Lewis is so popular -he had a way of mingling the two -the truth of God along with great and beautiful imaginative ideas.
The notion of a Christian plummer is one Schaeffer and U2 used to speak about;Makoto does it brilliantly -not an adjective but a noun !
That is the hardest part I think -to know how to present that aroma of Christ when we are so wired in but remote to each other -i speak as a network engineer -i am in the UK but the group I work with are stateside -I've worked with them for years but could not pick them out in a line up.
Anyway thank you for posting the speech.

June 7, 2012 at 5:27 AM

I agree that Makoto's speaking of not an adjective but a noun is both a brilliant metaphor and deep insight. You are also touching an issue that needs thoughtful concern about being wired but not personally connected. The tendency is to suggest extremes rather than to address the realities carefully.

It's an interesting question about the split between beauty and truth. Part of the answer comes from modernism, with its emphasis on rationalism, logic, steps of action, clearly defined terms--which left beauty in the dark since it can not be subjected to such narrow analysis. An unfortunate split.
Thanks from writing across the pond,

June 7, 2012 at 9:28 AM

Thanks so much for posting this! Love how he brings so much out of this painting. Being an art history minor I might be a little biased, but I wish more people/pastors would use this kind of technique in public speaking. Done well it is so incredibly powerful.

June 7, 2012 at 7:39 PM

I agree, though few speakers have the background in art to have enough worthwhile to say. What impresses me is how much he gets said in such a short period--many talks or sermons are twice as long but say half as much.

June 8, 2012 at 8:32 AM
Jon Caudill  

Dear Denis,

I am changed after listening to this, and profoundly so. I've been recently pondering this particular work of Van Gogh's, and I'll never look at it the same way again. My appreciation of it has infinitely grown (and I long to see it in person one day).

The painting truly does, I think, embody the essence of what God has given us in the arts. His standards of aesthetics, truth, and beauty are all here.

I think, too, of Schaeffer's description of the Christian as being one "who's imagination should fly beyond the stars". May it forever be so, and may we ascend again to such heights.

Thank you, so much, for the work you do, and thank you for posting this thoughtful speech by Fujimura.


June 9, 2012 at 3:27 PM

To be captured by the life that van Gogh lived as one who loved deeply, when I say "loved deeply" I mean that his love covered over a multitude of sins which were committed against him and by doing so, he was then able to turn around and love what some would call the unlovable. What a "shining" example of a man (van Gogh) broken and gifted.
God as our Creator and we are creatures created in His (the Triune God) Image and all of us have an opportunity and desires to create and as Makoto said, "Let Christ be a noun in your lives. Let your whole being ooze out like the painted colors with the splendor and the mystery of Christ. The Spirit welcomes you into the margins, into the liminal spaces far away from the doors of the church. And yet there you will be met by a Shepherd/Artist who will guide you into a wider pasture of culture. He will guide you into the night skies in which the sun and the moon are held together by his hand. Create in Love, as Vincent so loved the world that rejected him, as he so longed to be home in the church, the only building without light."
I believe that the church on the whole is struggling or in some cases fighting against those who want to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the arts. All the while living in these "tents" that are something to behold, waking up to the sun rising and missing glorious sunsets because we have lights powered by electricity so that we can keep going as if the night has never come. Makoto however does not leave off there, he tells his audience, "churches must be lit up again." And I say "audience" because the words spoken although directed toward the student body is for all to hear. I include myself since I decided to listen to it through this modern technology.
In my own church family, I think that I have been wrestling with the wrong question. I have been asking where can I serve? where do I fit in? And instead, I think I might ought to be asking, "how can I create and encourage others to contribute through their creativity?" We are hungry for the beauty that is in Christ and that the Holy Spirit wishes to draw out of us and to bless others.
Thank you Denis for your help us in looking through the glass dimly.
In Christ,

June 11, 2012 at 7:49 AM

So very well said. You have taken Makoto's words and extended them beautifully for yourself--and here, for others too.

His use of "adjective" and "noun" is a brilliant metaphor, and one I keep returning to. It distills a great truth and uncovers in me a great gap I need to have filled by God's grace.

