What does it take to be a true, world-changing, A-list visionary in the 21st century? Ian Waring Green lays down some guidelines
The minute the word "visionary" is mentioned, interesting assumptions tend to be made. Lists of 20th-century visionaries include political leaders, ecologists (especially popular at the moment) and economists (less popular). Most seem to be altruistic to a degree, concerned for the poor, the planet and so on.
Don't get me wrong: these are all vital and commendable interests to have, but they're not on my spec sheet for an A-list visionary. I'm looking for originality of thought, pure and simple, which, like all thought, is born out of its own circumstance and history, but also transcends them.
Mydictionary defines a vision as being something that exists only in the imagination. Only! The imagination is surely one of the most precious places that anyone can inhabit. It's a place where absolute purity of thought can exist untrammelled by any impracticalities or dissent. It is this purity that I've taken as my yardstick.
True visionaries are frequently ahead of their time and are often thought barmy, irrelevant or even dangerous, particularly if their visions upset the status quo. A prime example of this is Martin Luther King, who's remembered mainly for his civil rights crusade, but also criticised the Vietnam war and America's aggressive behaviour on the world stage.
I mentioned A-list visionaries and while a virgin train of thought is ideal, what about the person who takes an existing thought and then transforms it into something greater? Artist Anthony Gormley obviously has a degree of vision to create something as extraordinary as The Angel of the North, but what about those who commissioned it? Spending £800,000 of public money on a modern-day centaur of vast proportions requires some vision, and for all sorts of projects like this, funding, permissions and backing have to be found.
There are many characteristics of vision and one of the defining ones is risk. If someone shares that risk, they become part of the process and earn themselves a place on the B, C or D list. Similarly, for those who take an unoriginal idea and develop it, there must be room on the B list. I suspect that there are many people, especially in medical research, who fall into this category. They build on the work of others but, in doing so, create wonderfully. There's the recent case of Spanish doctors growing and successfully implanting a re-engineered windpipe, for example. Visionary indeed.
Speaking of the other lists, there are those well down the Z list, like myself, who have sporadic flashes of inspiration. There are also those considerably higher up, such as school teachers, particularly good primary school teachers, who are required to be visionary several times a day.
But what makes an A-list thinker? As I've said, it isn't public acceptance, or even success. It doesn't seem to be background, either. Henry Moore was the son of a coal miner, Gaudi was the son of a coppersmith, and Luther King followed his father into the church. A more reliable indicator might be an innately keen and insistent curiosity, coupled with a fierce determination and strong self-confidence.
So far, I have mentioned only 20thcentury figures, but what about the 21st century? This is harder, as most original thinkers are not recognised in their lifetime, although global communication can change that instantly. The wide-ranging and multifaceted success of Thomas Heatherwick's designs (architecture, sculpture and engineering) springs to mind, helped as much by bad news (Manchester's "B of the badly constructed") as good.
Today, the defining characteristic is thatwe communicate, instantly and constantly. In fact, given that our capabilities for communication have so far outstripped what we actually have to say, we overcommunicate drastically. This gives our 21st-century visionary a few problems, the first being in the realm of unique, unselfconscious thought.
Bachwas unknown outside his immediate area and remained so for more than a century after his death. Leonardo was similarly insulated from global distractions. Even into the first half of the last century, it was much easier to think independently.
Today, however, if an unusual building, piece of music or approach to an ecological problem begins to emerge, I may know about it within hours. If I want to insulate myself from outside "interference" I have to retreat, to block off the never-ending and ubiquitous communication (what you might call "newsak"). Global communication can be very beneficial, but in the creative field it can also be a nightmare.
Solving the problem and also enabling creative thinkers to thrive in our century involves, among other things, allowing the young to dream. Messiaen says that he was brought up "in a climate of poetry and fairytales... such as enormously develops a child's imagination and leads him towards thinking in immaterial terms". Oscar Wilde saw the creative spirit as being that of a dreamer who "sees the dawn before the rest of the world".
Today, there is too much peer, commercial and organisational pressure at an appallingly early age, which is communication driven. There is not enough childhood, with its attendant freedom, to use a released imagination.
This brings me neatly to two final visionaries, both of our time and both involved with the lives and minds of children. José Antonio Abreu is a Venezuelan polymath, who studied piano, organ, harpsichord and composition as a young man and went on to obtain a PhD in petroleum economics. He has also been a professor of law. He had a vision of using music (specifically orchestras for children) to turn the youth of his country away from the ever-present lure of drugs and crime in very poor areas. His scheme, which operates a network of youth orchestras throughout Venezuela, currently involves more than 250,000 children and is so established that it is known nationally simply as El Sistema, the System.
Similarly, Loris Malaguzzi was an elementary school teacher in the Italian town of Reggio Emilia. His vision was encompassed in a poem called The Hundred Languages of Children and includes the lines "a hundred worlds to discover, a hundred worlds to invent, a hundred worlds to dream". He believed, as does the thriving worldwide movement that continues his work today, that children's knowledge needs to be brought out using their natural curiosity.
It seems to me that natural curiosity is the prime force behind creative thinking and is something to be engendered in everyone, everywhere, whatever their age. So we need to do whatever we can to recognise the visionaries among us. We need to support those encouraging us to dream, to learn to discern quality when we see it, to reject the cheap, the fake, and the merely popular and to take the risk of learning from the barmy, the idealists and the dreamers.