COMMENCEMENT 2009 - Senior Dinner
Associate Professor Nicholas H. Ruth
May 14, 2009
[This talk was written to be delivered to a live audience of graduating seniors. Therefore the tone is conversational, and the language, at times, quite casual. I intended from the start to speak with emphasis, so please imagine a passionate voice as you read it…]
Yes, I’m Nick Ruth, I teach painting, and I’ve been here since 1995. I’ve had the privilege of taking a LOT of money from about one thousand five hundred of your predecessors. My main qualification has to do with saying things like, “Um, it’s okay, but can you put a little more red in it?” I mean, my life is good.
And yours? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a bit of a mixed bag for the bulk of you. Despite the fact that for many of you a college education was a presumption from the day you were born, you have actually done it now, and I suspect that you feel some level of pride for the accomplishment. You should. College isn’t the hardest thing life has to offer, but it isn’t the easiest either, and it takes a certain level of determination and commitment to see it all of the way through.
On the other hand, this is one of those moments when you move from being more or less the most experienced at something to being pretty much the least experienced. Maybe you know where you’re headed next or, more likely, you don’t, but either way you are going to have to get used to a whole new set of rules, of practices, of hierarchies. The potential for existential angst is very, very high.
This is why I never ask seniors what their plans are after graduation. NEVER. EVER. It’s not that I don’t care, because I do. I’d love to have that conversation with so many of you, particularly those of you whom I have had the privilege of really getting to know as people, like those of you who went on the Rome program with Tinkler and me and my family. I want to know if you plan to just stop thinking for a while, to take a break from, say, reading, to stare very hard at the ceiling for a few months, or maybe a year, or if you plan to dive into grad school, and if so why the hell you would want to do that right on the heels of your first 17 years of continuous schooling. I’d like to know if you are going to serve, whether in the AmeriCorps or the Navy, or if you are going to work in apparel or construction management.
I always want to have that conversation because, despite how I and the rest of the faculty treat you on a normal, typical, daily basis, I think of you as real people, with real, complicated and complex lives, who have something to offer. As college teachers, we have very few opportunities to feel the surge of power that comes with the top hand in an asymmetrical power dynamic, so we have to act like we aren’t interested, but most of us are secretly proud of you, and interested.
Now, in case you are worried that this is about to get really gross, and I’m just going to say how sweet and great you are, well, you can relax. Truth is, while I really do care what happens next for you, I have some serious doubts about you. First of all, your generation isn’t exactly renowned for being in touch with current events. So, I don’t know if any of you have checked, but it’s a nightmare out there. These are tough times, economically, jobs are hard to come by, your parents may be reconsidering that offer to “just come live with us for a little while,” and everyone is looking for a bit of reliable expert advice. You had a shot at something like that with your choice of faculty speaker for this speech I’m giving right now.
And who do you invite? AN ARTIST !?! A PAINTER!?! And not even someone useful like a house painter, but a guy who sits by himself all day saying things like, “Hmmm, it’s okay, but maybe if I put a little more red in it...” I mean, for Christ’s sake, pick an ECONOMIST.
So, let’s accept the premise that your judgment is at least a little questionable. Or maybe not. Maybe you skipped the economist because you’re trying to have a good time, and you don’t want someone who’s just going to kill your buzz. Fair enough. But still, you really need some good advice. So, I’ve thought it over, and I’m going to tell you some things that happened to me in the hopes that it might bring up some important stuff for you to consider, all while I try not to kill your buzz.
Therefore, here, in no particular order, are five important things or bits of advice I learned soon after graduating from college.
You should always wear a helmet, or at least your seatbelt. Why? Why!?! Because people are fucking crazy. This first item relates to the general category of being a grown up and taking care of your own business. The fall after I graduated from college, I was in grad school in Dallas, Texas, of all un-godly places, and I was riding a borrowed bike back to the room I rented in the home of an arch conservative/alcoholic/mad-as-hell/yelled-a-lot lawyer and his high school aged son, whose house I actually lived in for free, unless you count psychological costs, in exchange for preventing his son from having all night raves when he was out of town on business, so I’m riding home to this place where I live which is already that sort of suburban affluent war zone of too much of everything, and it’s dusk, and I’m bookin’ along through an intersection, and this 120 year old man whose head is barely visible above the dashboard turns left right in front of me and I have to slam on the breaks, fall to the ground, and throw the bike out in front of me, so as not to get run over; and he runs over the bike instead and just keeps going, dreaming away about prune juice and what could have been. I was not wearing a helmet and could have been killed.