When you write: "I think I might ought to be asking, 'how can I create and encourage others to contribute through their creativity?'" I believe you have asked precisely the correct question. Not only is it true to Makoto's speech, meaning you listened well, it is true to our nature and calling as creatures, meaning you reflected on it wisely.

Thank you for commenting.

June 11, 2012 at 9:08 AM

So good to hear from you. I agree that this is transformative--the speech, the piece of art from centuries past, and stopping long enough to reflect, appreciate, and wonder.
May I remember that enough enough to slow down and allow transformative moments at least occasionally.
Thank you for your kind words, my friend.

June 11, 2012 at 9:32 AM

While the speech undoubtedly has some insights, I find it hard to trust Makoto on anything really after reading his book.

This is someone who manages to dismiss both the work of Jeff Koons as 'pornographic' and Andy Warhol as 'iconic' (his scare quotes), in one sentence. On the other hand, he opens the book by saying how he was elected to be rep for the National Endowment of the Arts representative by Bush and includes much praise for his own work, including listing visitor numbers to exhibitions and curators kind words.

He is deeply conservative in his artistic views, often talking about the 'flashiness' of today's art and the 'whitewashed' walls of 'elitist' Chelsea galleries, while seemingly ignoring this model when discussing his own established gallery in TriBeCa.

He makes the mistake I think of associating the pervasiveness of Christian iconography, culture, and imagery in previous art with the artists own beliefs - thus Van Gogh's religious upbringing is highlighted and the church becomes the focus of 'Starry Night', when I would venture the piece reveals more about the deep psychological problems that plagued the artist before his suicide, something which he conveniently glosses over. In the same way his analysis of the Last Supper sets up da Vinci as an artistic hero without equal in today's culture, who focuses the painting on the forehead of Jesus as a personal decision, while ignoring the traditions of structuring and composing religious imagery long established.

It's profoundly disappointing to see such shortcomings from an artist so vocal in his faith as Makoto, precisely because this kind of considered and creative response is so badly needed.

June 24, 2012 at 10:45 AM

I wish we could sit and talk, since exchanging comments on a blog is clearly inadequate for conversing about the interesting points you raise. Still, it is what it is, so I’ll just mention three things in response--in two posts, part 1 & 2.

In the lecture that I posted I did not hear Makoto as ruling out the other realities in Van Gogh’s life as being reflected in Starry Night. Certainly when I reflect on that painting, the deep psychological problems that led to his sad suicide seem to be clearly in evidence. It does not seem to me to be an either/or situation. From a Christian perspective, our scars and wounds always have both psychological and spiritual roots and manifestations, and I find both interpretations equally plausible and mutually enhancing.

Your comment about Makoto’s “scare quotes” seemed so different from what I remembered about Makoto’s book, that I took Reflections off my library shelf to see what you were referring to. I think you misread him. Makoto is discussing the postmodern tendency to hold an “innocent belief in our power,” a presumption he believes undergirds much of today’s culture, including economics and technology. It is a presumption, I would add, that I find reflected in almost every issue of Wired magazine. He then writes this: “Jeff Koons’ pornographic sculptures and Andy Warhol’s ‘iconic’ pop art—postmodern art prospers by mocking the very hands that feed it, the hands of modern idols” (p. 45). This is not a scare quote, but a statement of fact. (Any Christian or conservative that could possibly be scared by this statement was scared already.) Consider Koons’ series, “Made in Heaven”—life sized, anatomically correct sculptures of the artist having sex in various positions with his former wife, Ilona Staller who starred in porn films under the stage name, La Cicciolina. Curators wishing to display Koons’ work have obviously found this difficult, which is the point Makato is making. His calling Warhol’s work “iconic” is hardly radical or novel, and even when the artist was producing his screen prints (back in my day), it was obvious he was tweaking the noses of the wealthy consumers and corporations that supported the New York art scene. Both artists used their art subversively, in other words. And as a Christian I agree that behind the unfettered system of greedy consumerism that oppresses so many today—in America and around the world—lie ideologies and ideals that are identified in biblical categories as forms of idolatry.
(end of part 1)

June 30, 2012 at 12:18 PM

(part 2 of comment):

