Two Days Late and a Dollar Short: On Inspiration
…where it all comes out…
This past month, Esquire tried to inspire with a round up of the nation’s most inspiring CEO’s. People from the guy who’s behind Chipotle to the guy who runs Under Armour were featured in a special section of the magazine. That’s kind of the problem with citing business leaders as ciphers for inspiration though, isn’t it? As far as I’m concerned, it’s always the “guy who…” And as appealing as being remembered for founding the nation’s largest burrito shack chain is, or being the guy who made all that money selling shoes online is, what it all boils down to is being remembered as a guy who made a bunch of money selling a bunch of stuff. Truly, that is the material from which dreams are made and legacies forged.
And that’s the problem with trying to elevate the CEO or business in general. A CEO might be aspirational, but he is hardly ever inspirational. Unless you have the soul of a churl, it’s unlikely that any CEO, no matter how scintillating his business practices, has ever made you feel anything even approaching inspiration. Despite modern American culture’s best attempts to convince the general populace otherwise, there’s nothing divine or especially creative about making large sums of money. A brief look at the American marketplace ought to confirm that.
In a country whose identity is so inextricably tied to its deification of the free market, it is only natural that those Americans whose personal identities are most entwined with money-making should try to convince the rest of us that there is an “art” to it, or worse, that they who are at the top of the corporate ladder are somehow maestros, directors, artists, and so forth. The elegiac language with which business periodicals describe current corporate titans cannot hide one simple fact—they don’t matter. Not to history they don’t. Wealth, fortune—these things do not impress history. A legacy that is staked solely upon wealth will be short lived as history will happily attest.
Who, except for Ancient historians (if even) can name the richest man of Ancient Greece? The memory of the foremost Ancient merchants faded eons ago, yet Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Homer, and Herodotus—men of philosophy poetry, and history—live on today in our politics, literature, and even in the media that had not yet been conceived in their day, like film and television. What of Ancient Rome? Few remember Marcus Crassus’ wealth, but Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Ovid—are all read and continue to influence western literature.
Shall I go on? We remember the Middle Ages for Chaucer. The Renaissance for its artists (Da Vinci!), writers (Shakespeare!), philosophers (Descartes!), and historians (Petrarch!) reinvigorated by classical revival. The period known as the Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) gave few names the legacies like the ones that it bestowed on its artists such as Mozart, Lord Byron, and Victor Hugo. More recently: Dickens, Matisse, Degas, Picasso, Dali, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. These are the names that history remembers! Because these are the contributions to culture that humanity has deemed worthy of time’s remembrance.
Mostly in obscurity, artists labor to inspire. Sometimes, as a result, the gifted are rewarded with fame or fortune for their labors. Often, that is not the case as recognition is frequently posthumous if forthcoming at all. An artist works with no promise of any return, yet works anyway. To continue such work in the face of rejection and abjection without any assurance—that is a triumph. That inspires. Consider this selection from John F. Kennedy:
Too often in the past, we have thought of the artist as an idler and dilettante and of the lover of arts as somehow sissy and effete. We have done both an injustice. The life of the artist is, in relation to his work, stern and lonely. He has labored hard, often amid deprivation, to perfect his skill. He has turned aside from quick success in order to strip his vision of everything secondary or cheapening. His working life is marked by intense application and intense discipline.
Profit and return, however, must be foremost in the budding impresario’s mind from the very beginning. That is the goal and he must work toward it. There is no crime in pursuing profit. Some would argue it’s necessary to the continued function of the economy. Others would disagree, but it’s probably safe to discount the arguments of ideologues whose best arguments are 3rd world dictatorships, and a laundry list of failed Marxist states.
Profit, at least in some small way, is necessary to the continued existence of the vast majority of us. Doesn’t it seem strange then to fall all over ourselves in order to laud those who are simply better or luckier at doing something we all must do? Why not praise the best breathers? Or eaters?
Let’s not kid ourselves, Bill Gates didn’t invent Windows, Walt Disney didn’t create his characters so much as he plagiarized the public domain with impunity, and the robber barons made their fortunes dispensing with things like morals or common decency. In many cases, being a markedly worse person, not a better person has been the route to what is commonly called success in this fine nation.
If a work of art inspires, conveys a feeling, imparts wisdom to, or shares an insight with just one person, that artist amid relative obscurity may still rightfully deem his work a success. A business venture that impacts only one person, or that makes just a single sale is a rank failure. That is the difference. Business is not art. In the very long-term, great art is ascendant and great wealth inevitably is descendant.
Only the stoniest of hearts among us have not been moved or affected by some work of art, great or obscure. No exchange of capital has ever swept any but the most corrupted soul away as profound art does. Not long ago, I suggested that JFK’s inaugural words were fascist and indicative of corruption of republicanism. However, on the subject of artistic endeavor, one cannot disagree with John Fitzgerald Kennedy:
“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty…an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” —at Amherst College, 1963