What Would You Say To A Graduating Class?

At the popular Signal vs. Noise blog, Matt Linderman got snarky on the current chain-letter style meme floating among blog people these days. He followed that up with a post saying that instead he would like to see what people would say at a graduation ceremony. It just so happens that I was asked to be one of four people in my graduating class at Cornish College of the Arts to submit a speech. I wasn’t picked in the end, but since I had this laying around, I figured I’d put it out into the world.

No Matter.

Ambrose Bierce, in his work The Devil’s Dictionary, defines the word “art” as this:

Art. Noun. This word has no definition.

Good. Let’s not talk about art. Let’s talk about failure.

John Cage, probably Cornish’s most celebrated son, wrote about watching Buckminster Fuller work at Black Mountain College. Cage said…

Fuller put up his first [geodesic] dome, which immediately collapsed. He was delighted. “I only learn what to do when I have failures.”

Cage also writes about being at Cornish, which is where he really started questioning the role of music. He said:

“I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh.”

My degree, specifically, is in Graphic Design. Probably more than any other discipline taught here, design is expected to clearly communicate a specific idea – but I think all of us have showed something that we have labored over to our classmates, only to find that the message sent was not the message intended – whatever it was we were doing didn’t work. Back to the drawing board. Work on it more…that satisfying feeling of completion and impatience over-run by the obligation and need to get it right.

But isn’t that why we’re here, instead of a two-year school? Isn’t that why we’re here instead of being hobbyists? An artist who doesn’t let their failures inform their successes will never succeed – they’ll let their failures become their work, and it will be a fraction of what they might’ve achieved.

You might hear the compliment “you make it look so easy,” but it’s the naïve audience who doesn’t recognize that in the most simple of sketches there is years of life drawing, or that in a short improv are hours upon hours of running scales. That’s why, when you trip, you can catch yourself and make mistake into a new move. That’s why when you move, it’s with the weight of intention.

The DIY, or Do it Yourself attitude has gained popularity in the last decade or so. It says that anybody can do anything, and everybody should be his or her own support system. Publish your own book, book your own tour, put up your own website and tell the world about yourself. The problem with this is not in its intention, but in its execution – people take the ability to promote as the ability to create, and they’re not willing to do the hard work to push their craft beyond craft.

What everybody here has proved is that you’re willing to work for it, and if anybody ever tells you that the paper your receiving today is merely symbolic – tell them to shove it, because it represents four or more years of struggle, of achievement, and most of all, of failure.

It’s a representation of the theory that Art as a whole may be beyond definition, but one of its attributes is evolution, and you can’t have evolution without some success, and a lot of failure, and a lengthy timeline to allow for you to grow from both of those. It think this is a good thing. It’s a strong foundation.

I have a portrait at home of Samuel Beckett painted by the British artist Tom Phillips. Phillips painted him in 1986, while Beckett was in London directing “Waiting for Godot.” Instead of a formal sitting, Phillips came to rehearsals to do preliminary sketches. But, he had to make some decisions:

…at the beginning I did not know quite how to set about drawing him. I’m not a very good lighting sketcher. To move in front of him would evidently have been an intrusion on his work there. Sitting behind, trying to form a strategy, I gradually realized that the back of his head was as eloquent as the front, and as recognizable…Initially I positioned myself so that I caught some of the side view of his face but settled in the end, in doing the most finished of the drawings, for a full back view in which each of Beckett’s majestic ears is seen to good advantage: they are after all the most sensitive ears for language alive.

And indeed, the portrait is of the back of Beckett’s head, and it sees him watching an actor on stage. Phillips finished the portrait with a quote from Beckett, which is what I’ll finish with as well, because I’ve adopted it as my motto these last four years, and it’s a good introduction into whatever comes next. It reads:


Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: January 27, 2006 09:48 PM
I came here from SvN. Nice job on this speech in any case. I just learned something about your college and the people mentioned in your speech. It also has a really good message that all post-undergrads should embrace.
Nice...I may have to steal and remix some of that...
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