Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Tony Kushner spoke to graduates of the School of Visual Arts in New York City on May 14. Below are video and full text of his speech.
I'm having difficulty writing this speech. That was the first sentence I wrote when I sat down to write this speech, a few days ago -- oh alright, last night, I started to write this last night, please don't be offended, I do everything at the last minute. Last year -- hand to God -- I started writing a play on the second day of rehearsal! By way of helping me prepare for this speech, President Rhodes sent me a big book packed with the works of art you guys have produced -- the book's entitled, rather defensively it seems to me, PROOF -- and of course I was overwhelmed by the glories it contains, but I have to admit that my favorite thing was the crack-and-peel sticker pages, and I'd like especially to send a shout-out to the genius who made the little round stickers on which DEADLINE! encircles an evilly-grinning skull. Whoever you are, you got it right! Deadlines kill.
So after staring blankly at the blank white Arctic void of my laptop screen so long that the face of Jesus started to materialize, I wrote down that sentence: I'm having difficulty writing this speech. I discovered long ago that when writing becomes so difficult that your head turns into a cold granite block too heavy for your neck to support, one way to avoid being, well, blocked is to write about the difficulty of writing, because there's bound to be some cause for it compounded of interesting ingredients which in all likelihood have some connections to the subject at hand -- some part of you has transformed the hollow, emptyish, sounding-box reverberant with strange noises, echoes and wind that is ordinarily your head into an insupportably ponderous, blind and silent granite block because this obstructionist part of you knows you don't in truth think what you think you think about the subject at hand, your inner obstructionist wants you to think again, and it accomplishes this by making you stupid. So what else are you to write about when this happens other than how stupid you are, or suddenly seem to have become?
In a way, it's President Rhodes's fault. PROOF intimidated me, or rather it confirmed for me that the intimidation I was feeling when I dragged my feet about accepting Milton Glaser's invitation to speak to you was entirely appropriate. I was initially reluctant because I'm a writer, and this is The School Of Visual Arts; you are visual artists, mostly, notwithstanding the presence of a few critics among you -- and no offense, but the presence of critics has never made me relax when I'm ill-at-ease. I suppose in some sense we're alike, you and I, in that we're artists, we make art, we make stuff up; Socrates had no more use for you guys in his Republic than he had for guys like me; we're all counterfeiters and liars, as far as he was concerned. I can't remember if he liked painters less than playwrights or the other way around, but I remember that he didn't trust any of us farther than he could throw us. I am a lover of the visual arts, painting and sculpture and printmaking, photography and filmmaking, graphic design and illustration, and don't get me started on cartoons! It's because I love these so ardently, so consumingly, that I feel about the visual arts some of Socrates's iconoclastic distrust. Would it be tacky of me to admit, at your commencement ceremony, that on occasion I feel there might be something in the visual arts that's antithetical to the effective functioning of, you know, civilization, or at least of pluralist secular democratic societies? Or if not antithetical to, then at least problematic for? I mean is it just me or do any of you sometimes feel that there are simply too many images, that the infinite spawning of images has transmogrified the purpose of image-creation, of art itself, from a form of labor intended at its best and most honorable to delve deep into the bones and marrow of existence in order to excavate meaning, broaden understanding, expose lies and serve as a means for the pursuit of if not the ultimate apprehension of the truth, which let's face it is mostly likely not ultimately apprehensible but is always worth pursuing? The poet Robert Duncan wrote that
"to see, to hear, to feel or taste -- this sensory intelligence that seems so immediate to us as to be simple and given -- comes about in a formal organization so complicated that it remains obscure to our investigation in all but its crudest aspects. To be alive itself is a form involving organization in time and space, continuity and body, that clearly exceeds our conscious design. ... There is not a phase of our experience that is meaningless, not a phrase of our communication that is meaningless. We do not make things meaningful, but in our making we work towards an awareness of meaning."
