Art and an essay for our times by our exhibiting artist Stephen Burt

This emblem is an elaboration of the staff of Asclepius-the Greek god of healing and medicine. The serpent by its change of skin represents rebirth and fertility as well as deep knowledge. The rod of Asclepius has been transformed into a cane made of oak to aid those in need. This branch of oak, an ancient symbol of strength, wisdom, and protection is sprouting leaves of new growth and bearing acorns for the benefit of countless generations. The serpent and the banner bearing the words Society of Mutual Aid intertwine as collaboration and community are necessary to care for all.

Manifesto of the Society of Mutual Aid

Let us create a Society of Mutual Aid and propose that each of us become more generous–that we learn to live with less by giving more. Many of us have much, much, more than we need. The pandemic has shown us the precipice: the divisions–the hate coursing through our society; social unrest has revealed the generational injustices we have tried to ignore. Yet we have also seen us at our very best: front line workers risking their lives to help others; community food banks feeding those in need. We must heal each other and the earth through generosity, compassion and kindness, not just by giving once but as a daily practice. Not all of us can give money, but we all have time, expertise and compassion that costs nothing. Each of us deserves to live in comfort and in freedom from want.

We know how we are living is unsustainable–the signs are everywhere–yet we continue to indulge in ways of being that slowly and inexorably destroy our world. We own too much and give too little. We dishonor our ancestors by not considering future generations. We dishonor the earth by degrading the land with our conspicuous consumption. This world is our only home.

We can change this–we can stop–we can, to quote Anne Herbert’s beautiful, haunting essay “Handy Tips on How to Behave at the End of the World,” “thank it [the earth] for all the good times and say sorry by changing our own participation in the dominance stuff in some profound way.”

We cannot wait for politicians- they follow the people. We cannot wait for organized religion as it is, first and foremost, concerned with its flocks. We cannot wait for others–it will be too late. We must transform ourselves. Mutual Aid can begin to rebalance the earth. And maybe, just maybe, we can salvage the beauty of what is left of our tortured planet and honor the suffering masses on whose backs are built whatever privileges and good fortune we enjoy.

We can help a family in need. Nurture the vulnerable creatures in nature, plant for the pollinators whose tireless work puts food on our table, plant a tree to shade future generations. Reach out to those we do not know and give generously to those who need help. Give money to the homeless on the street to alleviate suffering. Do not second guess how your gift will be used or expect thanks in return.

We know this will not be easy, we have been taught to acquire and to live in fear of not having enough, we no longer know the real value of what we consume. We have become purveyors of a supply and demand culture.

We believe in the possibility of a just Society of Mutual Aid. There is no cost, no pledge, no prize, no promised salvation. The only ask is if you receive help please endeavor to pass it on. Those who participate will begin to save this world.

We can build the world we want gift by gift. We can live knowing we have done our best. We can practice kindness and compassion that preserves and protects. We can create and honor beauty. This is our moment.

Stephen Burt

See more of Burt’s work in our current exhibition, Witness, and on his website.