Broadly speaking, human civilization and society have been led by three groups: soldiers, priests and bankers.
The soldiers, or generals, or “strongmen” held power and ruled by force, direct or implied. This type of leadership is still very much alive in the world, but in our early days it was universal. Some strongmen recognized the value of religion, perhaps as a way of extending their reign in the minds of their subjects beyond this mundane realm. Egyptian pharaohs, Aztec kings, Henry the VIII and Mohammed all combined the priest/strongman power position. In the Dark and Middle Ages, the power of the Church practically eclipsed the power of the State, at least in Europe. People identified themselves according to sects and beliefs and the clergy gained a power and an authority that trumped most government officials, certainly in the more remote and unsettled areas.
The brief and glorious spasm of democratic revolution in the late 18th century seemed to be a way to end the strongman/priest stranglehold on power, setting up a controlled experiment for “the people” to lead themselves. The brightest and most civic-minded educated white men available wrote pamphlets, argued publicly, debated privately and in many cases wagered their fortunes and lives to gain civic freedom from priests and kings.
And so began the reign of the bankers.
In this country, the bankers (or the very rich who set up and control the bankers) have had the final say in all public matters of import since roughly the beginning of the 19th century. It is not a great exaggeration to say that our country (and certainly our city, New York) have always been led by business interests and the very wealthy who benefit from these interests. This is an accepted fact and has been for so long that it approaches a natural order and a settled question in most people’s minds. Except for relatively brief periods of activity by concerned and organized citizen groups, usually rallying around a social issue (abolition, prohibition, suffrage, civil rights) the bankers and their friends run things and the elected officials, from the Oval Office down to the local City Council, court them and keep conditions favorable for their continued reign.
I submit that they have not been good stewards for our country and our city and have, in fact, worked solely for their own narrow interests, neglecting and threatening our collective future.
I believe it is time for artists to lead.
I am arguing not that artists should be protected and treated with respect. I am arguing that they should lead. I am not arguing that the arts are an important part of New York City and the nation, but that they should be the central focus, the place where the conversation begins.
I am imagining a future where the first question to a fellow citizen is not how she makes her money but how she makes her art. I’m imagining past the existing belief system and way of the world.
Seven hundred years ago, in Europe and the East, the churches were all-powerful. Anyone in that time, imagining that atheism and non-sectarian behavior would be tolerated to the point of being beneath mention by all but the most fanatical believers would have been labeled demonic and driven from the town if not burned in the square. The Great Churches had their day. The Great Banks have ruled and despite the promise of prosperity and rising standards of living, they have clearly and catastrophically failed.
I’ll be writing more about this in my next post, focusing on the situation in New York City, where I’ve lived and worked as an artist for the last 23 years. I believe the analysis of the conditions in New York and the steps proposed to create an arts-centric and artist-led civic reality can be applied anywhere, but I’ll stick to the town I know.
But consider this simple fact: The overwhelming majority of people in this country, of people in this world, are poor. We, as poor artists, have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility to lead. The only two paths I can imagine towards improving the lot of the poor are revolutionary violence or revolutionary vision; creative, audacious solutions or increasingly doomed and desperate attacks on the status quo. Our job is to be visionaries and to think creatively. That is what we do. Let’s do it for all of us.