“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”
This mural, my final painting in Kathmandu, is an aesthetic culmination of the images, objects, and ideas I have been most compelled by while in Nepal. As previously described, the wooden doll, one of thousands carved by mountain villagers and sold here in the city, acts, within my current learning, as an icon of historian Yuval Harari’s “Imagined Realities” . The glowing symbol is the ancient Tibetan Infinite Knot, the sole object in my previous mural, available here: http://jonnypopovichart.com/…/81197443-mural-ii-the-infinit…. While there are conceptual underpinnings; the combination of these two is not driven exclusively by metaphor. Rather, above all others, the supreme motive is always visual harmony.
In my last primitive doll drawing, and my Hanumon mural before that, I’ve talked about Harari’s idea that “in order to establish vast, complex organizations, it is necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with another. And this will happen only if strangers believe in some shared myths.” This ability to believe in shared myths, more so than tool-making or intelligence or the mere existence of language, is what truly separates us from all other species, including other (extinct) human species. The opening quote at the top is Harari’s revision of America’s Declaration of Independence, a “mythical cooperation manual for millions”, as he puts it, altered to reflect biological objectivity instead of the imagined orders that actually underpin it. In this case, the Declaration of Independence is the originary myth that, in conjunction with others, sustains the American Empire. So, how do you cause millions of people to believe in an imagined order, such as Christianity, capitalism, democracy, laws, human rights? “First,” he writes, “you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way.” Additionally, it is crucial to “educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. Fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, politics, architecture, recipes, fashions.” (made me wonder what subliminal motives I’ve been instilled with when making art, and what subliminal orders my art may convey). “For example, today people believe in equality, so it is fashionable for rich kids to wear jeans, which were originally working-class attire. In the middle ages people believed in class divisions, so no young nobleman would have worn a peasant’s smock.” Where it gets increasingly interesting to me, is to consider the extent of the idea that “the imagined order is embedded in the material world.” He describes how individualism - the idea that every individual has their own intrinsic worth irrespective of other’s views - is reflected in modern architecture, where houses are divided into many small, private rooms “so that each child can have a private space for maximum autonomy”, and “cannot help but imagine himself ‘an individual.’” he contrasts this again to Medieval times, where individualism did not dominate. Noblemen taught their children that their worth was “determined by social hierarchy and what other people said about them,” and they usually slept “alongside many others in a large hall.”
I find it fascinating to look around and scrutinize my immediate surroundings through this lens. Your city, your home, your clothes, your preferences, manners, etiquette of strangers, advice of friends - what fundamental imagined orders underpin them? Simply believing that having a wide variety of life experiences, or “following your heart,” he argues, is basically Romanticism at work, and was hardly a common belief throughout history. Our most cherished desires as Westerners are “shaped by Romantic, capitalistic, humanist myths”, and therefore “our personal desires become the imagined order’s most important defenses.” A key point to this concept is that the orders are not generated for the health or wellbeing of you, the individual. I think we all might agree that the market, for example, does not have our personal best interests at heart. But what if our own best interests don’t even have our best interests at heart? How often are your personal desires benefitting society, or the market, or Coca-cola, more than yourself?
Thus I’m convinced that by grasping the potency of our abstract thinking, both individually and as a global collective, as seen through these pervasive examples, we can understand how we may have equal capacity to change our experience for the better. We can apply this ability, perhaps most prudently, to our own thought patterns. Reframing stress by understanding this boundless abstract thinking, which I learned from Andrew Bernstein and wrote about prior, has been enormously beneficial for me.