This slogan “Limited only by your imagination” was one that was used by a company I used to work for, which produced the first digital sampling synthesizers that made any significant commercial impact. I recall, at the time, thinking that if the limit is only somebody’s imagination, that’s a terrible, crippling limitation. Most people are trapped utterly by what they think and believe. I thought it was perhaps the worst marketing slogan I had ever heard, being a tacit admission that there was nothing our company could do to combat such severe limitations, no matter how great our product. “You’re on your own, mate” would have conveyed precisely the same meaning, only perhaps with crystal clear, unalloyed honesty.
The older I get, the more I think this is true. Bad ideas are remarkably long-lived. As a species, there are things that hold us back and which keep us primitive that we have, collectively, believed and thought for millennia. If you look at things as dispassionately as the human condition allows you to, there are very few problems that cannot be solved in an instant, simply by changing what we all think. Tradition and conservatism work against this freedom and agility of thought and we pay for that feeling of apparent safety in dreadful ways, every single day.
On a personal level, we are often defined and limited by what we hold to be our own self-image – that assessment of our own capabilities, limitations and hence worthiness that we all make. This act of self-sabotage is actively preyed upon by corporations intent on taking advantage of our insecurities to sell us something. It’s a wonder anybody achieves anything at all. We are best at undermining our own capacity to create wondrous things, yet simply by deliberately choosing to believe in our own abilities, we can transform our lives and those of everybody touched by our works. While we believe we could never earn as much as we do in a boring day job, we keep going in to the office. It may actually be true that we could never earn that much from our creative endeavours, but that comes down to another widely held, unquestioned belief we all hold, about the economy. If we all stopped believing that myth (or rather, interconnected set of myths), we could, indeed, earn as much, or more, from doing what we do best, rather than what we think we have to do to pay the bills.
The money game we all play has design flaws. It is designed to create crippling poverty for some. There is no other possible outcome. In fact, it’s an unconscionable game. We could solve massive income inequality, poverty, hunger and poor health at a stroke, simply by redesigning the rules of money, finance, international trade and capitalism. It’s possible. Some people have even demonstrated workable solutions, but we cling to the notions of being indebted to somebody that created the money out of thin air, we believe we must sacrifice human well-being to pay those illegitimate, arbitrary debts with interest, we submit to the inhumane processes of law and we subjugate humanistic concerns for the concerns of finance. We close hospitals. We cheat each other. We kill. We do it because of what we believe. We don’t believe in any alternatives. The people that benefit from this poorly designed game, who have no conscience whatsoever about the pain and suffering, misery and death that it inflicts, are only too happy to reinforce the lie that there is no better alternative. While we believe that position, we remain trapped and doomed.
We so believe in balance sheets and accountancy that we happily inflict massive environmental costs and risks on ourselves simply because we don’t count all the costs. We call them externalities. If the balance sheet says they don’t exist, we don’t consider them. So we blithely pour toxins into the environment at an alarming rate, because the balance sheet says it makes sense to do so, while our own intelligence observes that people are getting sick and getting increasingly sicker. We know, intuitively, that we are creating a problem of gigantic magnitude, threatening to all life on earth, but we keep doing it because the accountancy looks sound. We could stop this in an instant, by simple redefinition of what we count and how we count it. But we don’t. We are limited only by our own collective imaginations.
Our belief in state security and the national interest is another limiting belief. We permit crimes to go un-commented and un-scrutinised because we believe in this secrecy thing. The whistle blowers are pilloried and threatened with violence, because we prefer the state to keep secrets. We don’t question the illegal activities, the predatory nature, the murders, the machinations, the corruption, the greed, the abuses of power, the torture, the theft or the imperialism committed by governments and their agents, because we want to continue believing that those in authority are pure of thought and deed. We know that to be untrue. There is ample evidence of governments lying to their people. We know that their “justice” is often perverted and disreputable. We know governments make terrible mistakes, fake reasons for war and participate in self-serving robbery of the common wealth which belongs to us all, yet we cling to the wreckage of the idea that governments are beyond reproach.
While we cling to this bad idea, we remain victims of it. The answer, of course, is transparency and greater openness, so that we can all react appropriately. Why should we not know about the real extent of the Fukushima disaster and act appropriately to protect ourselves? Why is it more important to listen to lying government spokesmen, intent of protecting commercial interests over those of the people? Why did the Atomic Energy Commission in the US actively lie to the population of Los Angeles and Southern California about the Rocketdyne experimental sodium reactor leak in the fifties? “No evidence” of radioactive disaster was only because none was collected. But it was there, if you cared to look. The radioactive iodine is still there and will be for hundreds of years, destroying the thyroid glands and hence health of everybody nearby. It won’t go away, no matter what we choose to believe.
So we could solve so many serious problems in the world, simply by changing what we think and yet we are so resolutely opposed to doing so. What has this got to do with art and artists? Only this: one of my beliefs is that the creation of art requires an exercise of the imagination and a flexibility of mind and perception that is useful to cultivate in human kind. The more we learn to create great art, the better we will be at confronting our terrible, limiting beliefs and overturning them, with thoughts that are altogether more humane, more rational and more conducive to helping us survive. The artistic process is vital to learn and a necessary mind skill for saving the world.
And yet we believe that art is not real work and that painting, or playing music, or writing a poem are trivial exercises, not worthy of our time. Nobody sees that this is the route to saving us all.
We truly are limited only by our imagination.