I used to have a book that I kept in the bathroom called “The 100”, which made the case for the 100 most influential people in history.
When people heard I had this book, they’d inevitably guess that position #1 was held by Jesus of Nazareth. Not so. Position #1 was actually Mohammed. As the author explained, Mohammed merits making the list in two completely separate areas of human endeavor, yes, as a spiritual leader but also as a military one who campaigned hard and took an astonishing amount of territory for his time, the equal of any of the great empires. Jesus himself would not appear until position #3, right after Isaac Newton.
Conspicuously, however, many artists were simply overlooked. Authors, painters, performers– none except for the truly immortal made the cut. Shakespeare is given the #31 spot and named “Edward de Vere” to tackle two controversies at once. Michelangelo slides in at #50, Bach at #72, and Da Vinci merits a mere honorable mention alongside Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin and others.
My instinct is to suggest that this lightness in the arts demonstrated a bias on the author’s part. His bio shows a man with three advanced degrees in Law, Physics, and a Ph.D in astronomy. Clearly, a lot of his very limited time has not been spent on art appreciation. However, the author is quite clear about his reasons. In short, he doesn’t think the arts have done as much to change human history as, say, discovering how to leverage radiowaves (Guglielmo Marconi, #38). I suppose I agree: of what historical import is the song, alongside the ability to share it widely?
I propose an alternate hypothesis: while these so-called Great scientists and generals changed human history through victories and inventions, these are dramatic, world-changing moments. The arts are no less influential, but the degree to which they inflict change is expressed in microunits, hundreds of times a day. This doesn’t mean that the ability of the arts to effect change is weaker so much as the change they do create is more gradual, designed, like any good story mechanic, to evade perception and impossible to identify in hindsight.
There is an interesting meme going around at the moment where the participant lists the favorite albums that influenced them during their teen years. I’ve seen a lot of versions of this. Many people can tell you where they were when they heard a specific song, say, “Champagne Supernova.” Very little of that thrill transferred to the joy of getting the MP3 player itself, which is, on balance, probably more historically influential than Oasis.
Still. We live our lives as subject to the peaks and valleys our emotional lives, and the arts are the only inventions that exist on a scale that can inject into and redirect that flow.
I love hearing the stories of how people discovered Fugazi in art class and that it opened up a new world of possibility for them, or kissed on a Ferris wheel to the Rolling Stones, or decided to get their shit together with the pitiless encouragement of Gang Starr.
Here’s mine. I remember very clearly laying in the bed of a female classmate. We had spent the night together (sleeping) and everything felt right. We were still circling each other, trying to decide if we would take this further and farther than either of us had been.
“Blind” by the Sundays was playing. We lay there, listening to the whole album, from ‘I Feel’ to ‘Wild Horses.’ (Later, we also listened to Oasis.)
“This is nice,” I thought. Something in Harriet Wheeler’s voice said, “this is a place you can stay.” Something in it created the space to get to know one another. The CD remained in our house, on a dusty shelf, for thirteen years.
Was this Great Art? I kind of doubt it. But it was timely, specific and helped to set the trajectory of the life that followed as readily as any invention I can think of. Had we not heard that record, would the world have come to meet my daughter? Who can say?
Furthermore, I’m a music lover. What other details might have sent me in motion had the art been something different? Perhaps if I found a book I found meaningful on her shelf? More prosaically: how else might I have spent this morning, had I not seen these facebook posts about people’s favorite bands? (For the purposes of this post, I’m qualifying FB posts as art.)
History is made by people, yes. And those people are animated by words, books, films articles, music. Wouldn’t you like to know what music Genghis Khan (#29) would have had in his iPod? How Marx would have read Kundera? If Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins had not been Bill Clinton’s favorite author, our first “black president?” If Barack Obama was unsympathetic to Hip Hop? If Paul Ryan was? (No, I mean really was.) Something about the fact that most Tank commanders in Desert Storm agreed that Megadeth was the most commonly played band in tanks seems significant. History writ large may not feel it, but certainly, in the life of an individual, the right art at the right time is what creates the trajectories of your life. Whether you’re seeing it, or not.