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Leaving Your Artistic Legacy

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The following is a commencement address I delivered on Sunday to the graduates of the Boston University College of Fine Arts

Congratulations! Congratulations congratulations congratu-lations congratulations. I'm honored to stand here and say, Congratulations! You have proved once and for all that you are indeed incredibly hard-working and genuinely talented. You can now go tell your High School Guidance Counselor what to do with that joyless advice they probably offered.

I only sort of remember my graduation. I know I was not really looking forward to facing "real" life, but I was so happy to be done with school

School is incredibly hard. Change is hard. Being constantly told what you don't know is horrible. Exploring the unknown, stuffing the brain with new information while emptying it of what is now revealed to be erroneous is all completely horrible. Falling on your face. It makes us feel stupid and encourages more confident students to leap up and show off. One wishes bad things to rain down on them. You know, the ones who got cast in everything, got all the solos, the praise, whose poems are already appearing in the goddamn New Yorker and who handled it all with such grace, one wishes for them to fall down and chip their teeth.

Perhaps it's because: how in the hell are we to face a life in the arts? Did they teach us that? I don't remember that happening, but I cut a lot of classes and I am a very slow learner and late bloomer. Really. So when your parents start asking what the hell is going on, what are you working on?, remind them that Van Gogh didn't paint until he was 27; don't mention Schiele whose huge body of unforgettable work was cut short by his death at 18. Don't mention him. Or Jesus.

What I vaguely remember about my graduation is having to sit and listen to some ancient man, older than carbon, standing before us in red gown droning on and on about the meaning of a life in the arts in America.

Now I'm back and this time I'm up here and, worse still, I know what you're thinking.

You want to drink and get laid, and I want that for you, I really do. (Or was that high school?)

It bears noting that some years after graduating, I started to read about the Group Theatre, the seminal theater company which saw its own function in society as being something more than the attainment of success, fame and wealth. Elia Kazan, Lee Strasburg, Clifford Odets and Harold Clurman, the director of Member of the Wedding and author of the finest book on directing we have, and our greatest drama critic.

That was the ancient man who spoke to us.

Never mind. Here's the good news:

"Real" life is no more unfair, cliqueish, competitive, back-biting, frustrating and claustrophobic than college. In my experience. The trouble with experience, of course, is you have to have it yourself, you never take it on faith.

So since I can't spare you the pain and humiliation soon to be brought about by your absolute unwillingness to trust me, I can tell you that through all the pain and suffering will also to be the consolations of sex, art and pursuit of justice. An added perk to these three -- if you fully commit yourself to sex, art and justice - the Republicans will be out on their ass.

Why should that be? Because -- and here's more good news -- sex and pleasure will always be radical ideas. It is eternally the reactionary who wants to control our behavior in the bedroom, our delight in being alive and rewarding ourselves on this side of the grave; they are the ones who wish to punish people for having sex for pleasure by forcing them to have babies they don't want and then giving them no health care, no day care, no maternity leave, nothing! God is on their side, pointing to something originally written in Aramaic by people who refused to eat lobster and stoned you if you did. Bush says he talks to god. As do people wandering about the subway.

I'm not saying religion is wrong. Not at all. Jesus said give your money away. Love your enemy. Charity is the greatest virtue. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. He did say, If a member offends you, cut it off. And I'm not down with that at all.

So that's sex.

Justice. I'm leaving art for last -- Why should I be any different than Congress?

Complete and eternal justice is unattainable. Things are defined by their opposite.

However, the Big Shots who told my generation that people of different "races" should not marry or sleep together; that sodomy was a good reason to discriminate against people and oust them from their jobs and prevent them from marrying and having children; that Christianity is our one true national religion; that killing a million poor people in a country that never threatened us is "Bringing Them Democracy" -- these barefaced lying hypocrites are finally headed straight where they belong inside the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. [Right next to the Saber-Toothed Tiger. Reeow!]

As I see it, you are the first generation in a long time to register to vote and oppose reactionary politics, and this could mean the arts finally receive some of the attention and federal support the Dinosaurs stole from us twenty-years ago. You guys have the power to remind everyone, as preceding generations failed to do, that Art is a quality of life issue! It makes things better. Worth living.

And you don't have to agree with all of it -- whatever that means, who the hell "agrees" with the Mona Lisa? -- in order to support it. I don't have to agree with the bombs my taxes pay for, it's part of democracy to pony up anyway.

It's way too easy to dismiss people we don't agree with, which I have been doing since I stood up. Certainly we don't have to like everybody-only Buddha and Laura Bush can do that -but as artists, we pretty much have to love them. We can still hate them, but we have to find a way into their experience, and find them inside ourselves-the tyrant, the barefaced lying hypocrite, in here. Without doing that, having done that, we could never have Iago, Richard III, Oedipus, Willy Loman, Hannibal Lecter. There would be no Goya, Francis Bacon, Diane Arbus.

