It’s a sweltering Southern day when a crowd filled with men, women, children, some in their best clothes, some straight from work in overalls, walk across a bridge in Alabama praying and singing. The crowd know that when they reach the other side of the bridge people will try to kill and maim them and they know too that they will not respond with violence, but with compassion for their attackers.
The march of Sunday, March 7, 1965 in Selma, Alabama was an extraordinary group act that remains compelling in part because it shows a group of people able to move beyond the ideology of division. The marchers that day demonstrated what happens when the context is changed. From seeing their attackers as others, the marchers were able instead to understand their hatred as another kind of victimhood.
When Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. finally gave his address on the steps of the state capital in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, he laid out the foundations that alongside their religious beliefs, identified the systemic, intentional, and profit motivated underpinnings of racist ideology in America. After The Reconstruction, outlined Rev. King, “the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land…..Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved”.
One group’s gain isn’t another group’s loss
In her seminal work The Sum of Us the economist and social policy researcher Heather McGhee identifies the reality of zero sum thinking in society — that one group’s gain is at the cost of another group’s loss — as fundamentally inaccurate. The numbers do not stack up. When society collaborates, there is a quantifiable ‘solidarity benefit’ that delivers increased positive outcomes across all groups. Yet there remains a conception that help for some comes at a cost for others; a view that, perhaps fulfilling the conception of artists as society’s test pilots for ideas, some artists have been challenging directly.
In 2019 the artists Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani, Helen Cammock and Lawrence Abu were all nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize but, rejecting the division that the structure of the prize represented, agreed to share it, rather than have one of them win out over the others. The gesture, whilst symbolic rather than concrete, amplified a point of view rooted in the idea of solidarity rather than division, and came amidst a generational change of view in the art world. Ideas around who benefits from art had already seen institutions forced to shake off corporate sponsorship from organisations including BP and the Sackler Foundation (funded by sales of Oxycontin amongst other drugs) alongside a raft of other initiatives focused on social and environmental equity and, as so often, the ideas that contemporary artists have articulated in the recent past suddenly seem to be everywhere.
The secret to survival
I am surely not alone in my day job suddenly featuring daily discussion of the metaverse and how to work with it. The thing that is causing all the conversation is that, as a medium with its roots in gaming, collaboration and co-creation are baked into the format alongside a sense of collective pride at incepting a new way of communicating that has already seen challenges to that collectivity seen off. Arguably the rise of the data-rich analysis that accompanied personal social media has allowed our industry to overlook the collaborative nature that Rutger Bregman, in his book Humankind: A Hopeful History argues is intrinsic to the success of our species. With the rise of the metaverse comes the concrete demonstration of the context change in society — a recognition of the pitfalls of failing to see people as multi-dimensionalised actors capable of powerful acts of solidarity. Yet it is also possible to see this change as fragile; open to the kind of abuse that turned Twitter from a kind of chatty online cocktail party to a swirling hellscape of fear and anger.
A culture war, like all wars, is a for-profit enterprise. In the words of Yuri Orlov, the arms dealer character played by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War (2005): “You know who’s going to inherit the Earth? Arms dealers. Because everyone else is too busy killing each other. That’s the secret to survival. Never go to war, especially with yourself.”
Featured image: Lord of War (2005)