This story, it turns out, is all connected to the importance of personal responsibility. The rest of us need you to take responsibility for yourself. It’s easiest and best, and better for your personal growth if you just go ahead and put on a helmet all by yourself, but if you don’t we in the world will demand it. In the real world, policy decisions are made out of political compromise. This is the reason that military force, while quite good at getting conflicts started, doesn’t tend to actually resolve anything whereas politics sometimes does; this is the reason you should always use your voice to protest injustice and celebrate justice; and this is the reason that when my mom insisted that I have health insurance and wear a goddamned helmet, I did. While we’re at it, please floss, don’t spend what you don’t have a realistic plan to pay back (with the one exception of your college education of course…), change your oil regularly, or better yet ride the bus or even a bike, or better yet, walk. What you notice when walking will make you a better person. What you conserve by riding your bike will make this a better planet. And what you accomplish by wearing a helmet, both by protecting yourself from injury and protecting the rest of us from foolishness, will make this a better culture.
Egypt is in Africa. If, like me, having graduated from an excellent school not unlike this one, you are working the information booth at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the ripe age of 22, and a guy, a really mad guy, comes up to you and wants to know why the hell the Egyptian wing is in an entirely separate part of the building from the rest of the arts of the continent of Africa, you want to have a thoughtful answer. I was so taken aback by how pissed this guy was that I couldn’t even think straight. I hadn’t lived with the arch-conservative/alcoholic/argumentative/Dallas lawyer yet, so I wasn’t very cool under fire. I didn’t have the wherewithal to look critically at my own education. The only way I really knew anything about Africa at that point was though my art history courses, courses that had so much geography and history to cover in 14 weeks that I must have missed whatever broader context was provided. So, all I knew was the standard narrative of ancient Egypt, it’s role as empire, its rich and nuanced artistic traditions, and its relation to the Greek and Roman worlds and therefore the foundations of European civilization. And all of this came to me via slides in a dark room way too early in the morning. So, this vividly and lividly burning patron of the arts caught me unprepared. I was his point of contact with the museum, and I couldn’t tell him that the segregation of the arts of ancient Egypt from the rest of the arts of Africa was an unfortunate artifact of historical bias, a bad hangover from the arrogant assertion of western cultural superiority on the part of people in love with a specific and limited notion of Reason that made them feel sophisticated and made them judge others to be primitive. And I couldn’t tell him that powerful and very affluent people sometimes give money and cultural artifacts to museums in order to ensure that their way of thinking remains visible and dominant, that they give buildings to house not only things but also ideas, and that even enlightened libraries and museums sometimes accept ideologically flawed things so that at least part of the history is preserved. I hadn’t figured out yet how interwoven the artistic, scientific, political, economic, religious, and social spheres are and always have been, so I couldn’t give him the sympathetic and well informed response he deserved.
But more than any of this, more than the way it made me aware of the need to challenge my assumptions or to look at knowledge from a number of perspectives, what really matters about this story to me, what I remember and carry with me, is how that man affected me. I felt humiliated and unfairly attacked, and in some ways he aimed way too low in unloading all of his indignation on my 22 year old well-intentioned head. BUT, he used his voice to protest injustice and he changed my life. I’ve never forgotten him. I don’t remember what he looked like, but I can still feel his intensity. So, the moral of this story is two-fold: one, use your voice, because it will change people’s lives; two, try not to get too cocky. Whatever you think you know, presume that there are other ways of considering the question, and set to work on informing your self. Understand that bias is a key actor in the past and in the present, and get good at identifying it. And then set yourself the Sisyphusian task of only using bias for the forces of good.
