UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture Commencement Speech
June 11, 2011
I’d like to begin by congratulating all my fellow graduates on your impressive accomplishments. I especially want to recognize my WACtivist[i] comrades, without whom I could not be standing here today. On a personal note, both of my parents were the first in their families to graduate college and my mom was actually the first in her family to finish high school. Perhaps some of you sitting here can relate. My parents both went on to become educators who instilled in me the importance of higher learning. So I take very seriously the degree I have just earned. I’m sure I am not alone in that feeling. My mind reels at the number of artists who have not been able to access higher education. How many young people have not been able to make it this far? How many smart, talented people with something to say have we passed on our journey to this moment?
It is therefore not just as graduates of this fine institution that I speak to you today, but as artists. Whether we are dancers, designers, architects, writers, musicians, live or visual artists, publically engaged artists, or scholars—our respective practices mandate that we develop and hone our artistic voices. The central question before us today is this: how will we use our voices now that it is time to fulfill our responsibilities as artist-citizens who are graduates of this university?
Howard Zinn wrote in September 2001 that “the role of the artist is to transcend conventional wisdom, to transcend the word of the establishment, to transcend the orthodoxy, to go beyond and escape what is handed down by the government or what is said in the media”[ii] and, I would add, what is taught by the academy.
Ten years later, his directives for us as citizens remain urgent as we seek to thrive as artists in an economy and culture crippled by war: A multi-tiered war on terror; a resurgent war on the arts; the prolonged war on drug addiction; the war on people whose right to citizenship is denied; and, close to home for many of us today, the war on public education.
In this climate, it will be tempting to make distinctions between making art and making a living. However, these need not be contradictory pursuits. We, as artist-citizens, must be critical of what the economy is doing to both our individual and collective priorities. We must ask: How can we be conscious participants in the larger world? Graham Nash once sang, “Make sure that the things you do keep us alive.”[iii] His words are a call to us all to engage in work that goes beyond our own base survival to challenge and sustain our communities and our world. We as artists have great potential to bring this discussion to light. But using our voice at this time in history will require that we listen even more intently and invest even more resolutely in the inherently cooperative nature of our work as artists. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.
In November 2009 I was head TA for Peter Sellars' Art as Social Action class. We were spending the quarter studying the connections between the war on drugs, the prison system, and the California budget crisis. This was also the quarter when the Regents of the University of California announced a 32% fee hike, and many of the students from across the School of Arts and Architecture in the class worried that they might have to drop out of school. When we found out that the Regents would be holding their vote to raise fees on the UCLA campus, the Art as Social Action students sprang into action, even though many of them had never before attended a protest. They designed logos and posters making the connections between the state’s disinvestment in education and rising incarceration rates. They wrote songs and painted banners to convey their personal and collective frustrations and hopes. They organized teach-ins and even a follow up course to educate themselves. In short, our students marshaled their creative voices to “launch a visible and remarkable resistance.”[iv] It was precisely because we approached the issues as artists working in community that the students were able to make all these connections, to take a stand for their own rights and in solidarity with those who never have a chance at higher education. This is just one example of what we as artists can catalyze, and it is a vital reminder, as many of us leave academia today, that the issue of public education must remain of utmost importance – inherently connected to our work as artist-citizens in times of war.
If, as Zinn says, the job of the artist is to “transcend the word of the establishment” what will we say when it is our moment to speak? If we believe, as Zinn did, that the artist notices, “What questions are the voices of authority not asking,” and in response persists in “think[ing] outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dar[ing] to say things that no one else will say,” then we must ask ourselves: when it is our time to speak—with our buildings and compositions and designs and canvases and performances and essays—what will our work be? What will our art do in the world? Will we, as a new generation of artists who made it this far, who will make it farther in the world because of our time here, use that privilege to ensure that all people’s voices are heard?
While Howard Zinn cannot answer the questions that lie before us, he can give us some guidance on how to proceed. He says: “What most of us must be involved in—whether we teach or write,” make dances, play music, create sculptures and paintings, or design buildings and cities—“has to not only make people feel good and inspired and at one with other people around them, but also has to educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world.”
[i] WAC is the acronym for my department: World Arts and Cultures. A group of us dubbed ourselves “WACtivists.”
[ii] All Zinn quotes from Artists in Times of War. New York: Seven Stories Press (2003).
[iii] From “Man in the Mirror” on Songs for Beginners, 1971.
[iv] This is a quote from the mission statement of the first WAC in my life, the Women’s Action Coalition.