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William Deresiewicz's 2017 Commencement Address
Author, essayist and critic William Deresiewicz was the 2017 Commencement Speaker at Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC)'s graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 13, 2017 at the Winningstad Theatre in Portland. The commencement ceremony recognized the academic achievements of 46 students from OCAC's Master of Fine Arts in Craft: Practice and Innovation, Master of Fine Arts in Applied Craft + Design, Bachelor of Fine Arts in Craft and Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Craft. Mr. Deresiewicz's speech was highly regarded by the students and audience, and a transcript and video are published here for the benefit of our current students and the larger community.
Commencement Speaker & Honorary Degree Recipient William Deresiewicz
An award-winning author, essayist and critic, and one of the clearest thinkers on the state of higher education today, William (Bill) Deresiewicz is the best-selling author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2014) and A Jane Austen Education, How Six Novels Taught me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter (Penguin Press, 2011). The first is a book-length expansion of his argument in “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” an article that went viral on the internet. What is of particular interest is his belief that a studio education is an effective means of countering the “excellent sheep” syndrome and prepares students well for the world in which we now live. To that end, he is currently working on a book about the transformation of the arts and arts careers in the new economy.
A Contributing Writer for The Nation and a Contributing Editor for The American Scholar and The New Republic, his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The London Review of Books. He has won the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and a Sydney Award. He is a three-time National Magazine Award nominee. His work has been translated into 15 languages and anthologized in more than 30 college readers. He has spoken at over 60 colleges, high schools, and educational groups and has held visiting positions at Bard, Scripps, and Claremont McKenna Colleges.
After receiving his B.A. in biology and psychology (1985), his master’s in journalism (1987), and Ph.D. in English (1998) from Columbia University, he taught English at both Yale and Columbia before becoming a full-time writer in 2008.
Let me begin by offering my congratulations to all of you who are graduating today. I do so not only, as is customary on such occasions, because you have completed your respective degree programs, but also because you chose to start them in the first place. In doing so, you already began to demonstrate the kind of independent-mindedness that will serve you so well as you go forward into your lives by rejecting the current conventional wisdom about what education ought to be.
Education, say the pundits and the politicians, must above all be practical, by which they mean, narrowly vocational. "Top 10 Majors" means the most employable, not the most interesting. "Top 10 Fields" means average income, not job satisfaction. Major in something, we tell our young people, that's the name of a job, like nursing or business or engineering. And whatever you do, don't study the liberal arts--still less, God forbid, the fine arts.
So I know that it probably took a lot of courage, and a lot of stubbornness, to get here in the first place. You had to stand up to the grown-ups, and maybe even the peers, who said things like, "What are you going to do with that?" or, "Oh, so you decided to go for the big bucks." Or who just kind of looked at you a certain way. Who questioned the value, in other words, of what you want to try to do. "Value": a word that's worth coming back to.
You also rejected the option of going to other kinds of art schools. Because art schools haven't been immune from the pressure toward this sort of narrow practicality any more than colleges and universities in general. Across the country, we see art schools and arts programs, at both the bachelors and masters levels, contorting their curricula in the direction of that which is thought to be most immediately negotiable in the marketplace, which generally means, that which can be done on a computer. Graphic design, illustration, animation, video. We see them, in the name of efficiency and cost-cutting, loading up on adjunct faculty, stinting on studio space, and turning their arts programs into cash cows for their larger institutions. We see them partnering with corporations to provide the kind of students that businesses want rather than the kind of education students need. We see them rebranding themselves with "innovative" degree programs, adorned with trendy names, that no one seems to know the purpose of, least of all the people who created them. We see them expanding too fast, assuming too much debt, and being forced to hike enrollment, or tuition, or both.
But you chose to attend a different kind of school. A school that doesn't exist to serve a larger institution or a set of corporate patrons. A school that has maintained its allegiance to the intimacy of the studio and the irreplaceable value of the pedagogical relationship, rather than chasing the siren song of growth. Above all, a school that remains committed, if I can put it this way, to the centrality of the hand in the making of art.
You learned to work with a wide range of materials--that's how your curriculum was structured--but at bottom you were learning how to use your hands: how--in an age when we are reducing ourselves to pairs of eyeballs looking at screens, when the prophets of technology are dreaming of a future when we will leave our bodies altogether and merge with our computers--you were learning how to think with your hands. Which means that you were learning to make art in the most basic and most ancient sense. The word "art," as some of you may know, derives from a prehistoric verbal root that means "to fit together." That is why the concepts of "artist" and "artisan" were indistinguishable until relatively recently in the histories of both. An artist, a craftsperson, is someone who engages in that essential human act of taking hold of the raw material of the physical world and shaping it into a form that is useful and beautiful. Of making something, we might say, from nothing: something that wasn't there before, from materials that seemed too unpromising to notice.
It is a capacity, it is the capacity, that the ancient mind understood as that in which we most approximated the divine. In Genesis, man is made in the image of God, but he is made in the image, precisely, of God the maker: God who forms Adam, like a potter, from the dust of the earth, and Eve, like a sculptor, from the rib of Adam.
Now that's all pretty cool, and reason enough to be proud of yourselves, and thankful that you didn't do what everyone was telling you to do and go to a "real" college and major in business. And the capacity to work skillfully with your hands will stand you in good stead, not only as you engage with your chosen materials, but anytime you have reason to interact in a mindful way with the physical world, whether that means building out a studio space or fixing a bike or cooking a meal for friends or making a Halloween costume for a child.