Is it just me or do any of you feel that the honorable exercise of image creation as a means of generating meaning has, by virtue of its remarkable successes, encouraged its appropriation by systems of political economy for purposes more ambiguous if not to say less honorable if not to say downright wicked? Do any of you ever feel that there are simply too many images, even those as excellent as those gathered in the 608 pages of the 2010/2011 edition of PROOF--exempting of course the entirely honorable crack-and-peel death's head deadline stickers -- do any of you share my anxiety that that the inescapable superefflorescence of image, encompassing and enveloping and barraging our senses everywhere all the time, has made it much more likely that even honorable image-makers are contributing not to human meaning or human understanding but rather to a thick opaque veil that's come to stand between us and reality, to prophylactically inure us against reality, to supplant it? Or perhaps it's got nothing to do with Socrates or Plato or the Greeks, perhaps it's more of a Jewish, Second Commandment, no-graven-images sort of thing; or perhaps it's just occupational bias; I'm a writer, hence words seem less immediate, less effective somehow, safer somehow to me than pictures. You should have gotten a visual artist to speak at your commencement, or even better, stand silently and show slides.
Of course I'm wrong about this; words have their dangers too, and anyway, if I'm right about the danger of image-making, who am I to talk? I write plays and movies, I live and work at the borderline between word and image just as any cartoonist or illustrator does. I'm not a pure writer. I use words as the score for kinetic imagistic representations. I don't write not poems and essays, I'm not, God forbid a million times, a critic -- I'm just kidding. And in a way isn't art or for that matter theater and film criticism the unornamented, un-illuminated written word's severe iconoclastic reaction to if not to say corrective to if not to say vengeance upon the Image and the terrible danger it poses?
Anyway I'm sure your SVA teachers have taught you how to handle with absolutely scrupulous, ethical, skeptical, circumspect delicacy and finesse the staggeringly powerful stuff with which you soon-to-be BFA and MFA visual artists will make your livings and your art. MY POINT WAS: I'm intimidated to be speaking to you, I was before I opened the pages of PROOF; after I'd leafed through PROOF, I had all the proof I need: you're a very talented, very cool, very hip bunch of visual artists, which makes you wildly more intimidating to someone as terminably uncool and, well, old as I am. Furthermore, you're graduating with degrees, as President Rhodes explained in the note he enclosed in my copy of PROOF, "meant to help students launch their careers after graduation." In other words, you guys aren't the airy-fairy fuzzy-headed overstuffed-with-information deer-in-the-headlights oh-no-I'm-graduating-what-the-hell-do-I-do-now types I'm used to speaking to at commencements; you're tough and cool, effective and armed for employment, you may even already be earning money with your art. So what of use am I supposed to say to you?
I suppose I could say have you seen the papers? There are no jobs out there. We could talk about unemployment, something about which playwrights know something, and about which even ridiculously overpaid screenwriters are beginning to learn painful lessons.
Before I talk about unemployment, something's been nagging at me: What I said earlier about deadlines and writing this speech last night and starting a play on the second day of rehearsal -- that was appallingly irresponsible, sharing that, I'm your commencement speaker, my job today is to dispense good advice. So let me add: Working won't really kill you, completing your work won't really kill you, you're afraid it might, but you won't really die; being late with your work, never finishing your work won't really make you immortal, you only think it will, you're all old enough -- especially those of you about to get your Masters' degrees -- you're old enough now to know that no one's actually immortal and that deadlines aren't actually lines across which death is waiting for you, except that if you're late they'll fire you and as I was saying the unemployment rate is pretty grim, I wouldn't necessarily believe all that recovery talk, so I suppose the grim reaper might be waiting for you across the next deadline you miss since without work and with the cutbacks in social services we're likely to endure in immediate future you could starve to death (though you shouldn't worry, your parents are secretly hoping you'll move back home and live with them and off them forever).
And speaking of which, as your commencement speaker I think it's also my job to say thank you, parents, for the sacrifices you've made that made it possible for these visual artists to get to this impressive point, and also thank you, parents, for whatever it was you did to them that traumatized them just enough to make them need to become artists but not so traumatized that they're unable to dress themselves in the morning or meet deadlines. Good work, parents!
(By the way, parents, they're going to pay you back for those things you did to them in the art they make.)
