Toni Morrison's death teaches us that art is our shared humanity

Toni Morrison's death teaches us that art is our shared humanity
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Before I could understand the world, or even myself, I got to know Sethe. 

Toni Morrison so illuminated her story in “Beloved,” the former slave turned into a formative part of my own. Suddenly, Sethe’s traumatic reality, a century removed from my adolescence in Oklahoma, burned close enough to see, to feel.

Her tragedy and triumphs became tangible — they became real — because the vivid precision of Morrison’s artful words made them so.

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The death this week of the groundbreaking Nobel laureate strikes as society craves much more of that connective tissue. Morrison called us to art as a bridge among communities and our human experiences. But more than that, she started bridges right within us, equipping people to examine the world and understand lives far beyond their day-to-day.

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power,” Morrison once said.

Now it rests with us to energize her legacy, even as our media and politics put a premium on our differences. While media highlight discord and intransigence around societal problems, we must seize this moment instead by invigorating new generations of artists who will help us imagine how the world could be.

Despite our need for artists now, more than ever, we continue to fail in society to cultivate and encourage them. Schools of the arts, including the one I lead, routinely rank among the most expensive places at which to get an education, potentially leaving out those who simply can’t afford the freight. This issue reminds me of tennis before the Open Era, back when those who had the time to commit to practicing tennis without earning money ensured that the best players had to be of means. That shifted dramatically when the rules changed. 

Such stratification hardly feels appropriate for something as crucial and fundamental as the incubation of our future artists. It’s time we changed the rules on that as well.

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And not just the rules for arts schools. The model of U.S. higher education is buckling under its own weight. Once seen and funded as a public good, our current system often forces students to extract themselves from society for several years while taking on debt loads they struggle to begin paying off while starting their careers, just when they need the help the most.

We can only begin to imagine how many fine artistic minds — how many voices — are squeezed out of an education because they can’t fit into this anachronistic arrangement. While we know and believe talent and aptitude are distributed in equal measure throughout society, opportunity in our current system falls terribly short. 

Correcting these problems will take more than just tinkering around the edges. Schools, foundations, museums, movie studios, producers and other creative institutions and industries will need to wage an all-out campaign to incubate and foment forthcoming classes of artists. Our experiments and innovations will need to be bolder than before; our resolve, unassailable.

Nothing less than our collective health, well-being and progress is at stake. As Morrison taught us, artists are the pillars and guideposts of our advancement. It’s hard to fathom, for example, that the U.S. could have elected a black president in 2008 if artists didn’t first raise and portray the notion in books, in film, on television and on the stage.

Indeed, art brings us together through ideas, through introductions and through putting our challenges squarely at the forefront. At a time when racism, terrorism and electoral battles push us apart, art promises a space to create models of civility. A space where we can reckon with our societal struggles. A space that reminds us that politics underpin everything, that imagination isn’t a dirty word and that dialogue can help us mend our shortfalls while strengthening our collective bonds. 

Toni Morrison famously told us that, “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t.” But while art is by its nature political, it isn’t just politics; it’s our shared humanity. As we celebrate the life of one of our most pivotal artists, it’s well past time we also follow her example: Let art and artists thrive.

Ravi S. Rajan is the president of the California Institute of the Arts and lives in Los Angeles. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma and Yale University, he has an extensive background in the production of the arts, music, theatre, dance, film and video and has served on the Tony Awards Nominating Committee and as president of the Asian American Arts Alliance.