If you can hold two diametrically opposed ideas in your head at the same time, you can write a play. The push and pull of paint, sound, bodies in space, clay, cat gut on horse hair (do they still use that shit?) is all about one thing: Conflict. Us and Them.

Example: the American people own the airways, legally, they're yours and mine, and we let Congress give them away to TV executives who then use them, our airwaves -- I'm not making this up -- to sell us things we don't necessarily need like war and deodorant and antidepressants we choose to take so we won't get too angry or sad about what they are doing to us.

Without understanding that and them, the ones doing all the doing, our art can get puny and impotent -- just more pretty frou frous for the rich to wear on their way to dispensing with compassion altogether. No art should be less than outrageously itself! A new work of art that offends no one, neither surprises, frightens, mystifies nor startles, is not a new work at all, but a clone of the past.

Please don't get me wrong. I hope you get rave reviews. I hope you receive every award and accolade there is. And I wish you fame and I hope you get very rich. All of you, I really do. I think you can make the world so much better, I know it. Most of all what I want for you ... is hope itself. Which requires either courage or tremendous foolishness or frivolity or indifference and god knows there is nothing wrong with these, especially if they help you to create.

I do think I should bring up just a couple of things your teachers probably didn't dwell on, if only because I don't believe I was asked here to simply sprout bromides while predicting rosy outcomes, or they would have asked the White House Press Secretary.

In getting all the things you want and deserve, these are the things I have seen prove problematic:

Getting raves.

Receiving awards.

Getting rich and famous.

If you're lucky enough to be published, give a concert, dance, see your paintings hung in galleries, have a play produced, you are going to be criticized.

This criticism is not generally the kind you got here. Here, they wanted you to get better. There, very often, they want you to go away. You challenge them. Hopefully they haven't before seen what you do. What if they look foolish for liking it? They very well may envy you, even hate you. You're getting to do what they wanted very much to do and can't. Or aren't brave enough to do.

Just remember: your success is only news once. After that, the only possible news flash, is that you're not what you're cracked up to be or your new work isn't as good as the old. Eventually, if you keep at it, they will rediscover your brilliance, thereby giving themselves another chance to draw attention to their own brilliance of perception.

Some artists do escape this. They're geniuses, they came at a moment when to belittle them would reflect badly on the critic; either way, I hope it happens for you, it won't be within your power to decide, but such good fortune does come to some, and may you all beat the odds.

If you don't, you might try listening to what people criticize you for. Cocteau said it's who you are. Marlon Brando's mumbling. Philip Glass's triplets and basic harmonics. Anne Sexton's solipsism. Mamet's vulgarity. Twyla Tharps eccentric toss of limbs.

By the way, if any of you do become a critic, please remember that your first task is to give your readers an experience of what it was like to be there. You were privileged. You got to see it. If it becomes too burdensome for you to go out and see things for free that other people have to pay for, try to locate some gratitude for all the responsibility you have been accorded.

Who can tell me what play won the Pulitzer Prize Drama the year of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" None. It was decided there were no worthy plays that year. What won the Pulitzer for Drama the year before? "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

Clearly, many great and deserving writers have received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nonetheless, here are some who never won, all of whom died after the Prize was instituted:

Virginia Woolf

James Joyce

Marcel Proust

Auden

Nabokov

Ibsen

Mark Twain

Wallace Stevens

Tolstoy!

Brecht

Chekhov!

Bulkagov

Genet

Strindberg!

Lorca

Kafka

Conrad

D.H. Lawrence

Orwell

Mishima

Rilke

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Ralph Ellison

Who are some of the greats who took their place?

Jaroslav Seifert

Carl Spitteler

Ivo Andric

Selma Lagerlof

Paul Heyse

Pearl S. Buck.

The Moral: only time will decide. Since you may already be dead then, make the art you want to make.

A sidenote: The only people who should be allowed to care, really care, about your awards and raves, besides your agent, manager, accountant and, of course, audiences, are your mom ... and potential dates. If you cling to any of what is said about you -- good or bad -- you're dead. Those are the ones you see on E! stumbling in and out of limousines, showing off their pooter.

Beware of Making it. Obviously this danger hovers more ominously over some than it does others. Poets, ballet dancers, oboists, arts administrators teachers and historians, even playwrights - our dreams of money and fame ought not extend much beyond, say, the Parent Teachers Association and, hopefully, a pretty good 401K. Pop music, movies and TV, the sky's the limit.

Art critic Clement Greenberg was instrumental in making Jackson Pollock rich (but please note, being rich did not make Pollock entirely happy, it would appear at least to have figured in making him dead.) Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Schnabel-critics helped make these men very rich. And good for them; if it hasn't killed them, we applaud them.

The commercial prospects, however, for a handful of inimitable geniuses and/or those lucky enough to find international critical adoration should not serve as guidelines for anyone outside the psyche ward. The commercial prospects today for artists in America is, let's say, interesting and complicated. But is it any worse than it was sixty/seventy years ago when O'Neill, , DeKooning and Martha Graham were making new work?

