Imagination like we are

‘The great German artist Joseph Beuys used to recite, as a maxim and manifesto, the phrase “Everyone an artist.”‘*
(Rebecca Solnit)

Rebecca Solnit is reflecting on the contribution of marches, parades, protests, processions and festivals as ways and means  for people to walk through their cities.  Continuing to ponder Joseph Beuys’ reciting of “Everyone an artist,” she writes:

‘I used to think it meant that he thought everyone should make art, but now I wonder if he wasn’t speaking to a more basic possibility: that everyone could become a participant rather than a member of the audience, that everyone could become a producer rather than a consumer of meaning […].*

Carrying on this thought, Solnit suggests it is in the festival where ‘the boundaries between strangers recede’.*

By the time I read these words this morning, I’d already found myself thinking about how we need so much more imagination to overcome the boundaries we put up between each other – personal, political and national boundaries being just a few.  Imagination is what sets us free from these delineating lines drawn by factions, cliques, parties, et al.  Such imagination liberates us for the future rather than holding us to the past.  I see imagination in what Sherry Turkle writes about here:

‘Philosophers say that our capacity to put ourselves in the place of another is essential to being human.’**

Donald Miller offers what adds to this for me he writes that the only truth he believes worth living for vulnerability, love and care:

‘part of me believes when the story of earth is told, all that will be remembered is the truth we exchanged.  the vulnerable moments.  The terrifying risk of love and the care we took to cultivate it.’^

Imagination allows us to fight for people rather than against them.  Alex McManus identifies this different kind of struggle for us to be engaged in:

‘I have known hundreds of women and men who dedicate themselves to concretely igniting the dreams of others.  They are often alone in their cause at first.  They act as they do because they see themselves engaged in an epic battle.’^^

When Nassim Taleb writes about randomness, he’s identifying one of the qualities of human imagination, conceiving something that has not previously existed – whether that be an idea, an object, an action or a relationship:

‘when some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness, can unlock then and set them free’.*^

Michael Bhaskar tracks the rise of the human population in his book Curation, I think pointing to a lot of potential imagination:

1820 = 1 billion
1926 = 2 billion
1960 = 3 billion
1975 = 4 billion
1988 = 5 billion
2000 = 6 billion
2012 = 7 billion^*

Yet there is so much that gets in the way of releasing this.  Here’s just a little encouragement for us from Peter Reynolds’ wonderful children’s book The Dot.  The protagonist Vashti exclaims in frustration:

“I just CAN’T draw!”⁺

Vashti’s teacher encourages her to put something down on her impossibly blank piece of paper, so Vashti bangs down a dot. Her teacher simply asks her to sign it.

The next week, Vashti sees her dot framed and hanging by the teacher’s desk.  Seeing this made her think she could do better:

“Hmmph!
I can make a better dot
than THAT!”⁺

Out comes an previously unopened watercolour set.

Vashti begins to paint dots of all colours.

This means she has to experiment with mixing colours.

Then she begins painting big dots and even a dot without painting a dot.

It all makes for quite an art show.

A small boy looks on Vashti’s dots in awe:

‘”You’re a really great artist.
I wish I could draw,” he said.

“I bet you can,” said Vashti.

“ME?  No not me.  I can’t draw
a straight line with a ruler.’⁺

Vashti doesn’t give up, urging the boy to draw what turns out to be a shaky line:

‘Vashti stared at the boy’s squiggle.
And then she said …

“Sign it.”‘⁺

I’m hoping his imagination was set free.

It won’t come easy.  Imagination takes a lot of hard work.  It’s why we leave the imaginative stuff to others, and it’s inextricably linked with doing.

I close with words from Joseph Campbell.  I don’t think the great mythologist is suggesting finding what liberates our imagination is in any way easy, but it is there, right now, and we can find it:

‘If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.’++

As Vashti when our imaginations are set free, others are set free.

(*From Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust.)
(**From Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.)
(^From Donald Miller’s Scary Close.)
(^^From Alex McManus’ Makers of Fire – eBook version)
(*^From Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.)
(^*From Michael Bhaskar’s Curation.)
(⁺From Peter Reynolds’ The Dot.)
(⁺⁺From Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers’ The Power of Myth.)


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