2010 Commencement Remarks

Sean T. Buffington
2010 Commencement Remarks
May 20, 2010

Good morning. Welcome, trustees, honored guests, faculty, alumni, friends and family to the 2010 Commencement Exercises of the University of the Arts.

Let me begin by asking you to join me in acknowledging the Class of 2010.

Now, Students—or should I say "almost graduates"—we're going to have plenty of opportunities to cheer for you this morning. So let me ask you now to join me in welcoming to UArts—and more importantly, in saying thank you—to the people who are here today to celebrate with you. They have been with you every step of the way these last four years and for many years before that! You wouldn’t be here without them.

Class of 2010, I want you to bring this house down for your parents, friends, your brothers and sisters, your grandparents—everyone who helped you to get here today.

Last year at this time when I addressed our graduates, we were in what seemed the darkest hour of a global recession. I spoke then about "nerve"—about the combination of creativity, courage, and confidence needed by the artist in times of challenge.

This year, the mood has changed. Prospects have improved. Recovery—like spring—has begun, and green shoots of hope and promise are emerging from the hard winter ground of recession. Like those spring tendrils that betoken the end of winter, the recovery is in its infancy, still fragile. And thus, our mood is one of uncertainty—but of uncertainty colored with hope.

In some ways, the uncertainty now is even more challenging than the crisis we faced a year ago. In moments of crisis, we bear down, we focus on survival, we do what must be done and derive a kind of strength from that. It's when the crisis has passed—but before stability has returned—that uncertainty prevails. And in this uncertainty lurk fear and anxiety. These live inside us, not outside; they threaten to undermine us in ways that external challenges cannot.

My topic today, though, is not recession or politics or financial prognostication. Instead, I want to ask what—in an historical moment of uncertainty—can the artist contribute? And what should be the parting challenge issued by a university devoted to the arts to the young creative men and women preparing to venture out into that uncertainty.

As I was musing on that question, I came across a poem that helped me to focus and clarify my thinking. The poem is by Richard Wilbur, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States.

The poem is called "Worlds," published in 1987. It refers to Alexander the Great, conqueror of the known world, and Sir Isaac Newton, physicist and philosopher. It goes like this:

 For Alexander there was no Far East,
 Because he thought the Asian continent
 Ended with India. Free Cathay at least
 Did not contribute to his discontent

 But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more
 Serene. To him it seemed that he’d but played
 With a few shells and pebbles on the shore
 Of that profundity he had not made.

In Wilbur's imagination, Alexander is the restless warrior, compelled to subjugate all he knows. Cathay- or China- he knew nothing of, and so, he was saved from despair by his lack of knowledge. Newton on the other hand, knows the boundlessness of the universe. Indeed, he knows that what he knows of this boundlessness is limited to the metaphorical equivalent of a few pebbles and shells. And yet he is more serene than Alexander.

I like Newton's serenity. I like that he is at peace with the enormity of the unknown that is all around him. I like that in the face of that unknown, he is not afraid. He is not discontented or disheartened by the prospect of manipulating the edges of the unknown, because he knows that by doing so, he comes to understand the structure, the laws of that immensity—not to map or to conquer it as Alexander might, but to make it meaningful and thus to denude it of the terror it holds.

It may seem as if I've gone rather far afield from my starting point, from that state of uncertainty in which we live today and from these young artists who sit before me.

I don't think so.

In a recent collection of essays and interview with artists about art education, painter Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, who teaches at Art Center in Pasadena, is asked, "What was the most valuable lesson [you] learned in art school?" His answer: Uncertainty. He says "[uncertainty is] what art does best, while conversely, certainty in art is tedious at best and usually threatens to be trivial."

Gilbert-Rolfe puts uncertainty at the very heart of the artistic enterprise. Richard Wilbur, as we have seen, takes us even further, pointing to our engagement with the unknown as central to our humanity.

Which leads me to ask whether artists are not, in fact, especially suited to navigate the uncertain, the unmapped waters we find ourselves in today.

I think, for example, of the choreographer, envisioning bodies in motion, imagining the images or feelings those bodies can inspire in the minds of the beholding audience—but unsure whether her collaborators—the dancers themselves—can translate the vision of her mind’s eye to the stage and make intention legible to the audience.

I think too of the ceramicist, orchestrating the complex chemistry of fire, clay, and glaze—but uncertain whether clay will crack and collapse or glaze will behave predictably, unable to predict whether the outcome will bear out his intention or give him some entirely new insight or fail utterly.

In both cases, it is in the gap between vision and execution, between collaborator and collaborator, between intention and expression, between hypothesis and experiment—a gap that we also call uncertainty or the unknown—it is in that gap that discovery or invention lie.

Indeed, it is the gap between the known and the not-known in which art-making resides—and it's the same beach Richard Wilbur has Newton playing on with his stones and shells.

And this brings me to our present moment and the role of the artist or creative person. The artist's embrace of uncertainty empowers him or her—and not only to make work that is profound, challenging, innovative, and unexpected. The embrace of uncertainty does not empower the artist only in the studio or on the stage, in the workshop or on the set. It also empowers him or her in the world.

I do not mean to suggest that the artist is a naïf, impressed by the mystical, unknowable wonder of it all. The choreographer and the ceramicist are practiced professionals, hardened experimentalists—not dewy-eyed fantasists who embrace any outcome no matter how disastrous.

No, the artist is not deceived or seduced by the unknown. He or she—I say—is empowered by it, and that is something very different. The artist sees opportunity in uncertainty. The artist perceives a space that is not already understood or mapped or defined. Not a vacuum in which anything is possible, but a place presently invisible and unvisited that can be named and shaped—if not perhaps fully known.

The artist in times like these is our truest, most reliable guide. What they themselves will invent will not necessarily lead us out of uncertainty. But their willingness to venture into the unknown helps us to conquer our fear of it. Our artists look ahead and tell us that the terrible things we fear can be made into something beautiful or useful or meaningful. They inhabit the serenity of Richard Wilbur's Newton and the very best artists have the ability to transmit it to all of us.

And so I wish our graduates today that serenity—a serenity born of the certainty that the unknown is inevitably there before us and around us—but that it holds for us in its depths, depths of possibility and nothing to fear.

Thank you.