But it also means more, beyond the magic, the prestidigitation, of manual dexterity. By learning to make, you were learning, more broadly, to make do. To use, as we say, whatever is at hand, whatever comes to hand. To piece together everyday materials, as you do in the studio, into unexpected forms, into unexpected things, even when those materials aren't material at all, when they are ideas or images or emotions or relationships. You were learning, in other words, how to bring new things into the world, from whatever happens to be lying around, even that which other people see as too unpromising to bother with, how to make something from nothing: how to create.
And that is a very valuable thing to be able to do, perhaps now more than ever. We live in the great age of creativity: not necessarily creativity as an act (I'm not sure just how great an age it is for that), but creativity as an idea, a desire, an object of veneration. Everybody wants to be a creator today, or at least, a "creative." Every business wants to harness creativity, especially by hiring creatives. Every college and university wants to teach creativity, so its graduates can enter the "creative industries." Every city wants to attract the "creative class."
So actually being able to create, to make it and not just fake it, is really valuable. I said that we'd get back to that word, "value." Creativity is a value because it is felt to be valuable, valuable in the sense in which everyone implicitly means the word valuable, valuable in the market. Which is certainly a good thing, and ought to come as some relief. Creativity makes you employable. More importantly, it makes you viable in an age when employability is a less and less relevant issue. One of the problems with going to school just to get a job is that there are fewer and fewer jobs to be gotten. More and more people are making a living by piecing together a life, by making do with whatever materials come to hand. By being, not affable and obedient, the old employment values, but stubborn and courageous and resourceful. By being creative, not just in their work but with their work.
But I do have a problem with this fetish that the marketplace has made of creativity. Actually, I have a lot of problems, as you can probably tell, but one, for now, in particular. Let me approach it by quoting something I just came across in one of those books that extol the virtues of our new technological economy. "Many young users" of the Internet, the authors say, "are digital 'creators' every day of their lives. When they write updates on social media or post selfies, they are creating something."
Now I don't know about you, but anyone who sees status updates and selfies as forms of creation, things that involve neither knowledge nor effort nor originality nor skill, has a very different idea of creativity than I do. And indeed, that is true in this case. The authors do not say, after all, that taking a selfie is a creative act; they say that posting one is. Creativity, here, means creating what is known as "content." And content means something you can click on, and therefore something that is capable of generating revenue, of creating value, for the tech industry.
Content exists exclusively online, and it is the act of putting something online that creates content. Hamlet may be art, but it is not content: not until the text is scanned and uploaded or a performance is videotaped and posted. A bracelet, a sculpture, a pot: none of these count as content, none of the physical objects that you make in the studio with your hands. Only their images, put on the Internet, are content, which means that only those are visible as value, as "creativity," in the online world that is increasingly coming to dominate our lives, our economy, and our imaginations. Anything that can be put online is creative, in that sense, and anything that can't is not. Painting a painting is not an act of creativity. Snapping a picture of someone else's painting, and putting it on Instagram, is.
This is how the writer and cartoonist Tim Kreider put the situation a few years ago: "The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I…were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art”…to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads."
But that isn't, after all, the whole story of the contemporary world. We also see that the creeping digitization of everything is being met by a vigorous counter-response in the form of a new flourishing of craft production. The idea of the artisan--most conspicuously in its adjectival form, "artisanal"--has risen to an unprecedented level of cultural salience and social prestige. People are hungry to restore their connection to the physical world, the sensual world, the world of objects that display the marks of time and of the human touch, the world of things that are made by hand--the world the hand makes.
Which means that you are doing something that people want and need. And that you aren't doing what everybody else is doing, or trying to do. And that you aren't doing what anybody can do, like posting a selfie or starting a podcast or putting videos on YouTube. And that you are doing something that, by definition, no computer or machine can ever replicate. All of which is eminently practical, and thus, again, should come as some relief.
But you are also doing something more. You are remaining loyal, like your school, to other, higher values. That word again. You are giving form, literally giving form, to the proposition that value isn't only to be measured in money, or creativity in clicks. You are teaching us to value beauty, thought, care, presence, uniqueness: to value them for their own sake. To insist on their survival in the world.
And by doing that, you're doing something further still. In her book Art Thinking, the writer and educator Amy Whitaker remarks that the reason it is hard to put a value, monetary or otherwise, on a work of art before it is created is that, to adapt a definition from Heidegger, a work of art is something new in the world that changes the world to allow itself to exist. A work of art is something new in the world that changes the world to allow itself to exist. That is why it's always such a risk to make one: because you're not just asking people to think that what you've done is good, you're asking them to change their idea of "good." Every original artist, to paraphrase Wordsworth, must create the taste by which they are appreciated. Creative works come into being by reordering existing values. They propose new values. They exist in the future. They bring the future into being.
The highest thing you learned to do here is to decide for yourself what is valuable, to define for yourself what value is--indeed, what art is, what creativity is. And that is the ultimate form of creativity: to question the world as given, to insist on asking questions of the world. And that is the ultimate freedom that creativity endows you with: the ability to liberate yourself from other people's definitions.
I wish you all the best as you go forth into the world, and I urge you to do so with confidence. The future is in your hands.