Let's return to the topic of unemployment, which is to say the economy, which is to say politics. This is something I always find myself doing when I give commencement speeches. Propriety and politeness would dictate that I remain non-partisan regarding the current political climate so as not to offend those graduates and their families who do not share my opinions, because, after all, it's their graduation too, wrong-headed though they be. But in every commencement speech I find myself railing about the current political climate, which is almost always hideously toxic, and has been even more toxic, like to a supersaturated nearly-fatal extent, during the years 2001-2008, in the eight successive springs of which I've delivered most of the commencement speeches I've been invited to deliver, because as I've mentioned, the task of a commencement speaker must involve dispensing some last particle of wisdom, some advice to students about to leave the shelter of scholarly or even vocational study, about to enter the great world beyond, and from 2001-2008 the best wisdom/advice always seemed to be OH MY GOD ARE WE F-ASTERISK-C-K-E-D or WHAT? SAVE YOURSELVES! SAVE US ALL! HELP! HELP! And while a commencement speech ought to be jolly and celebratory, a good full-throated hot-blooded battle cry needn't be depressing to anyone.
Especially not these days, when we've witnessed a near-miraculous transformation, not in the Imago-sphere, but in realpolitik, in actual on-the-ground-reality, in actual historical time. In saying this I don't mean to suggest that there's been a revolution, that the much-abused, rapidly overheating, impaupered, exploited, ravaged, unequal and unjust, befouled tormented world we inhabit, the real world - by which I mean the human-made artificial world we've inhabited ever since homo sapiens became homo faber -- I'm not suggesting that this world has suddenly, magically become the Eden we all always desire and know we have unsparingly to strive to create. But you guys are the second commencing class since the last election, and a mighty change has been made, a page of sheer unadulterated chicanery, mass murder and horror written in embarrassingly awful subliterate prose has been turned, and on the very next page, to what in my opinion should be our continuing surprise, relief, ecstatic joy, it turns out that the story of a functioning, participatory pluralist secular democracy is still being written.
Last year, in point of fact, I didn't give a commencement speech, I couldn't (the aforementioned play begun on the second day of rehearsal in early April prohibited that). So I missed a chance to speak to representatives of the first graduating class of what I am praying every minute of every day will be, what I hope and in fact firmly believe is the post-Reaganite-post-Bushist-post-Ayn-Randian-post-reactionary-counterrevolutionary-reaction-to-the-60s era. But it's more interesting, I think, to be speaking to representatives of the second graduating class of this new era, because last year most of us were still pumped full of November adrenalin, still high on the novelty of having won an election, still madly in love with the remarkable man we elected, whose abrupt ascent to the national stage reminded us of other moments in our history when national and global crisis demanded the appearance of a political genius and, astounding those like me uncertain about the reliability or even the existence of Divine Providence, a plausible candidate for political genius appeared, and implausibly became our Presidential candidate. And he won!
I'm still madly in love. Who isn't? Did you watch him at Blair House a couple of months ago? Wasn't he hot? And I know you're visually-oriented but I don't mean just that he looks hot -- though he does -- but I mean hot in the way a President who's a community organizer, a constitutional scholar, a rational being with recognizable adult aspirations and a working relationship with some tenable version of reality whose every utterance doesn't suggest frightening thought disorders is hot.
And yeah yeah, I know, the plans for offshore drilling and the escalating war in Afghanistan and the briefs filed in support of executive secrecy, and Elena Kagan doesn't think there's a constitutional right for same-sex marriage (there is, by the way, it's sitting there waving at you, soon-to-be Associate Justice Kagan, right over there by the 14th Amendment) ? and lots more godawful things besides, Guantanamo's still operating and the global economy remains in freefall and the national economy's leaning wobbily at an acute angle against the empty space the burst subprime mortgage bubble formerly occupied, and yet we've yet to nationalize a single industry or bank! Many are the reasons why, in the second graduating class of the new era, one can expect to find more serious discontent and disaffection than in last year's presumably starry-eyed bunch.