And finally, since I had the book on my desk and had also heard Makoto lecture on Leonardo’s The Last Supper, I reread that chapter as well. Once again, you misread him, Luke. Makoto names Jesus’ forehead as the “vanishing point” of the lines of perspective Leonardo built into the composition, which he specifically names as the sort of painterly technique you say he ignores (p. 149). To suggest, as you seem to, that Leonardo would not have chosen this point personally as the artist, strikes me as implausible, given Leonardo’s careful craftsmanship and your statement on this blog under “On art and meaning” (June 12, 2012) that “i think a good artist is both conscious of every decision that was made in the work.” What you seem to object to so strongly is Makoto’s opinion, which he is careful to raise not as an unquestionable fact of history but as a conclusion he draws from viewing The Last Supper personally and reflecting on the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. What Makoto says is, “Sadly, today no one has Leonardo’s ability or skill to ask complex and deeply layered cross-disciplinary questions in his or her art, even with the advent of moving images. It may be argued that Leonardo was the last painter to have the ability to integrate history, theology, science, and art with such mastery. Consider this: Can we think of any other artist after Leonardo whose work would be a target for an intriguing conspiracy tale? No one has had the genius, the psychological complexity, or the level of skill and patronage, not even Picasso, van Gogh, or Warhol. Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly notable contributors, such as Grünewald, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Gorky, and Kandinsky, but none of these artists has had the enormous social influence, not just in the arts but in all human endeavors—such as art, sciences, philosophy, engineering, music—that Leonardo has had” (p. 154-155). You certainly are free to disagree, Luke, and I would love to know what artists working today that you believe match Leonardo in both skill and cultural influence, but I think your disagreement will be more compelling if you first summarize Makoto’s statement fairly.

Thanks for being part of the conversation

June 30, 2012 at 12:19 PM

Denis, Thanks for taking the time to respond in so much detail! It's probably not even the right discussion to be having as a response to the video. I feel like the only critic in the room often when faith and arts are involved and this is definitely the case here, introducing negative critique into a pretty positive discussion thread. Sigh... anyway a couple brief points....

I probably twisted the Koons/Warhol quote out of context, but to me it was something small and quotable which represented a prevailing thread in his book/opinion, namely dismissing or ignoring much contemporary art (with the exception of a few of his peers), while quite openly celebrating his own achievements.

I don't have any problem with his conclusion of da Vinci as unparalleled cultural and scientific influence, which as you quoted was stated with enough qualifiers. It was more this automated linking of religious content/iconography with the spiritual that bothered me, as if saying every painter of 'madonna and child' was a devout catholic. Somehow to me this sets up a subtle sacred/secular polarity, where classic religious works are heavily drawn from while contemporary art and artists are brushed over or dismissed. Of course people write about what interests them, maybe I'm expecting too much. I'd love to see him tackle Paul McCarthy or Bruce Nauman or Louise Bourgeois, for example, work that isn't classically beautiful, 'holy' or uplifting but is challenging and revealing and difficult.

Makoto for example talks about the lack of community and places to congregate in the New York arts scene, while somehow not mentioning the whole 'relational art' movement that attempted to do just that throughout the 90s, with NYC based exhibitions and artists (Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, etc).

Again I'm probably nitpicking but it's just because I'd love to see someone really on to it in this space (and, like it or not, an informal representative of the arts to many churches/christians). Schaeffer was really forward thinking and engaging in this regard - discussing the work of John Cage in depth even while disagreeing with him in a book published a few years later. Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong place or at the wrong person.

July 1, 2012 at 7:26 AM

Thanks for keeping this conversation going. Like you, I yearn for thoughtful discussion of such issues, and sadly little is found in Christian circles. Most Protestant evangelicals today do not even have a theology capable of generating such a discussion.

Makoto writes periodic updates from his studio on his art, an email newsletter he calls Refractions. Though he reflects on art and life, when I signed up to receive it I understood the primary purpose was to keep interested people informed of his work and showings. Some of these occasional essays were collected and published in book form, but I suspect that is the reason for the emphasis on his own art that you find troubling.

It takes a special giftedness to do the sort of thinking exemplified by Schaeffer, and I fear we may not see more of it any time soon. Which is a shame, but there it is.

Perhaps you should take up the challenge of writing about some of the artists you mentioned?

July 11, 2012 at 10:54 AM

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