Amanda Gorman’s call for light captured America. “For there is always light / If only we’re brave enough to see it/ If only we’re brave enough to be it.” It was just the right clarion call for the times, coming from a young woman whose artistry was deservedly supported with patronage.
America needs a cultural rebirth and a new vision for what is possible, not unlike how Europe needed a cultural “rinascità” (“rebirth”) to rise out of the stagnation of the Middle Ages. Just as the Italian Renaissance emerged from the darkness of the Bubonic Plague, a new artistic Renaissance in America will be timely and is already underway.
Back in the 14th and 15th Century, Europe needed the Plague to destabilize the ossified cultural and social order and open up the dawn of a new era. What fueled the Italian Renaissance and connected the artists, writers, philosophers, and patrons together was a movement of what it means to be human. The primary inspiration came not from religion, but from a return to the classical Greek philosophical traditions of humanism. According to Plato, the world is as a living being, whose general vitality is supported by a “world soul”. Art is one of the great enablers of human connection and personal growth, as well as a reminder of what it means to be human — an antidote to cynicism, hopelessness, and demagoguery.
While the world cherishes works from Renaissance Masters like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes or DaVinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” the pump is already primed for a far more democratic Renaissance in America. When you visit the places in America where some of the most significant cultural renewal and reinvention has taken place over the past two decades, you will discover a common theme everywhere: artists arrived first.
In places left for dead like Detroit, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, or Kokomo, Indiana, artists and art inspire tribes of entrepreneurs and social innovators to set up shop and get to work. Against the odds, it’s all for one and one for all. In these petri dishes of reinvention, growing communities of creatives become beacons of light for everyone else, a symbol of optimism and resilience. “Go see what’s happening over there…” people will say, pointing to where the artists and entrepreneurs congregate. These creative communities, bustling with energy, are the ones who cause others to believe that change is possible — something all too rare in our political and media cultures today.
The big challenge and the big opportunity is that funding for the arts has been starved for a generation or more. As the social critic William Deresiewicz has pointed out, the European Union spends 63 times more on the arts than the United States. At the same time, America lacks the significant patrons at the scale of the Carnegies and the Rockefellers whose artistic cultural institutions and museums checker the American landscape.
Who will be the new Medicis, Carnegies, and Rockefellers?
Similar to how the Black Plague shook Europe to its core, COVID-19 has sparked a global crucible and forced countless millions of us, even billions, to ask: “what’s important?” The greatest opportunity in a crucible is to grow and reimagine what is possible, both for ourselves and the culture around us. Compelling art, whether it be an inspiring concert, provocative painting, or cathartic poem, opens and inspires us to deeper versions of ourselves, while creating human spaces to connect while processing mental health stresses, anxieties, and traumas.
But if artists can’t sustain themselves, all of that potential and optimism goes away, akin to what happened during the Dark Ages. The arts and artists have been starved of resources for decades, almost as if America doesn’t care about artists. After several decades characterized by a cultural obsession with money and growing inequality, the greatest risk we face today is a culture increasingly characterized by cynicism and darkness — fertile ground for demagogues.
What is needed is a large-scale movement bringing together philanthropists, cultural institutions, and artists. As has been recently reported, government can be a great enabler as well, especially through the use of stimulus to support employment within cultural institutions, although much can be done to support artists and art outside publicly-funded programs. But that will only happen with passionate philanthropic leadership, the new Medicis to spark the artists who will help drive entrepreneurs and social innovators.
The good news is that America already has fairly strong local and regional cultural infrastructure to support a far broader-based Renaissance than Florence alone could have accomplished centuries ago. Centers supporting the arts, entrepreneurship, and maker communities currently litter the national landscape. We now have a choice between darkness and cynicism or the prospect of a historic era of renewal fueled by American creativity and social entrepreneurship from the bottom up. Who will step into the shoes of history’s great patrons of reinvention as the new Medicis to support this new Renaissance? The world is watching and waiting. This revolution would be improvised.