Especially in these times, a popular idea makes for punchy prose: The arts will help pull us back from the brink, restore society and make a better world.
You can message the concept any number of ways. Plenty of well-meaning people do. But holding up the arts as our salvation sidesteps a more accurate truth: It’s actually artists — not just art — who rehabilitate our wounded society. Art channels the artist.
When our rhetoric inadvertently separates art from artists, we strip their humanity. We effectively telegraph that their feelings, intellect and contributions don’t count. It’s like telling the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick that we don’t want to hear his life experience, what he’s seen or what’s shaped him — we just want him to entertain.
In short, we can’t rightly honor art without honoring the artist. That’s why we must do better to understand, celebrate and support communities of artists during the coronavirus pandemic, the current economic recession and in the anti-racist movement surging across our country. It may sound trite to some, but the vitality of artists of all kinds is fundamental to how civilization will function in the months and years ahead.
First, to understand artists, we need to understand their work as a calling and a way of being. They feel moved to show others a view that no one has imagined before. They use the lens of their experience to develop new models of the world.
In a moment when our reality is turned on its head, nourishing the vision and independence of artists will help us all comprehend a landscape that we’re treading together for the first time. Artists’ works bring us closer to one another — even when we’re physically distanced — by illuminating our stories, our truths, our fears.
We inch closer to our very humanity in the process, finding empathy for our fellow human beings as their lives and problems morph from the abstract into the tangible. When we begin to grasp people, stories and ideas up close, we better understand the true effects of the entrenched inequities and other troubles coursing through society.
Justice advocate Bryan Stevenson puts it poignantly: Proximity binds us closer to those who are underprivileged and those who have different lived experiences. It helps us negotiate our differences. Closeness ties us together and makes us healthier, smarter, more empathetic.
It’s difficult to imagine that a police officer with meaningful proximity to George Floyd would have so blithely kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. By extinguishing the gulfs among us, artists play a pivotal part in snuffing out hate, inequity and misunderstanding.
Like author Arundhati Roy, I believe this coronavirus pandemic is a portal — her term — to a renewed reality that can help us shed these toxic elements. On the other side rests a new frontier where we’ll merge new, post-pandemic forms of art and innovation with the best of our previous experiences and knowledge. History presents few opportunities for such profound and deliberate reinvention.
Preparing for that moment, especially while we endure isolation, has only reinforced how I view the artist, and the arts, in society. I’ve seen others become more receptive when I share my perspective — this notion of the artist as a builder of proximity and our collective vision.
Maybe the idea feels less abstract as we all rely on films, books, music, articles and countless other forms of art when we’re cooped up. Maybe folks have become far more aware of how much they need artists to help them understand the world’s problems — and to imagine a world moving past those problems once we’ve cleared the portal.
It’s up to all of us to maintain our momentum and awareness for the long haul. If we sustain this new spotlight on the indelible importance of artists, I’m hopeful we can find new ways to sustain them. That will mean, in part, putting our money where our revelations are.
Germany recently set a potent example, committing upward of $50 billion in pandemic-related aid to the creative, cultural and media sectors. That money means artists there can commit to creativity, to the hard work of lighting new paths, to helping Germans find their way.
By contrast, our National Endowment for the Arts sees an annual budget of less than $200 million. That’s a pittance.
Whether we do better by our artists will speak to who we are — and who we want to become.
Ravi Rajan is the president of the California Institute of the Arts. See some of the work from CalArts alums below.
Top Image: “Covid Chess Set” by Lyndon J. Barrois, Sr. features two sides: the personas of the powerful virus and incompetent politics (red side) or the heroic and vulnerable first responders and victims (blue side). | Courtesy of Lyndon Barrios, Sr.