This title is a derivation from the original quote by John Wycliffe in the general prologue to the Bible translation of 1384, but my reinterpretation actually gives it a temporal dimension. This is useful because I have always seen art as a temporal object rather than a stand-in or a representation of some essence. Art of Everyone refers to the art of our generations, how they evolve over time. Art by Everyone refers to the art of today, how we produce artwork. And finally Art for Everyone refers to the art of the future of our species.
Art of Everyone
In order to discuss the art of our generations, we need to understand what we mean by “generation” and develop a Generation Awareness. We are born as individuals, and grow up with the misleading belief that we are independent actors. But we are all already born within a generation that predetermines us, and far more than we think. Every generation desires to separate itself from the previous one, and bring something new to the world. However, as we grow older, the generational values we inherit close us off from other points of view and shrinks the breadth of our minds. In order to become artists, we must understand this powerful influence on who we are and how we see the world. Understanding the spirit of our generation and the times we live in will lead to a better ability to exploit the zeitgeist. We will become the ones to guess and even set the very trends our generation is looking for. Freeing our minds from the limitations of our generations, we will finally become the independent individual that we only imagined ourselves to be with all the power that will bring us.
According to the 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, human history moves in four acts: Revolutionaries, Stabilizers, Pragmatists, and Skeptics. The first generation is the Revolutionaries who make a radical break from the past and establish new values, but in doing so they create chaos.
My parents came from this generation in Ethiopia because they were Eritreans who joined the EPLF who teamed up with the ELF’s rebellion against the Solomonic dynasty. However, once my parents moved to America, they absorbed the dynamic of a different generation — the Pragmatists. They wanted to solve problems and make life as comfortable as possible, and began to build things. My father helped build a church in Los Angeles, and my mother traded in politics for religion. As a member of the subsequent generation, the Skeptics, I felt the previous American generation had lost its vitality, but I wasn’t sure what should replace it. I questioned the values that I had inherited from my parents, and became cynical. But I no longer knew what to believe. And so a crisis emerged.
Thankfully, I found a solution in art. My general disappointment with institutions like our government and religion became the very solution itself: create stories about rebellion against the system. I developed an art style and created stories that expressed this cynical disbelief with the past, and an ironic attitude towards established values. My first graphic novel Pantheon is about a bunch of gods rebelling against godhood.
Art by Everyone
Given this generational awareness, how did I convert the Zeitgeist into an artwork? Looking back, I discovered three necessary steps that every artist or writer must take: Inspiration, Perspiration, and Resistance.
Like a cliche, the very first chapter was written overnight in a flash of inspiration. Way back in college, during my last semester, I had this assignment of writing a short story espousing a philosophical theme, and I picked Thrownness. I decided to write a story about a goddess waking up on a deserted beach without memories, and she meets other gods who recruit her in their revolution. It became readily apparent that I realized that most of the real work was already completed long before I actually sat down to write the opening chapter. Chalk it up to all those lost years at the library, reading every book on mythology, and imagining new stories for years before it suddenly crystallized overnight.
Then I was faced with the hard work of learning how to write. How to plot and how to develop voices for each character. Yes, the Muse shows up for the cameras, but she always leaves you with the bill at the end of every party.
I was left with a nice opening chapter but little else. The first step was to figure out exactly what I had — figure out a way to shrink this into a single thought. Then articulate it in a sentence. Expand it to a paragraph. A page. The thought? Revive our ancient mythologies with contemporary tropes by developing a universe of rival factions of gods that competed as politicians by vying for billions of worshipers across thousands of star systems.
Each panel I drew, every line of dialogue I composed, all must derive or apply or interpret this maxim that served as a guiding star for plotting the story.
Every time I ran smack dab against a creative block, or the wellspring ran dry, or I found myself painted into a corner, I went back to the fundamentals. Be it re-discovering the basic building blocks of art or breaking down the story to its bare constituents, whatever beginning it was. And if that did not work, I talked through it. There’s no such thing as a talker’s block. I was fortunate to be part of a group of deaf writers who had their own projects to help work through my creative block.
Even though I did solve some of them, I was always faced with a critical point with the work. I had to ask myself if it was worth it. Guess what? Money or fame was never the right answer. It had to be something much deeper and meaningful. What was my art for, really?
