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May 2024 Culture Care Newsletter

  • Posted: May 10, 2024

Contributers: Makoto Fujimura & Sr. Dorcee Clary

Heading Image: Vincent Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886. Oil on Canvas. 37.5 x 45 cm. Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum. Public Domain, via WikiArt (accessed May 9, 2024).

A Note from IAMCultureCare

In a whirlwind day trip this past weekend, I visited both of the New York institutions known colloquially as The Met” for my first time: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera.

At the Met Opera, a friend and I saw Kevin Put’s 2022 The Hours, which takes 20th-century modernist author Virginia Woolf’s life and novel Mrs. Dalloway for inspiration, and was sung by three of the greatest living sopranos: Renee Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and Kelli O’Hara. During intermission, we wandered around the grand lobby in awe of the 28-karat gold leaf ceiling and two massive murals by Marc Chagall, and my friend asked me only half-jokingly whether I could think of any other institution in the United States with greater cultural weight. My experience at the Met Museum earlier that day could have prompted a similar question, and in some ways, that idea seems to be true. Both of the Mets represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement, quite literally: they re-present visual and musical works to the world, and thus are gatekeepers of cultural significance. 

And yet, for all the artistic beauty on display, something about the experience itself seemed to me to be lacking. Part of that I am sure was my rushed attempt to see as much as I could in a limited time frame (I vainly justified this by telling myself I was merely scoping out the museum to better plan my next trip). But I think too, that in the quasi-religious devotion that the culture of museum engagement and the architecture point to, our inherited expectations of transcendence via contemplation sometimes belie our lived experience of art in these settings.

Reflecting a week later, a lesson in historical perspective has been helpful to me, and perhaps will to you as well as you consider your own making.

Though a contemporary work, The Hours reflected a typical opera experience. I’m sure you can picture it: people (mostly older, wealthy, and white) decked out in fancy outfits, sitting politely in a darkened hall, and listening to three hours of stuffy classical music (with text that is difficult to understand even if you know the language). 

But opera wasn’t always like this. Its origins were more in entertaining the masses than the elitism that we’ve come to expect. Even in opera’s heyday, when it became a high-society function, the musical experience was not center stage but rather facilitated human connection for all strata of society. People attended the opera to spend time together and enjoy a night out. The darkened halls with seating pointed at the stage came later in the 19th century, masterminded by people like Richard Wagner who designed his own opera house to put the musical experience at the forefront. Wagner popularized the theory of gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work”, incorporating music, theater, lyric text, dance, and stage design in an all-encompassing, multi-sensory work meant to lead to a transformative (even salvific) experience for the individual viewer.

This historical move is mirrored in aspects of visual art as well. The idea of the museum is a relatively new phenomenon. By that, I mean the idea of a dedicated location where objects of art are collected in order to be admired, contemplated, considered as sacred and transformative to human existence: in a word, worship, at the temple of art.

But again, this is not the whole story. Rather, it stems from the legacy of the enlightenment and continental aesthetic philosophy. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art (which I have mentioned before) has a lot of great things to say about how meaning is not inherent to an artwork itself but is rather formed by the many different cultural attitudes with which we approach it. Disinterested contemplation is but one way in which we might interact with a piece of art, rather than the historic default.

As a musician, one of the exhibits I was most looking forward to (and was ultimately disappointed by) was the Met Museum’s musical instrument collection. It is impressive, don’t get me wrong, featuring instruments of all types and cultures across thousands of years of history. Yet perhaps more than any other type of art at the Met, they hang lifeless behind glass. I am a French horn player, and have performed on reproductions of similar historic instruments that play with an incredible sound not possible by their modern descendants. Admittedly, the Met does try to keep some of its collection in working order for occasional concerts, but the point still stands: these are meant to regularly make music, accompany song and dance, and create meaning through shared experience.

I think the point I’ve been trying to make is this: art is fundamentally about human connection, and it is often the small, overlooked things that have the greatest impact: performing music in a war zone, planting sunflowers in the aftermath of nuclear disaster, painting portraits of victims of violence — these are what promote human flourishing. And for all the grandeur of institutions like museums or opera houses, they do not necessarily define all that is or will be most significant. Rather, it is in acts of Culture Care, of attending to another human being, of art that breaks open new vistas for those who suffer, that we see a glimpse of something beyond. All great works of art and beauty do this, whether in a museum or a city slum.

This month’s newsletter shares a few of your stories of this beauty in action. Take time to read these contributions, and please connect with us to continue the conversation or to submit a piece of your own for consideration in the newsletter.

Jacob Beaird, Editor

A Note from Makoto Fujimura, Founder of IAMCultureCare

Frederick the Culture Care Mouse

Over the weekend, Haejin and I made our way to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I will write of the phenomenal Rockwell collection next month, but if you are in the northeast US, don’t miss the Leo Leonni exhibit on display through May 27.

Leo Lionni is known as an Italian-American writer and illustrator of children’s books. Born in the Netherlands, he moved to Italy and lived there before moving to the United States in 1939, where he worked as an art director, most notably for the prestigious Fortune magazine. But he retired early to spend time back in Italy, and it was there that he discovered his second career” as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. His own life maps out a culture care path: as a successful and influential art director, he could have gained even more influence and power in the New York market. Instead, to the surprise of his friends, he chose another path as a family man (to tell these invented stories to his grandchildren) and reinvented himself in a creative journey to bring beauty to all children.

As a once exiled Jew, he also understood the value of beauty in stark and dangerous times. Many of his stories, using the hand torn paper method of collage he developed as a brilliant designer, invoke such a mindset of bringing abundance in the midst of scarcity.

