About a quarter of a century ago I attended a training on Wall Street, in the World Trade Center as a matter of fact, that taught young securities salespeople how to get their clients to buy things from them. To say we were institutionally instructed to be jaded would be kind, we were actually taught to be cynical and awful by appealing to our client’s worst emotions: fear and greed. “You better buy this investment Joe, or your family will starve someday…” I was young and without a lot of career options so I became cynical and a little awful. Okay, a lot awful, but this piece isn’t about me… It’s about fear and greed. Modern life teaches us that we move away from things faster than we move towards them: fear. We hoard our possessions and fight to keep them at all costs: greed.
What motivates us, is it really fear or greed? If you watch the news, it seems that way doesn’t it? We are afraid of one another, out to get what is ours. Ready to sue, ready to stand our ground, ready to strike it rich quick. We want what we can get and we fear everyone else because they want it too.
This weekend we watched fear come to trial, a Wal-Mart variety of cop was acquitted of killing a teenager because he acted in self defense, he claims he feared for his life when he shot three times and a jury believed him. Greed will come next. there will be more law suits, book deals for jurors, and anyone else involved who smells cash will make their play. A Wall Street guy has no room to criticize a juror who wants a big advance from a publisher, in fact, my handbook says I should cold call her to see if she’d like to invest the money.
I found a quote this weekend after the jury’s verdict came in, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” ― Wendell Berry. Mr. Berry, an American author, had a point, is there a motivation that doesn’t come from the dark side? When we turn off the news and talk among ourselves, do we really revert to the level of rats and roaches? I don’t think we do. This might seem like a stretch, but I think I buy this: In the math classes of my youth, I learned if you multiply anything by a negative number, it becomes negative too, so we can disprove the argument that we are all rats and roaches by multiplying it times the one thing that makes us unique as human beings: creation. Art is an act of grace, of love, which proves that there is hope for each of us.
What would motivate us to create if not our inherent goodness? I’m not talking about the type of creation that comes from furthering our chances at survival, you can argue that things like spears, fishing nets, or cannons were created from fear or greed. What about music? How does music further the survival of the species? Or cave paintings? Or bagpipes? (Okay, bad example, forget I said that.) Art proves that we are not all characters in a Dickens’s novel, it proves we have the ability to look beyond greed, beyond self preservation, that we have something else to share.
I think artists are as open to greed and fear as anyone, but when it comes down to it, the act of creating something new comes from the opposite of the dark side. When you create something, you are exhibiting hope, you are giving of yourself. My thesaurus says the opposite of fear is courage, artists are among the most courageous people I know, they believe they can improve something and that requires a certain amount of courage. The opposite of greed is generosity, the act of sharing your creations is the end product we call ART. Artists take a risk, they put themselves out there for the rest of us to judge. And, the more of us who approach life like artists, leading with courage and generosity, the fewer of us will end up on the news. Those of us who discard the cynical model of capitalism and choose to improve the world with every transaction we make are building a new business model that goes beyond that of survival of the fittest. It requires mutual trust, no small amount of bravery, and the faith that our generosity will come back to us.
A clenched fist holds a gun, an open hand means we come in peace. As for me, I come in peace. I’ll stand my ground here.