CCA Commencement Address
Delivered at the commencement ceremony for the California College of the Arts, May 2018.
It’s a great pleasure to be with you all today, on this day of celebration and congratulation. And a terrific honor to receive this degree from the California College of the Arts, where I have had so many happy associations in the past. I’m a New Yorker now, but if I have a spiritual home on the west coast, CCA is certainly it.
To be honest though, this occasion also comes as a little bit of a surprise, at least to me. After all, I’m not exactly one of you - I didn’t go to art school. I’m a writer and a curator, who has had the pleasure to work with some of CCA’s leading alumni, like the great postwar ceramic sculptor Peter Voulkos, whose work of the 1950s and 60s has been of longstanding interest to me. I’ve also had the pleasure to work with past and current CCA faculty, like Donald Fortescue, Josh Faught, Allison Smith; and of course, my esteemed co-recipient today, Lia Cook. Most of all, I guess I’m a historian, someone who thinks mainly about the past in the hopes of finding useful ideas for the present.
So when thinking about what I might say today, it was natural for me to take a look back – in particular, to past commencements here at CCA. I’d like to take you about 46 years back, to be exact, to 1972, which happens to be the year I was born. Back then of course, the organization was called California College of Arts and Crafts – and I’ll get back to that in a moment. But for now I want to focus on a gentleman who was the other honorary doctoral recipient that year, the visionary ecologist S. P. R. Charter. He’s not so well remembered today, but at the time, he was a kind of local California equivalent to Buckminster Fuller, best known for his occasional journal on ecology, Man on Earth. Charter was well aware that the students he was addressing might be feeling uneasy about the world they were about to enter. It was, after all, the height of the Vietnam War. So he kicked off with a discussion of traditions, and the lack of trust that the students might be feeling in the older generation:
“Tradition," he said, "defines the oral transmission from one generation to the next, of customs, ideas and cultures not memorialized in writing and painting. Admittedly the traditions of the recent past… may not be all cause for joy. Even the words of the national anthem, the ‘bombs bursting in air,’ when one thinks of where the bombs may be bursting. And they burst within each of us.”
Basically, he said, it was a dark time in America. And even on a happy graduation day, he wanted to face up to that. But then he carried on. “The basic question” was this: “what are the traditions you yourselves are presently transmitting to the generations which follow you? Will these traditions be cause for joy, both for yourselves and those who succeed you? For if not, they are cause for lamentation, and the time of lamentation is past.”
Maybe you can guess where I’m going with this. Many would argue that we, too, are living through a dark time – or at least one that’s beset with anxiety and divisiveness. From our unsustainable relationship to the environment to our political leadership (or, lack of political leadership), from racial disharmony to continuing gender prejudice: we have a lot to work out. But I think Charter had it right. What we need now is not lamentation. We need new traditions. We don’t need fear - we need fortitude.
And where are going to find it? Well, maybe right here in this room. Because these days, going to art school is itself a political act. A vote in favor of optimism.
There’s a word that we use for the convergence of tradition and optimism: that word is craft. It’s a word I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and of course, it’s been central to this school over its 111 year history. Once upon a time it was a word with an identity complex. Artists didn’t really want to be taken as “mere” craftspeople. They wanted to be respected for their ideas. But we think differently nowadays, or at least, I do, and I bet most of you do too. I imagine most of you take it for granted that craft, in the sense of skill and knowhow, dedication and commitment, is a big part of what you came here to CAA to find, and a big part of what you’re taking with you today.
The thing about craft, though, is that it’s not just about individual capability. It is also about tradition – the passing down of expertise from generation to generation, from hand to hand. Sometimes, in fact, craft can be a conservative force in culture, very different from the progressive force of art. But at the same time, we should understand it as something necessary for progress: the accumulated material intelligence of the past is the foundation that any maker needs to push ahead into the future. So craft isn’t just a matter of inherited traditions; it’s a way to create new traditions, just as Charter said.
That idea is just as important today as it was in 1972. America’s social fabric was unraveling then. Now, it’s arguably even less tightly integrated. As a people, we feel less tightly bound together than at any other time in our history. But there are lots of reasons to think that you artists and designers are well suited to navigating this contemporary “open weave.” And your craft is foremost among them. Through the skills you’ve acquired here at CCA, you’ve learned how to put something of yourself, something deep and true, into your work. Each in your own way, you’ve learned how to inhabit the materials of your medium, and create something that could only have come from you.
Now, it seems to me that kind of depth is getting more and more rare nowadays. I bet most of you are going to post today on social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever. And there’s nothing wrong with that, believe me. I have a twitter account myself (this is the shameless promotion part of the talk). But think of everything that social media can’t do. Think of what’s being left behind as we let ourselves be distracted by our little screens, those portals to worlds other than our own. I love this quote by the journalist Noah Smith:
“15 years ago, the internet was an escape from the real world. Now, the real world is an escape from the internet.”
Of course, he posted that on Twitter – but that doesn’t make it any less true. And it goes a long way to explain why craft, which was sitting unloved in the corner for a good many years, is now being re-evaluated, so thoroughly that people like me get invited as commencement speakers for leading art schools. You could say that craft is the direct opposite of social media; it’s slow and difficult, not instantaneous. And it reaches only a few people at a time. But it can reach them so deeply.
Now, just a few more thoughts before I close. I just want to remind you that out there in America, and across the world, there are people you haven’t met yet. People whose lives you’ll shape, in ways that you can’t now predict. You know, I was a little apprehensive before coming today - people kept saying to me, wow. You’re giving a commencement talk! You’d better be inspiring. But you know what? The inspiration is going to come from all of you. There’s a big space out there for you to fill.
So whether you’re politically engaged or not; no matter where you stand on all the difficult questions of the day, at the end of the day, you are now vital as an optimistic force in our culture. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Don’t give in to lamentation. Find fortitude in yourselves. Create new traditions. And carry the message from CCA out to wherever your lives take you, to all the human beings who aren’t in this room, who didn’t go to art school, and may not really know what goes on there. Tell them this:
It’s ok! Don’t worry.
I’m an artist.
I’m here to help.