From Chapter 23 of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
Some years ago, while I was working just off Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, I remember stumbling across a startlingly simple exhibit in the National Gallery of Art. It was a square of white fabric pinned to a wall, and it bore a striking resemblance to the handkerchief I had in my pocket. At the time, I couldn’t help wondering what transformed this seemingly insignificant piece of fabric on the wall into art.
Much art, as an act of creativity, holds value that is firmly lodged in the eye of the beholder. My white fabric square (which sadly, I don’t recall either the name of, or the artist responsible for) was part of a rich tradition of using common objects in uncommon contexts, to stimulate new ideas and perspectives. Such artistic creativity, while sometimes seemingly trivial, can hold a quite remarkable power to stimulate the imagination of others as it reveals ways of seeing the world that transcend the limits of what is immediately visible. And this extends through time and space to connect our creative understanding of how past, present, and future are intertwined.
Art, in all its forms, is oxygen to our creativity as we contemplate the future. It fuels our ability to imagine alternative futures, and to construct ways of building them. And it does this by enabling us to share ideas, feelings, and beliefs in ways that mere facts and figures cannot convey. Art, in a very real way, enables us to touch the minds of others, and to be, in turn, touched, as we envision and create the future together.
This “artistry” takes on an incredible diversity of forms. Realism within artistic expression helps flesh out visions of future possibilities that are easy to make sense of, and can make tangible what was previously ephemeral. Where artistic expression is more abstract, it forces us to see and experience the world and our place in it differently, by kicking us out of the rut of conventional thinking. And it feeds our imagination by providing us with a tantalizing glimpse of the future, while leaving our minds to fill in
Looking back, I’m intrigued that, even though I struggled to make sense of the white square of fabric hanging in the National Gallery that day, the memory stuck with me, and eventually became grist to my thoughts here on the relationship between art and the future. In the same way, art of every conceivable form can act as a surprisingly powerful catalyst for our imagination as we contemplate the future, and a stimulant that feeds and nurtures our own future-oriented creativity.
As art fuels our creativity, it’s capable of revealing insights into the consequences of our actions in ways that transcend rational analysis. As it taps into our emotions and instinct, it complements and extends our intellect as we peer into the future. It inspires us to stretch our imagination, and it fills us with hope for what might be. Yet it also reveals the darker side of what possibly lies beyond the veil of the present. And as it does, it has the power to invoke that most visceral of responses: fear.