Here's Brecht from 1941. He's in Hollywood speaking to a fellow émigré who has become rich and famous, about his, Brecht's, new play, Galileo, one of the few unquestioned masterpieces of 20th century drama:

-and it is as if I were remembering a strange sunken theater in ancient times on a submerged continent. here [in America] all they are concerned about is selling an evening's entertainment. the buyer is the boss, hard to please, suspicious, blasé or plagued by strange wishes, always ready to shoo away sellers like bothersome flies. whole hierarchies of experts and agents have forced their way between seller" - he means artist - "and buyer" - audience - "claiming to know the needs and wishes of the buyers; in this way the sellers never get through to the buyers, who in turn never meet the sellers face to face. all they are actually introduced to are the goods, crippled, mutilated objects of suspicion and eulogy, tailored to fit a body that never put in an appearance. every act of selling thus becomes a defeat, either for the buyer or for the seller, depending on whether a sale is made or not. for an author to succeed, his public must fail. the idea that matters of concern to the nation might be treated on the stage is utterly fanciful, since nothing of the kind happens anywhere else in the entertainment business.

I don't know, I find this comforting. It was ever thus in the land of Opportunity. It either makes money or it ain't. But wait, you say! What about the symphonies, ballet companies, schools that are going to hire me?

It is now time for you to turn to your graduating colleagues in arts administration, history and teaching and beg them, on your hands and knees, to protect you. It is up to them to create audiences that will support what we do. If they don't demand that their audiences open their eyes and greet the new, demand funding, fight zoning laws, parking laws, tax schemes, real estate scams, your new ballet, concerto, play, sculpture may well find its audience in single digits in your friend's father's garage in Burlington. There is no one in this room you need more than the teacher, manager, historian, theoretician. So check to see if they're wearing a ring on this finger.

Okay, my last downer-arguably the most catastrophic threat to your art, never mind you:

Success.

Here's some Tennessee Williams -- to balance out Brecht's European butch bravado with some sweet-tongued, homegrown homo-wisdom:

Security is a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that's what you are or were or intended to be." [...] "The sight of an ancient woman, gasping and wheezing as she drags a heavy pail of water down a hotel corridor to mop up the mess of some drunken overprivileged guest, is one that sickens and weighs upon the heart and withers it with shame for this world in which it is not only tolerated but regarded as proof positive that the wheels of Democracy are functioning as they should without interference from above or below. Nobody should have to clean up anybody else's mess in this world.

Did anyone see American Idol Wednesday night (okay, I watched, so what?!?!?) And, small tangent: I'd like to see just one of those melismatic tweens try their hand at Visi D'Arte. Anyway, the commercial where the final three contestants were shown in their new imaginary mansions, with chauffeurs and uniformed butlers and vast beachfront property, every last detail of their existence being taken care of by someone else? Not one mention of, say, excellence in music or making other people joyous, improving lives, being good at something. No, the point of it all: WEALTH! The most important thing is being able to hire people to wipe your ass!

You don't want it to be easy. You think you do, but you don't.

I promise. Deep down most artists I know know full well that art and artists are born in trauma. Painful, scary things kick our innate talents into gear, otherwise why would we ever put up with all the mishegas and bullshit and naysaying. We have to express these things, no matter how, no matter what: that loneliness and injustice and untrammeled sense of ourselves! I was here, goddamit! Listen up! Look!

Take away that mote in your eye, the tears dry up, and what will you sing about? How hard it is to be rich?

I absolutely refuse to believe that you and parents sacrificed so much to send you here to this incredibly expensive place, which you so desperately hoped would do justice to your talent, god please prove that I have enough of it, so you could then completely jettison the idea of sacrifice and justice when you got out?

Do we really need another prominent American to stand before the world and say that the sacrifice they made in a ghastly war was to give up golf? That's the kind of entitlement and greed that comes with too much privilege. (And what even is that? Have you ever known anyone in your entire life who was so clueless they would say something like that even if they were alone in a some desert gas station toilet stall in the middle of the Yucatan?)

By all means, earn accolades, find fame and fortune, and when the world falls at your feet, just don't let them tell you what to do next. Just don't let them make you do the same new thing over and over. The world is full of artists who literally painted themselves into a corner. No one should have to write the same play twice.

Learn that most magical of words, the one that will open the most doors, command the most respect, and free you from the tyrant within and without:

No.

If all we do as artists is make people feel, that alone can subvert some of the cynicism and indifference being peddled.

By feel, I don't mean that warm glow audiences get when they're told how smart they are and everything is fine just as it is; that warmth is nothing more than the fever accompanying the disease that is killing them. That's called pandering and people will pay an awful lot for that; and so will you. You really can ask more of yourself and your audience.

That's the hope I want for you.

We began, as artists, tens of thousands of years ago, by putting our hands to the walls of the caves and leaving a handprint: "I was here! This is what it was like! These arrows, these animals, this blood."

That is still our job.

Congratulations.

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