Enter the Resistance. Every reason we cite for not working on and finishing our work is the Resistance. Whether it is procrastination, anxiety, distraction, self-doubt, blogging on Medium, even — they are all symptoms of the Resistance.
In the book War of Art, Steven Pressfield wrote “Resistance arises from within… self-generated and self-perpetuated… it is the enemy within.” Fear is good. It tells us what we have to do. The more scared we are of a work, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. That nagging voice of self-doubt that says we can’t write, draw or be much of anything, is actually our ally. It pushes us every time we finishes something, or meet our goals. The trick is to be afraid of doing nothing more than being afraid of not doing it well.
Each time I finished a chapter, or a page, I faced the exact same doubt. You’re FINISHED. But that doubt meant I had completed one level, and was entering the next level, filled with its own challenges, new enemies and death-traps, and a brand-new but ever-more ferocious end-boss at the end. Every time we complete a project, the Resistance returns. This is the sign of progress.
A friend of mine once told me that we all carry logs. We take care of it, keep it clean, show it to others if we feel like it, but we never ever part from it. But once in a while, a person finds the courage to throw their log into the fire. That person is finally free. And the rest of us watch that blaze of fire and remember that brave person forever.
It was difficult, but I tried to keep in mind who I was making the book for. A proxy if you will, just like how Stephen King wrote for his wife. My proxy was the ten year old bookworm who loved mythology but wanted to read more after the ancient stories ended. This orientation helped me find the solution when I was faced with difficult decisions.
TL; DR? Inspiration is but the first step in a thousand-mile long journey. Perspiration and Resistance are your constant companions.
Art for Everyone
Creating an artwork for everyone means it is for all of us as a species, the collective human race. While I enjoyed reading science fiction and all of its various genres, I thought there were room for new types of sci-fi. The golden age of science fiction, or Space Age, actually belonged to the previous generation, the Baby Boomers, and the Cyberpunk genre belonged to the generation that grew up with computers. But they both are now passe, and science fiction required a new infusion of ideas. We are no longer going to the moon, and nor are we programming artificial human beings either. Therefore sci-fi required a course correction in order to reassess its meta-narratives.
After the brilliant emergence of afrofuturism, I realized that I could combine science fiction with our ancient mythologies and help develop a new sub-genre called Panfuturism. Where afrofuturism is science fiction minus the colonial mentality and Othering, and re-imagined with ancient African traditions with an unapologetic black identity, Panfuturism is also science fiction but on a global scale up to and including our ancient mythologies, re-imagined in a post-human future.
It is my dream that my graphic novel Pantheon, as a species of Panfuturism, successfully touches on issues that we are interested in, but science fiction has yet to properly address. Questions such as the future of our species, what happens to the world when we fail in our role as caretakers, what happens to our myths in a post-human reality. We seem to be building towards a human-free future without a road map.
There are several candidates that could stand-in as exemplars of panfuturism: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny and American Gods by Neil Gaiman to begin with. These works may be retroactively included in the new genre. This is what happened to the works of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, which are now officially recognized as part of the afrofuturism canon.
But in order for panfuturism to really take off, it may depend on a candidate that functions as Unbuilt Genre — a book that reads like a deconstruction but actually serves as a foundational work, or a systematizer that launches the genre. Much like how the Iliad did for all Western literature, Don Quixote did for the modern novel, and The Time Machine for time travel tropes.
However, if there is no extant trope for Pantheon to deconstruct, then it is still a pregnant idea still in gestation, and has yet to mature in pop culture. If Pantheon is to be a successful archetype, it may inspire other writers to construct the mythos and popular cliches of the genre, or deconstruct and parody to make panfuturism more popular and acceptable.
How is panfuturism art for everyone? It must include all of us as a single species, but it cannot be addressed to any one of us in particular. Pantheon is about the fate and destiny of our species, and it is for all of us. But none of us is ready to take a graphic novel about our destiny seriously, so this book is for no one in particular.
Pantheon is a work for everyone and no one.
*This is a slightly edited version of a presentation I gave at NTID on March 28th, 2019.