Okay, now I’m going to argue for balance. That last one sounded a lot like I think maybe you don’t know much when you are twenty-two, or that whatever you do know is hopelessly incomplete. I mean, I do think it’s important to try and be aware of the fact that there is a lot you haven’t encountered or thought about yet. But I’m also perfectly aware that there is a lot you have encountered, and that you know a lot of stuff. So, this next one has to do with knowing yourself and protecting your right to grow. Therefore, Number Three: You control who has access to your studio. I mean this in two ways. Beware of someone who wants to tell you how you should do what you do. Some people who come into your studio take a perverse pleasure in imagining that you are actually naïve, or an idiot, and that it is their job to tell you all of the ways you are wrong. Unless you happen to find that sort of thing stimulating, tell them to piss off. You are growing, as I sincerely hope you always will be, and it doesn’t help to have someone, in your own damn studio, tell you you are an idiot. In my case, as a graduate student in painting, I came to the conclusion that there were certain professors who I shouldn’t allow in my studio. When I did let them in, they had their say, and when they left, my connection to my work was gone, invalidated. Once I took control of who had access to my studio, I found that I could get the criticism that helped me to work through the problems in my work without undermining the integrity of my process. So, if you get the sense that someone is an inflexible jerk, or even just wanting you to think about things you’re not ready for, you don’t have to call them out on it, but you certainly don’t have to have them into your soul for tea.
The second way in which you should control access to your studio is on the other end of the question: beware of the perfect mentor. I had one when I was an undergraduate, and I didn’t get that guy out of my head for years. And it was my fault, not his. I took a class with him first semester junior year and he blew my mind. I took at least one class with him every semester for the rest of college. He was always asking me the perfect questions, and I lived for those conversations. Once I got out, I measured every decision I made against what I thought he would think, and it totally screwed up my ability to think for myself. So, remember that even the perfect mentor does not have all of the answers and, moreover, that the only person who can formulate the most meaningful questions for you is you.
Don’t be a sanctimonious demagogue. As a means of practicing what I preach I will assume that you know what I mean and therefore not suggest that you look it up.
Okay, last one. Recognize that art does not imitate life but rather that life imitates art. Therefore, you should take art very seriously.
Here’s why. Not long after I graduated from college, a friend of mine showed me a piece called “The Decay of Lying,” written in 1889 by Oscar Wilde. Check it out. It is brilliant on several accounts, including the way it sends up book ten of Plato’s Republic, but more for its central point that much of what is boring and lifeless about culture is the result of some misguided notion of the value of truth, as if one could determine the truth in the first place. Wilde argues that our world should be defined by the strength and agility of our imaginations. He ascribes to us the greatest powers of invention, and urges us to not confine our experiments to the base task of imitation. In fact, Wilde says that we see what we see because artists have invented it. Here is a passage:
“Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.”
Wilde is being deliciously provocative here, of course. But I think he’s right. Real involvement with art, whether you are someone who makes it, someone who responds to it, or both, has as much or more potential to teach you something valuable as any other endeavor. If I had to say what two things I would most want any graduating seniors to attend to, they would be these: 1) pay more attention to your senses. If everyone spent more time feeling and reflecting on what it feels like to sense, we would be a more literate and humane world. 2) Practice imagining. Your imagination will establish the limits of your life, and the stronger you make it, the richer your life will be.
Now, here’s something I know about you. I know that at this point in your lives you have gotten to the point where, without even realizing it, you know when someone is about to start wrapping up a speech. You know you can’t just go by the words because, as we have all so painfully come to understand, the words, “and in conclusion” usually signal another fifteen minutes or so, but you can tell by tone of voice and pattern of speech. You start to perk up a little, because you know you are that much closer to the champagne, which will taste so good, and that much closer to President Gearan’s garage band, which will sound so, well, garage-y. And so, now that you have tuned back in and are paying attention, let me finish with this re-cap: though you probably don’t know where you are headed, be tirelessly imaginative, be strong but humble in your opinions, be a kind steward of your own soul, be willing to use your voice and to be affected by the voices of others and, please, above all else, for your mother’s sake, wear a damn helmet.
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