On Gratitude: The Individual vs Collectivism

A few personal reflections I wanted to share

Like pretty much every creative out there Covid-19 threw the brakes on things for me very suddenly. Having spent the last decade on the large-mural circuit my income was mostly dependent on that. It could be a difficult balance, finding time to make meaningful work in the studio and staying stationary long enough to also maintain my regular home life. Coming and going every two weeks was once my ultimate dream and then suddenly it became a barrier from everything else. I’ve always loved the transient element of my life, the constant change in setting and rotation of new and familiar people to talk about life with along the way. Something has to be said about staying still for a while and this pandemic certainly made that the main option.

I’ve needed this moment of still more than I realised and I’m so happy with what it has revealed to me. While I’m not one of these ‘top tier’ artists showing with elite galleries (I’ve still not even shown with a single established dealer gallery in Aotearoa!), I’ve developed great relationships along the way with people that understand me and my work. I feel extremely grateful for this right now because I see how valuable and robust that is. All of you that have supported me on my Patreon, bought small works or prints or given me any opportunity along the way have shown up repeatedly and helped me sustain my creative practise. It’s made me appreciate the position I’m in and appreciate all of you!

I had a great chat with my friend Jesse Cory from 1XRun last week for his new podcast he’s doing and we got to chatting about the key differences in my art world experiences here in the US and back home in Aotearoa. I said, I think it has to do with the cultural difference between the environment I grew up in which is more informed by the sort of collectivism common in our Māori, Pasifika and Asian communities. This was versus the type of hyper individualism celebrated in the US. This has been on my mind a lot lately and my friend Benjamin Work spoke on it a little in the latest episode of the Realtime Web Series. Also coincidentally this also relates to the subject of last weeks episode of Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human that featured American Economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard speaking on the history of collectivism and circular economic mechanisms that have existed for a long time in US’ Black communities. There was so much to learn from this episode and it really got me thinking.

Photos taken November 6, 2020 in Oakland, California

It was the US elections last week and as expected it was long and drawn out and of course the president is refusing to accept his defeat. We went out to Oakland to document the celebrations in the streets which were in such contrast to those photos I took November 9, 2016 (the day after Trumps victory that I shared in my last post). This week the internet has been awash with people’s hot political takes and typically amongst many Americans there is the ever present theme of politics doesn’t matter and the championing of rugged individualism. I’m all for personal accountability, it’s definitely one important aspect of living within a society and doing well but I don’t see it as the single most vital component. 

When thinking about living in a society you have to acknowledge that our survival and comfort depends on interconnected acts of cooperation. Being conceived is an act of cooperation as is being delivered into this world. We are usually raised by multiple people - I was raised mostly by mother at first but ended up having four consistent parents in my life plus a close relationship with my grandparents. I’m really curious when people think or refer to themselves as ‘Self-Made’ when that’s obviously not true. We are the by-product of countless generations of people lucky enough to survive long enough to enable us to even exist. When we buy food from a super market, walk through a public park, ride on a train, drive in a car down a road, buy and wear clothes, paint a canvas or a wall, watch Netflix on a computer or scroll on our phone while sitting on a couch in a house or listen to music… These are not solitary acts, they’re an outcome created through massive acts of collaboration. As an example, when I paint a wall - what do I paint it with? Who made that and from what? Where did I buy it and who worked there? Who built the wall and from what material and from where was that sourced? You would also struggle to find anything from my aforementioned list that doesn’t involve some kind of politics because that is our main tool for organising and collaborating, whether at a small grass roots level or globally. A sense of individuality is great, feeling the freedom to think and move autonomously is wonderful but it all still happens within the context I just laid out. I think of my path as an artist in those terms and it’s also how I view society and politics. This helps me because I see myself as an active participant and collaborator in something far more relational. I don’t see the hierarchy of the art industry or the politics of the two countries I mostly divide my time between through a totally conspiratorial lens - I try not to see politics and laws as something being done to me (although I recognise my own privilege). I understand that there’s an aspect of it all that is illusionary, a construct but I also recognise the necessity of that - that the rules of societies and industries have been created by some kind of consensus and belief. My reaction to this is not to disengage and live in some parallel reality of my own creation where everything is fine because over time systems of belief can become systems of oppression, especially when we stop participating or some people are told they can’t participate and are forcibly shut out from participating. History shows that not all collaboration leads to great decision making - especially when we create IN and OUT groups. While distinctive identities are really important, good consensus building requires many different voices which leans on a willingness to be there and be heard.

My wife and I were at a friends a few weeks ago and she told us how she’d become obsessed with the reality show Alone. The premise is these hardcore survivalists are given 10 items and left in total isolation to survive in a really harsh climate. There’s no camera crew, they document their own attempt to survive as long as possible in the wild. They have to work out how to build a shelter, light and maintain a fire for warmth and cooking. They often go days on end without eating as they problem solve building tools to hunt and fish. Some resort to eating rats and squirrels. It’s an incredible show because it reveals how badly we do in solitude. We are incredibly social creatures completely dependent on these complex systems of society, feats of cooperation and distribution. It makes me think about the Sovereign Citizens movement in the US and to a lesser degree a lot of libertarians who want minimal government. When I see some of the Far-Right extremism here and listen to their specific rhetoric and paranoia, I often wonder how many of these people would really like the reality of living in a world where all we take for granted totally eroded and broke down. How many can light a fire from scratch, hunt and prepare an animal to eat, cultivate food, mill wheat to make flour and bake a loaf of bread. It’s a lot of work so I wonder how many are super-survivalists that can do it all on their own. I’m willing to wager not many. It seems people will again need to start building trust with others, voting to make decisions collectively, sharing, trading and building networks. So why would anyone want to burn everything down and start over? It seems that we have the necessary systems in place - what’s missing is trust.

I believe one key to trust is having gratitude. Appreciate what you have that you take for granted every day and how many people from all walks of life made that possible. Try look at the world through that lens for a moment and see how it changes things.