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Commencement Address: Joanna Branson, 2012

Commencement Speaker Joanna Branson
Johanna Branson, former Provost at MassArt in Boston and published contemporary art historian Senior Vice President Johanna Branson. Since her arrival in 1972, Johanna has taught thousands of students; when she took on the role of Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs in 1995, she affected the lives of almost every student who attended MassArt. In this role, she helped grow the academic programs, built a diverse faculty, and kept the college true to its mission of offering a comprehensive art and design program. Over the past several years, she spearheaded the curriculum migration, which has reshaped students’ schedules, and also brought faculty workloads in line with other top-tier art schools. Of course, what many alumni remember on a personal level is how Johanna welcomed them when they arrived as freshmen or transfers, and congratulated them as they graduated.

Earlier this semester, the college decided to give Johanna a lasting thank you from the MassArt community: a permanently endowed scholarship in her name. The Johanna Branson Scholarship will be awarded to a student in his/her junior or senior year, with financial need. This scholarship recognizes the fact that we often have talented young men and women here whose financial barriers keep them from completing their degree at MassArt. Johanna felt that such a scholarship would be personally meaningful to her and promote the values that she continually worked towards at the college.

I really wanted to make a funny speech today. I figured you could all use a good laugh. You have made it through endless critiques and reviews, most of it in public. When I first came to art schools, I was the product of a liberal arts education; you hand in your paper privately to your professor and you get it back privately. If you crash and burn, it is a private affair. Here, all of your work is up on the walls, in open spaces, to be assessed, discussed, and evaluated in open critiques. I was stunned by the sheer bravery of art students; I commend you for this. And now, at the end of the final review process, you have really, really been exposed. So you could probably use a few good laughs.

But I find I have something serious to say to you. I have been thinking quite a bit recently about art schools and artists and our culture as a whole, and I am very glad to have the chance to talk about it, particularly with you, the Oregon College of Art and Craft graduating class. I know commencement speakers are supposed to say this, but I am truly optimistic about your moment in time. 

All the debates about college preparing you for jobs, for specific slots in industry-- this has not been the reality for artists for over 200 years. You, instead, are improvisers. You can think on your feet, work in the margins as well as in the center, and do different things at different times of your life. This has been true for awhile, but now I would go further and say this is the best time in recent history to be graduating from art school; you have seriously trained hands, eyes and brains, you excel at improvisation, and your imaginations are intact. Your future is very, very bright.

I am an historian of the contemporary, and I know the present can usually seem difficult to decipher. It is very hard to see the forest for the trees. But I think I can see your forest and I believe that not only is your future bright, but that we are at a rare, critical turning point. This is one of those rare hinge moments, when paradigms shift and a new trajectory is set.

Let me start by telling you what is ending.

When I first started teaching in art schools, I was impressed by how much social values are imbedded in our curricula, in how we as faculty choose to spend your time and attention. Early in my career I saw an extreme example of this. From its founding, drawing instruction was central to the curriculum of our school, and in support of that, several generations of an Italian-American family had been making exquisite plaster casts of masterpieces from art history to be used at the school. The idea was that students could learn first by drawing these figures, before turning to drawing from life. The school has amassed quite a collection of these beautiful objects, each
embodying some values prized by the professors at that time. They were also quite lovely in their own right. A professor gathered together a group of students, went into the rooms where the casts were stored, and using sledge hammers smashed them to pieces. He believed it was a moral imperative to demolish the traditional curriculum focused on making images and objects. 

I struggled to understand how this violence could happen, and I came to think it came about because, simply put, the professor was one of a generation of artists who had found themselves to be overwhelmed by recent history. For them, early dreams of social progress had led to disasters in 20 th century, catastrophes of loss of human life originating from all political stances.

For me, one of the most powerful images of this state of things was written in response to Nazi Germany. It is Walter Benjamin’s Thesis of History IX. I am sure you know it well, but it is so beautiful it always bears repeating: 

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

We had actually turned to artists to help give us signposts in this storm. Artists, after all, are the seers. They are the scouts out in front of the troops. They are the avant-garde. And artists were in fact willing to serve society directly, and used their formidable training and skills to provide images to be used in the service of social progress. 

In many cases, it backfired. Artists ran the danger of becoming mouthpieces that checked their brains and their actual lived experience at the door of social projects. Some became propagandists for ideologies. One example is what I call the bulging muscles, sheaves of wheat style of painting, sculpture and illustration that was oddly used equally for Nazi propaganda, Soviet posters, and U.S. Post Office murals. This style became the approved style of the State.

Artists often felt used, compromised. They lost their faith that they could make valid, widely understood imagery that relied on shared appearances, without its being co-opted to some political purpose. So instead, they sought out a subterranean truth, an abstract language of vision beneath all the illustrative images, and this came to be seen as the only pure path for an artist to take.