I have used his most famous work, the Caldecott Medal award-winning Frederick, when teaching Culture Care for many years. In this remarkably prescient story for Culture Care sojourners, Frederick is a mouse that stores up colors and memories of nature while his diligent friends labor instead to store up food for the winter:

Frederick, why don’t you work?” They asked.

I do work,” said Frederick. 

I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.”

I will leave the rest of Frederick’s story up to you to discover in Lionni’s book or at the Norman Rockwell Museum. But this conversation reminds me of the three chapters I spend in my Art+Faith: A Theology of Making (Yale University Press, 2020) on the gratuity and the abundance encapsulated in the two words Jesus Wept” in John 11, and in Mary of Bethany’s response in pouring of her wedding nard in John 12 and Mark 14. 

The complaint we often hear as artists is that our work is not really work”, and is rather something that humanity does not need to survive in the world. As the busy mice do of Frederick, the world looks at us as lazy and as having our heads in the clouds dreaming”. Jesus’ disciples were upset at Mary, too, for her aromatic sacrifice in response to Jesus’s tears. They said, “[We] could have sold it for more than three hundred denarii (a year’s worth of wages) and given to the poor”. But to such a utilitarian pragmatic solution, Jesus responds: Leave her alone…She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14).

Frederick has done a beautiful thing. Lionni has done a beautiful thing. Beauty, though often not considered very important in our busy days to feed our families, is actually necessary for our survival in the brutally cold, grey days of scarcity and culture wars. May we endeavor to bring that sustenance of beauty in the midst of our scarcity today.

Makoto Fujimura

Frederick jacket design copyright © 1995 Leo Lionni. Image courtesy of the publisher, accessed May 6, 2024. 

Culture Care Film Review: Cabrini (2024)

By Sr. Dorcee Clarey

I will go anywhere and do anything in order to communicate the love of Jesus to those who do not know him or have forgotten him.” 

- (Frances Xavier Cabrini)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see the recently released Cabrini movie. Even though I am a religious sister, I was not that familiar with her life other than knowing that one of our sisters is named after her and has, in her own way, followed in Cabrini’s footsteps by establishing two homes for the marginalized elderly who resided for free while in the care of hundreds of volunteer caregivers. This sister also helped us as a congregation to prayerfully consider and then commence to do foster care for medically fragile children, resulting in our adoption of four girls. 

The movie is a magnificent portrayal of a woman given fully to God and driven to bring his love to the neediest and most marginalized in New York City (and eventually far beyond). The conditions of the people she served were unimaginable. She was virtually unstoppable and exceedingly creative in pursuing what would be best for those for whom she cared, no matter their background. 

The thing that struck me the most as I watched the portrayal of her life on the big screen was her fierce determination in the face of incredible opposition, even within her own church. Here was a woman in very poor health seeking only to do good and rescue lives, who, as is still sadly true in so many places today, encountered not only politically fueled obstacles but also the age-old prejudice against the capabilities of women. Cabrini prayed and skillfully negotiated her way through in a way that makes me proud to be a part of her religious heritage.

In addition to the works I mentioned at the beginning that our own Sister Cabrini has pioneered, we have other sisters living with me in Flint, Michigan, who are working with the poor on the east side of Flint. Flint, as many of you know, used to be one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, but due to both the collapse of the GM industry and the water crisis, is now a very poor city. Our sisters have gone door to door on the east side, reaching out to the needy and doing our best to not only prayerfully lend a listening ear but also provide material assistance. Another quote from Mother Cabrini comes to mind: Today love must not be hidden…It must be living, active, and true!” 

Everyone I have talked to about the movie praises it highly. The movie itself is well acted and well filmed, but it’s the message that stands out the most. As Pope Francis encouraged Mako, Haejin, Sr. Christina, and myself during our meeting with him in 2022: Be creators and doers of the good and the beautiful.” And I think he would add — unlike many of the men in the movie — be unstoppable!

Sr. Dorcee is a member of The Servants of God’s Love, a new religious community located in Ann Arbor, MI within the diocese of Lansing.

Culture Care Events

  • Embers International’s Intergenerational Freedom Gala Virtual, May 22, 7 PM. IAMCC’s partner organization Embers International is hosting its 2024 Gala virtually via a video link and local Viewing Parties. It will be available for a limited time only, so be sure to tune in to learn about their incredible anti-trafficking work in South Asia, see a sneak peak of an exciting new documentary film, and hear a special musical offering by Ginny Owens and spoken word from Joshua Luke Smith. Register at the site above to receive the Gala link, and indicate if you are interested in attending a Viewing Party in Fort Lee NJ, Princeton NJ, New York City, or Bridgeport CT! Or, consider inviting your friends, family, and co-workers to register and watch with you.
  • Mysterion” Makoto Fujimura Exhibit at The Galleries at First Pres — Greenville, SC, Now — July 25. Mini-retrospective of Makoto Fujimura’s works.

Do you have a news item or upcoming culture care event? Consider sharing it with us for a possible feature here in the newsletter! Email jacob@​internationalartsmovement.​org.

Web Links

  • Latest Belonging Conversation from Makoto Fujimura and IAMCC board member Julia Hendrickson.
  • Long read by Angel Adams Parham on vocation and the power of story in developing a moral imagination, from The Hedgehog Review.
  • Also from Hedgehog, why working with our hands might be a solution to cultural division.
  • Joy Clarkson on metaphor and living well, in a podcast from Plough.
  • Stunning metalwork by Texas-based artist Evan Wilson.
  • Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau reimagines music by Bach and Fauré in two new albums.
  • A gorgeous new recording by Tenebrae of Michael J. Trotta’s 2023 Requiem.

All content in this newsletter belongs to the respective creators, as noted, and is used with permission.