This letter from President Ravi S. Rajan was sent to the CalArts community on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 15, 2018.
Earlier this week, we honored the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose sense of justice, forgiveness, solidarity, courage, compassion, dignity, humility, and service to others reflect values CalArtians hold very close to their hearts. I thank Dr. Eva Graham, our Diversity Officer, for calling attention to Mr. Bayard Rustin in her note to the faculty, staff, and students. Mr. Rustin’s study with the Mahātmā, M.K. Gandhi, in India allowed him to bring to Dr. King the teachings of nonviolent protest—teachings that were essential to the US Civil Rights Movement.
In thinking about the important work and gifts that Dr. King bestowed upon our country, I was also reminded of a remarkable essay written by the artist John Cage. (Cage received an honorary degree from CalArts in 1986.)
The essay was written in 1927, when Mr. Cage was merely 15 years old. He won the Southern California Oratorical Contest representing Los Angeles High School, and was invited to read his essay aloud at the Hollywood Bowl. Cage’s essay focused on United States imperialism in South and Central America, and contained a remarkable wish:
One of the greatest blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her businesses discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world of affairs created, and finally to have everything stopped that runs, until everyone should hear the last wheel go around and the last echo fade away…then, in that moment of complete intermission, of undisturbed calm, would be the hour most conductive to the birth of a Pan-American Conscience. Then we should be capable of answering the question, “What ought we to do?” For we should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn that other people think.
Seeing how prominent silence was to become a part of Mr. Cage’s thinking, it’s amazing to see its presence in this speech when he was just 15 years old.
It has been 90 years since Mr. Cage, then Mr. Gandhi, then Dr. King felt they needed to explain that an essential part of being human is to listen to each other—to see differences as the colors and flavors of the world in which we live, things to be celebrated and enjoyed, not feared and used as a wedge to divide. In 90 years, you’d think our political discourse might better represent how we should listen to each other—something that these three leaders not only believed, but turned into ACTION.
CalArts is a place that from the beginning was rooted in imagining the way the world might be, and making those visions manifest through our work as artists. In our founding days, Walt Disney described his vision for CalArts as “A City of Artists,” a place where artists would live and work together, in a collaborative spirit that generated new ideas and new voices. He liked the utopian: Disneyland was a place where children could imagine the way the world might be; CalArts was a place where artists could apply that imagination to create new work.
Action is important to being Citizen Artists—and action together: listening to each other, supporting each other, taking care of each other…is more important today than it ever has been. Continue taking action that represents these values: this is what is most important to us as CalArtians.
Let’s also remember these values by finding a time to be silent—and be present to that silence—in an effort to continue to learn that other people think.
Ravi S. Rajan
Image: Other People Think, Alfredo Jaar, 2012