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.
Discovering and naming this grammar, identifying and then living truly generative principles, is a process that depends deeply on generosity. This is because it requires us to open ourselves to deep questions (and to their answers), which is impossible when survival seems to depend on competing for scarce resources. But when we acknowledge the gratuitous nature of life—not least the world’s inordinately diverse beauty—gratitude galvanizes us to ask and welcome questions that reach beyond our own context and experience. Artists at their best help us with such questions by presenting an expansive vision of life that reveals beauty in ever-wider zones. They can reveal new facets of humans flourishing even in the midst of tragedy or horror, pointing toward hope and meaning.
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 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, something 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 a man or woman 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 a thriving cross-generational community.
By intentionally using the word “beauty,” I am swimming upstream. When I began to exhibit in New York City in the mid-nineties, “beauty” was a taboo, not to be spoken in public. It signified cultural hegemony, imperialist power, the corruption of the past, or the cosmetic sheen of superficial contemporary culture.
The first time I spoke at Dillon Gallery in SoHo, I quoted the sacred text of Isaiah 61:2-3
…to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
At times in my own journey, even long after Judy’s reminder of a bouquet of flowers, I have struggled to incorporate beauty into my life. As a National Scholar graduate student in Japan, studying the art of Nihonga, I found myself using such extravagantly beautiful materials as gold, silver, malachite, azurite, and exquisite paper and silk. I wrestled with beauty revealed in front of me, created with my own hands. I did not then have a conceptual framework to incorporate beauty as a valid premise of contemporary art. At that first artist’s talk at Dillon Gallery, I spoke of this struggle, and how, on finding the central reality of Christ, I was for the first time able to find in Christ himself an integrating premise behind beauty.
For Christ also began His ministry with a reading from Isaiah 61.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free
Then He shocked those in the audience by claiming that, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the one who can provide for us a “crown of beauty instead of ashes.” He claimed to be the source of this beauty.
In mentioning beauty—let alone Christ—in a room filled with people of the art world, I knew that I was transgressing against what was culturally acceptable for them. But as His follower, I needed to acknowledge Christ’s claims, to hold them up in this public sphere as something we can test. I wanted to begin to reclaim beauty, and to frame it for our time as a gift given to us by the Creator. I wanted to help recover a view of beauty as a gift that we discover, receive, and steward. The next day, a critic who was in the audience called and surprised me by saying: “I have never heard anybody quote Isaiah in the art world and mean it with conviction. I was moved by what you had to say.” Thus began a journey to create and present beauty in the harsh and cynical environment of the New York art world.
The framework of Culture Care rests on a number of foundational assumptions. Many resemble what one might expect when applying the principles of environmental stewardship (known in some circles as creation care) to cultural stewardship. I am assuming that efforts to restore the cultural environment are good and noble, and that our efforts will benefit the next generation. I am assuming that an attempt to speak with people through conversations and questions that are outside the current cultural and ideological divide is healthy and will ultimately help culture thrive. As a Christian, I find the source and goal of beauty, of generative thinking, and of responsible action in the biblical understanding of what our lives are for. We find our creative identity in God. Genesis moments can be assumed simply because God is the great Artist, and we are God’s artists, called to steward the creation entrusted to our care. The good news of the Bible is that in Christ we are journeying toward ultimate wholeness, integration, and well-being. We are becoming more fully what we were made to be, to the benefit of all creation. But Culture Care and generative principles are not concepts only for Christian believers or churches or religious conversations.
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.
“Gratuitous” can be a negative word, as in “gratuitous violence,” but here I am using it to speak of intentionality, and even forcefulness, which, as we will see in later chapters1, is necessary in our deeply fragmented culture. I will also be looking at how the reality of beauty can help integrate such fragmentation.
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
Makoto Fujimura is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural shaper. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003-2009, Fujimura served as an international advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts.
This article is an excerpt from Makoto’s book On Becoming Generative.
Used with permission.