To those of you who are discontented, disaffected, despairing, I'd ask only that you recall what real political evil looks like -- you need only think back 18 months -- and bear in mind that we elected a president, not a progressive dictator, and change takes time, hope takes time. We artists, visual and verbal, certainly know this: Artists know that diligence counts as much, if not more, as inspiration; in art, as in politics, patience counts as much as revolution. The messiah comes in a lightning flash, but the ground for Her arrival must be prepared through years upon years of struggle, toil, tillage, error and inventory, and sacrilege, impurity, darkness will play their parts in preparing the way for the Immanence of the Holy, the Divine Light, the Pure. Who knows better than artists how much ugliness there is on the way to beauty, how many ghastly, mortifying missteps, how many days of granitic blockheadedness and dismaying ineptitude there is on the way to accomplishment, how partial all accomplishment is, how incomplete? Who knows better than artists how inimical despair is to understanding this world, to creating new and better and more beautiful and just worlds?
I don't know what to tell you to do with the rest of your lives but from now till the November mid-terms the path seems clear enough to me. Be citizens! Stay active, stay vigilant, stay progressive and stay organized; work to defeat despair, work to make sure the lesser of two evils is as lesser as is humanly possible. Because the humanly possible is what you leave this fabled womb of adepts, the SVA, to go forth into the fallen world to achieve. You are meant, I think, to discover what is humanly possible and even to make sure that what is humanly possible, years from now when you are done with your work, is a good deal worthier of celebration than the humanly possible you inherit today.
The work of artists is to find what's humanly possible -- possibility's furthest reaches. But perhaps the work of citizens is to find what's immediately possible. I can't tell you how your work as artists contributes directly to your work as citizens, if in fact art does contribute directly, if in fact certitude and directness are not as inimical to art as despair is to politics. I've been writing plays for nearly two decades and I only know, or at least I think I know, that only in activism -- organizing, arguing, fundraising, electioneering -- can one exercise with some small degree of certainty one's agency as an actor in politics, on the historical stage. Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible.
Kenneth Koch wrote a poem called "The Art of the Possible." It begins:
The Art of the Possible Credo:
Vanishing is impossible.
Lasting is impossible.
Being in two places at once is impossible.
Speaking the entire truth is impossible.
Instantly knowing Spanish is impossible.
Living in the midst of ten thousand panes of glass is impossible.
Being simultaneously masked and unmasked is impossible.
Except in art.
Art is the art of the possible.
I'd propose that politics is the art of the possible, while art is the art of the possibility of the impossible. Art has its indirect power -- surely we all believe that or we wouldn't make, or for that matter consume art. But a comfort with the possibility of powerlessness may be an essential concomitant to being an artist -- with its possibility, not with its certainty, not with powerlessness itself. As the poet John Ashberry, speaking of New York School poets, wrote in an essay about the painter Fairfield Porter, "Beyond the narrow confines of "the subject", only one of a number of equally important elements in the work of art, the secret business of art gets done according to mysterious rules of its own."
The secret business of art, I think, the awareness of meaning. Meaning is never complete. Meaning tells us that truth is never complete. Meaning is the suspension in which violent certainty is held and dissolved. Meaning is never finished, never arrived at conclusively, never exhausted, never legible to literalists and fundamentalists, to literalists and fundamentalists meaning is a closed book, the book a mere talisman, a fetish object. Meaning is for people who can handle being overwhelmed without keeling over, meaning is for people who can resist the urge to slither away. Maybe that's why artists have such trouble with deadlines. Meaning resists symmetry, meaning resists closure, meaning is impervious to soundbites and is never singular, never without its opposites, transforming itself in history.
As you are adepts of a mystery, go forth and deepen the mystery, make the impossible seem possible, bring heaven down to earth. As you are citizen adepts of a democracy that is still a democracy in more than name, but not, I fear, unless we work very very hard, for very much longer, you have to learn as well the art of the possible, and practice it in the months leading to November and beyond. As you are adepts of a divine mystery, and obviously pretty amazing adepts at that or you wouldn't be here in radio City Music Hall, where the fun never sets, on this great day with your parents and grandparents and spouses and children, all of whom are schepping naches , as you are such gifted and remarkable and soon-to-be graduated adepts with diplomas and degrees, make images for the world, show the world what the heart of it means! I think you are lucky, you have passed through a terrible time, and there are terrible times still to come, but you're lucky ? I think this is a time when America, the world may understand the art you make. So go make art already, commence already, thank you for inviting me to share today with you, and a million billion mazeltovs to you all, we count ourselves very lucky to watch what you have in store.