This in turn led to a profound belief in the purity of abstraction, which could be exhilarating. Some achingly beautiful art was made from this stance. 

But in many art schools, this stance also led to a jettisoning of all that had been learned about training and discipline and hard, hard looking, and any belief that the mind, eye, and hand were related to each other. The first generation of abstract artists had been classically trained, and knew what they were letting go, what they were pruning away, but did not perhaps anticipate the effect on those who followed them. 

So plasters got smashed, and for at least two generations of students, drawing steadily diminished as part of art school curricula, to mention only part of the de-skilling. It also led to the divorce of art and craft, which in retrospect seems not only silly but also suicidal for art as a field. For this professor, and for many others like him, art became the same as critical thinking, about taking an intellectual critical stance, about being able to see and to take apart, to deconstruct power. They attempted to distill the artist’s role into that of a pure creative thinker, with skills that could be brought to any situation.

This attitude became quite entrenched as the years went on, and for me it reached an extreme. The turning point for me occurred a couple of years ago at a conference in New York City held on the occasion of a book publication. The book was about “the new art school,” and how art instruction was in the midst of being reinvented. Speaker after speaker spoke about their ideal curriculum, and it became clear their vision for artists was essentially to have a liberal arts, wholly intellectual education. Drawing was seen as being a mindless activity. Artists who were well trained were presented as being creative thinkers who were ideally positioned to enter any group of
experts trying to solve interdisciplinary problems facing modern humanity; the word interdisciplinary occurred in nearly every sentence.

Finally the host turned to a special expert on the subject, a man who was head of interdisciplinary studies in the Humanities at Stanford and was on leave for the year to work at Harvard on this topic. He seemed a bit at a loss for words at first and then he said that he had always turned to artists to have the very highest, most rigorous standards for their work. He looked forward to viewing art as an activity that never made excuses for itself; he said that when he encountered a work, he knew it was as perfect as the artist could make it. He then said that he was surprised to hear that the sort of students trained in these new schools would have much to offer teams of people working on serious problems. He said that the vision being presented at the conference seemed to him to be that of a very thin interdisciplinarity. He ended by asking, “What are your students going to bring to the table?” 

There was silence in the room.

Please make no mistake: I believe critical thinking is essential, and learning how to do it well is a central part of any curriculum. But artists do more than analyze, than take apart. They make. They can, if they choose, be a powerful member of interdisciplinary teams, but their contribution is that of the person who has the capacity and skills to actually make things visible to embody the findings of the group in a way that all can contemplate.

Now, in fact is a most exciting time. There is a whole new array of scholars, from different fields than political philosophy—neurobiology, cognitive psychology, child
development and art and design education—and they have been studying you very closely. Here’s what they see: 

Frank Wilson’s work about both the development of our species and the development within the species from child to adult finds that the use of the hand is essential to who we are. He has found the use of the hand to grasp, to model, to make, is essential to the development of the brain and speech. Important for us to consider, he believes that when we drop a skill, you actually lost the ability to think in a certain way. Drawing isn’t mindless, it’s mindful. That we use our hands is central to our being. It is non-negotiable activity. 

Lois Hetland has identified habits of mind that are uniquely honed in the studio, and that lead you to be able to do things that most people cannot. She calls this studio thinking, and she believes you:

  • Envision things you have never seen before.
  • Engage and persist, developing focus through multiple, evolving attempts until you have something that cannot say it better. You do not give up easily.
  • Express ideas and feelings through objects so they can be shared.
  • Observe so closely that you can see withoutpreconception, see anew.
  • Stretch and explore, looking to reach beyond your own capacities, embracing opportunity to learn from mistakes. 

And so I think now we are waking up at the sleepy end of one narrative, where artists felt they had to give up the hand and the knowledge gained through its use, and are turning around to face the future as much as the past.

I was very happy to have the chance to speak to you OCAC graduates in particular, because I see you, with the continuous, steady goals of your curriculum to be sort of like those monks in isolated monasteries on the coast of Ireland, keeping part of classical civilization alive during a long, long dark ages. You are the living carriers of skills and thinking and culture, and all is not lost. 

This is your moment, and you have a lot to bring to the table.

First, think about how to keep your life as an artist real: everything here has been done to support you. How do you keep it going on your own?

It is not easy, but it is stunningly simple. Work every day, in some way, for some amount. And leave some trace, every day--tiny or huge, short or long, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t let your fingers off your own wrist, off the pulse you have started pumping here. This focus on work is non-negotiable. Nothing else works.

Second: Be aware of your power. You do have a social role to play, and not that of propagandist. 

You are the people who control what we see; you make it, or choose not to. You keep our eyes open to complexity, to new possibilities. If you shape what people see, then you shape what they think about. And if you shape what they think about, you have a huge influence over how they might act in the real.

Use this power wisely.