Commencement addresses to the class of 2011:


Commentary: What it means to choose a life in the arts

Composer John Adams at The Juilliard School [New York], 5/22/11

[A]ll I really want to say is thank you. Thank all of you students who, against all odds and against all the pressures to do otherwise, have chosen to have a life in the arts. [Y]ou've set yourselves apart from... a nation that has become such a hostage to distraction that it can't absorb a single complex thought without having it reduced to a sound byte.  A life in the arts means loving complexity and ambiguity, of enjoying the fact that there are no single, absolute solutions. And it means that you value communicating about matters of the spirit over the baser forms of human interaction, because you know that life is not just a transaction, not simply a game about winning someone's confidence purely for purposes of material gain.   So if I can leave you with some words of wisdom... never consider yourself sufficiently educated.  If you're playing or dancing and acting something for the umpteenth time, stop and ask yourself "how can I make it fresh? What have I been missing in this? How can I avoid going on autopilot?" And don't be afraid to take baby steps. Simon Rattle was already a world-famous conductor nearing the peak of his professional achievement when he went off to study performance practice with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and become a sort of apprentice-groupie to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. During the last year of his life Schubert sought out a counterpoint teacher and took lessons. And of course we all know how throughout his life Stravinsky painstakingly learned completely new and unfamiliar musical techniques, even at an advanced age, and we know how what he absorbed gave new life and energy to each new phase of his creative life.  Be bold, be humble, don't mind being difficult, and don't ever feel that what you're doing in this attention-deficit disorder country of ours is marginal or unimportant. You are in fact the heart and the soul of its very being.


Commentary: "Without art, people would not be normal"

Choreographer Mark Morris at Cornish College of the Arts [Seattle], 5/14/11

Some years ago, having just returned from Bali and brutally jet-lagged, I saw a TV show about Bali. An old Balinese man said my favorite thing ever, "Without art people would not be normal." Of course I think that dancing is the most interesting and important thing in the world, I have to-it's my only skill. I also understand that it is of no importance and no interest to most people. Dancing vanishes as it happens like food does. I tell people who don't like what they're watching to just wait a little-it's just a dance and it will be over soon-like a root canal. Dancers themselves are kind and intuitive and extremely disciplined and serious and a little narcissistic. "Who me?", all the dancers are like "that's what you think." You're projecting, okay... Dancing is by its nature esoteric but you don't have to rub it in. There are very few jobs for dancers and even fewer for choreographers. All of we big shot choreographers know each other, which is kind of fabulous and a little bit dangerous. It is important to let people in on the secret of what you do without being dismissive or smug.


Commentary: The importance of 'productive failure' in the arts

NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman at Pittsburgh's School for Creative and Performing Arts, 6/12/11

The arts taught me a very important lesson, a lesson that I hope each of you has learned, too. Art taught me the importance of failure.  [L]et me talk a little about the kind of failure I mean. The sort of failure that I think the arts can bring into our lives. A failure that also happens to be very useful in the business world, as well. I am talking about "productive failure" -- a failure that stimulates adaptation and helps us find alternate pathways to success.  I am talking about IDEO, the leading design company in the world, which has as its motto "Fail often and succeed sooner." I am talking about Charles Schwab, whose businesses experienced so many failures (mixed in with a few key successes) that his company coined the term "noble failures." I am talking about the video game "Angry Birds." If you fail to kill all the pigs, what do any of us do? We try again. And again. And again. Failing can be a blast, and when it is, it inspires us to try harder.  Think about the times you could not make a scene work. Or you could not complete a dance combination. Or you failed at rendering the light just so in the scene you were trying to capture on canvas. You didn't quit. You tried again. You tried harder. And you tried something new. It was a productive failure.  Those of you who failed often, succeeded sooner. Those of you who saw failure as permission to try again, learned that failure can be fun. Through the arts, you learned the values of the most successful members of our society.


Commentary: The fraud police

Singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer at the New England Institute of Art [Boston], 4/23/11

I am going to tell you today about something that my friends and I call 'the fraud police'.  The fraud police are this imaginary, terrifying force of experts and real grown-ups who don't exist and who come knocking on your door at 3am when you least expect it, saying: "Fraud police. We've been watching you and we have evidence that you have no idea what you are doing and you stand accused of the crime of completely making shit up as you go along. You do not actually deserve your job and we're taking everything away. And we're telling everybody."  People working in the arts, especially, have to combat the inner fraud police on a daily basis. The fear of the fraud police is ever lurking. And it really doesn't matter who you are.  Every so-called adult I know has had this feeling about their job and themselves at some level.  The good news is it does get a little better and it gets easier, but it never really goes away. i want to tell you that one of the best things you can do, when you're leaving here, is to just start working and start making things up. And use each other, use your friends, help your friends, use what you've got laying around. And when someone asks you if you can help them with something, and you have no clue if you actually can, but you think you can figure it out, say yes.  And then figure it out. And you might fuck up. And you probably will fuck up. But you will learn stuff.  And eventually, I promise you, the fraud police will come knocking. And when they accuse you of being a fraud, you will honestly be able to say, "You're right. I still have no idea what I'm actually doing. I am making this shit up as I go along, but it is working out just fine. And also here in behind me is an incredible party with awesome people, a bumping sound system that we built ourselves out of salvaged parts, with a giant electronic glass bubble bath installation filled with escaped pandas and dancing girls that we found on Craigslist, and you are not invited."

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