2012 Commencement Remarks

Sean T. Buffington
2012 Commencement Remarks
May 17, 2012

Good morning. Welcome, trustees, honored guests, faculty, alumni, friends and family to the 134th Commencement Exercises of the University of the Arts.

I’d like to acknowledge in particular, two guests: President emeritus Miguel Angel Corzo and founding director of our School of Theater, Walter Dallas.

Let me begin by asking you to join me in acknowledging the Class of 2012.

Now, Students—you’re still students for about another hour or so—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 2012, 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.

Let me start with an admission: I know you’re not going to remember any of what I say today.

To be fair, you’ve probably got a few things on your mind: you might be thinking about Neil Gaiman, about crossing this stage with your diploma, about dinner with Mom and Dad tonight to celebrate, about packing up your things, about saying goodbye to friends, about new challenges in a new city… and on and on.

Frankly, I’d probably do better to sing a song or dance a dance than to try to come up with a few words of wisdom that will stay with you past noon—let alone a lifetime!

“Remember when the President started dancing on-stage at Commencement?” Now THAT I can imagine all of you saying at your 25th reunion!

But a speech? After four years of books and articles, lectures, crits and juries; of listening to professors and administrators instruct and advise and admonish?

Not very likely.

Now, you’re probably hoping that my admission is leading to a rapid conclusion—to a ‘Thank you and congratulations!’ some time in the next 30 seconds or so!

I promise I won’t ramble. I’ll get to ‘Thank you and Congratulations’ very swiftly; I will!

But I hope you’ll indulge me for just a few more minutes.

So, if I know you won’t remember what I will say, why should I say anything?

Is it because I’m expected to? Because rites of passage like Commencement require invocations and homilies?

Or is it because I need something to tweet about? Or post on my Facebook page? To mark time, to stay in touch, to prove I’m here?

Forget about me; forget about this speech. What about you? Why do you speak? And not just speak, why do you express yourselves in all of the ways in which you do? Why make art? Or design objects? Or perform music or dance? These are all ways of speaking, of articulating meaning.

Why do you do it? Do you do it because you believe or hope that what you say or make will be remembered?

Perhaps. We all hope for that—some secretly, some not so secretly. But we also know, deep down, that that hope is more dream than likelihood. After all, we know that even the very best are rarely remembered widely or well. Even those with vast reputations today—they may not be known a century or even a decade hence.

And does that surprise us? What are the chances in a culture and a time so rife with sound and image and word, so replete with the products and artifacts of human invention that we who inhabit it can barely decode and sort through it all, what are the chances that we ourselves will remember, could even remember if we wanted to—or that what we say or do will be remembered?

But even knowing this, you nonetheless continue to speak, to make, to do.

Why?

Do you do so just out of habit? Or because it’s expected of you? Or to fill time or space?

Would you continue to speak simply because you can, because you have talent you’ve developed over four years, skills and knowledge you’ve acquired—painstakingly and even painfully—during your time here?

Maybe you’d stop speaking.

(Maybe I should have stopped about three minutes ago!)

Would you stop? Will you?

No, I don’t believe you will.

You see, I’ve learned something about you—and from you—during my time here. You don’t stop speaking or making or doing out of fear that your words or art will be forgotten. You are never silent; you never turn out the lights or close the door or exit the stage.

You speak—whatever form your speaking takes: porcelain, celluloid, choreography, musical notes—sung or played—ink, paint. You speak and continue to speak—even after you’ve been told it won’t make a difference.

You speak because you have to do so. Now, I don’t mean that you’re somehow compelled to speak. I don’t believe that artists are victims of forces beyond their control, like the girl in the fairy tale of the red shoes who can’t stop dancing.

What I mean—what I have observed in you and learned from you—is that you speak because you believe it is the responsibility of the artist to do so.

You have made a choice to be an artist—and in choosing art, you have chosen to speak, to make meaning through creative action, no matter whether anyone’s paying attention or not, whether posterity takes notice or ignores you.

By speaking, you contribute to the capacious treasure house of meaning that is nothing less than the guarantor and inheritance of our shared humanity.

And that’s as important and grandiose as it sounds! It’s the meaning and purpose of art-making and the indispensable, essential work of the artist.

But in speaking, by speaking, you do something else that is just as important and essential: you assert and affirm and invent yourself.

Of course you want to be heard, to be remembered. You want to make a difference, to make a living, to make a reputation, to make beautiful things and songs and shows that patrons and audiences will be moved and amused and puzzled by.

And you will.

And we’re prepared to be astounded by what you achieve.

But there will come times when you will wonder whether anyone’s listening, whether what you do will be remembered, whether you—or your words or images or sounds or movements—are making a difference.

Those are the times when you will remind yourself: I chose—I choose—to speak. I’m speaking because I must. I’m speaking for myself, for my family and friends, for the future, for justice, for beauty.

I’m speaking because it’s who I’ve chosen to be. I’m speaking because everything—my understanding of my self and my spirit depend on it. I cannot do otherwise.

I’d like to leave you with a poem that seems to me to say something about all of you. It’s from a longer piece called “Song of Seeing” by Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros.

Having lived many years in the scrub grass in the way of birds

The boy took on a bird’s kind of stare—
He observed things the way birds observed them.
Water wasn’t the word water yet.
Rock wasn’t the word rock.
They just were.
So it was the boy could inaugurate [words] as he pleased.
He could give rocks the costume of the sun.
He could give song the sun’s format.
and, if he wanted to end up a bee, it was only a matter
of opening the word bee
and stepping inside it.
As if it were the infancy of language.

You are all like the boy in the poem. And while Barros may be writing about poetic invention, his boy stands for any artist who chooses to invent, to name the world and, in doing so, him or herself.

Who chooses to speak.

So it doesn’t matter much in the end whether you remember what I say. What matters most is what YOU say. And that you will say it.

We’re listening.

And now: Thank you and congratulations!