As an Englishman living in New York, I have watched the British vote to leave the EU, and the resulting fall-out, with concern. Not just because we are witnessing the fragmentation of the UK, but because it signals a global shift that could have long-term effects on the human race. The earthquake has been in the making for decades, but this moment symbolises a crossroads between integration and separation on a Global scale.
Brexit has created societal division and anger amongst both sides of the argument. A civilisation cannot be angry unless it is first afraid. It cannot be afraid unless it thinks it is losing something. Remainer or Brexiteer, we are all afraid of losing something – be that our identity, our territory or our opportunities. There is a commonality between the Brexit outcome and crowds being attracted to figures such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and the like-minded. These individuals use fear of the other as an active component of their campaigns, taking advantage of our systems’ failure to be holistic. It has led to the rejection of internationalism and the contraction of societies into tribes. What many fail to realize is that it will not stop there. We may see much greater fragmentation: England and Scotland could split; Wales and Cornwall may seek greater autonomy. In the U.S., even if Ms. Clinton does win, the right wing may get more aggressive, more reactive, and protective of their rights and their way of life. They could demand to be separate and to be independent. As unlikely as this sounds today, the United States of America also might not be so united in twenty years time let alone fifty.
As an artist, and a philosopher, I see things a politician cannot. My experiences have shown me that one must look at things from a much larger perspective. In my travels through Bhutan, I spent a great deal of time with Mahayana Buddhists. Their philosophy is to make the world better for the individual, recognizing one’s place in the universal. It’s a blueprint which has many interpretations about how to live a good life - a life of integrity, a life of compassion - through balancing the rational and emotional sides of our nature. Gross National Happiness – for which I am an ambassador - has evolved out of this thought process. It looks at how we can live a more meaningful and sustainable life without negating economics. The problem with a purely economic model is that it tends to see human development in a very linear fashion. Yet we are not linear beings. Sometimes you can be happy without having to make as much money as you want. Money plays a part, yes, but what about family, what about friends, community and supporting other people? I believe humans are naturally empathic, social entities. Gross National Happiness provides a more holistic understanding of how to live a good life, recognizing the full human experience.
Art primarily comes from the right side of the brain - the visual, emotional and expansive part of our nature. When art is done well, it totally transcends linear ways of judging the other, beyond a deductive and didactic approach. Humans expand through experience, through senses, through community and through other human qualities that are not confined to politics or religion, or any other label.
We need an altogether different type of political leadership now, one that understands that people are fed up with the all-too-close relationship between the corporate entities and the government. We need to use Brexit as an opportunity to move towards a transcultural existence. More now than ever, there is a desperate need for a global conversation. Through such conversations people feel connected, and it begins to matter less if they are rich or poor, white or black, gay or straight. These elements do not die out, but certainly burn less brightly in this much larger dialectic.
Recently I was involved in hosting unity workshops after the Black Lives Matter riots in Baltimore. We brought 10 African American citizens from the riots - aggrieved citizens with some levels of anger toward the white police – together with 10 white people, and got them to photograph and paint one another, and talk as human beings. By the end, their racism, regardless of whether it was anti-white or anti-black, had dissipated. This is the power of art. It is hard to find one example where one politician or business leader has been able to do that. I also host regular salons in New York City where I bring people from all walks of life together through a “safe space” modality people feel they can begin to trust one another and thus share their concerns in a meaningful way which leads to healing.
Art acts as a glue that holds us together as a global community. This glue is peeling away from civilization at the moment, and people often avoid the subject because it is frightening when a civilization morphs and changes. You have a choice; either you bury your head in the sand, or you look at the situation truthfully, calmly with perspective, together with experts and philosophers. We can find a way forward, if we can only come to terms with the fact that we are not many fragments of difference, but instead, all part of the whole.