One of the more anti-climactic moments of the tumultuous four years I was enrolled in college in the late 1960s was graduation day. Princeton in 1969 had no formal commencement speaker. The idea, we undergraduates believed, was that a commencement speech was an exercise that other universities needed to affirm their academic stature. But Princeton did not.
The university president instead offered a few informal remarks. Some honorary degrees were bestowed. The valedictorian spoke briefly, the salutatorian delivered a speech in Latin (with all us seniors following along in a program that instructed us to laugh, moan, jeer, applaud, etc. at certain spots that would make our parents think we understood every word spoken).
Then we went on our way — in my case back to the dorm room to face the challenge of entertaining the parents. The solution presented itself when we ran into one of our professors, Julian Jaynes. We invited him to join us and he stayed at length, discussing with the parents the life of an academic, the fabric of the university, and the nature of his research that would later become an improbable bestseller with an awkward title: “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”
My mother, in particular, was thrilled. A woman with a bright mind but only a high school degree, she always began a conversation with a man of Jaynes’s stature with a self-deprecatory remark about her academic shortcomings. She would then promptly engage him in a prolonged discussion. Later, I bought a copy of Jaynes’s book and asked him to sign it for my mother. He was happy to oblige.
Since then I have seen plenty of academicians and university administrators up close and personal. So I showed up with few expectations at the 2014 commencement at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, when my son Rick was awarded his degree in music (and my son Frank, a sophomore, performed in the jazz band).
There were two speeches that day at the impressive Academy of Music, the landmark 1857 theater on Broad Street. The commencement address was delivered by Robert L. Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who gave a hip and relevant rendition of that classic commencement theme: That life is a journey with all sorts of twists and turns ahead. Battle offered his own prescriptions for success that one can only hope resonated with the 22-year-olds. Pay attention, he told them, because “if you don’t pay attention you will pay for it. If you do pay attention eventually you will get paid for it.”
President Sean T. Buffington’s speech was simply called a “Welcome” in the official program. Buffington, a 1991 Harvard alumnus who served as a vice-provost of Harvard before becoming president of UArts in 2007, began his remarks by looking at the past, instead of the future. We look back at events like this, he said, “to celebrate what brought us here, to thank those who helped us. Perhaps too to assess the path we took, to identify mistakes we made, to plan for the future. But we look back at moments like this for an even more fundamental — and obvious! — reason. We look back because we can’t do otherwise.
“Literally: we can’t look forward. We can imagine and hope and dream; we can plan and even make commitments. But we can’t see.”
Looking out at the motley crew of 500-some musicians, painters, dancers, film makers, and other artists awaiting their diplomas, Buffington brought the message around to their special pursuits. Allow me to present an extended excerpt from Buffington’s remarks:
“And so we retreat into what we know . . . Our past — or the story of the past we tell ourselves — becomes our hypothesis about the future. It is a plan, yes, in a way, perhaps; but, more than that, it is a belief about the future — a belief about ourselves in the future. And as such, it is a way to ward against the future, against the fear of the unknown dangers it might hold.
In some ways, the arts do the same for us. We make art — or participate in it or consume it — in part in order to protect ourselves against the uncertainty of the future.
We make art in order to reassure ourselves that we understand the world; we use art to fix the world and its dangerous uncertainties esthetically. If we can represent the world and our experience of it — render it artistically — then we can master it. And if we can master the world as we find it, then perhaps we can master the future before it finds us . . .
An accomplished musician or painter or filmmaker is a kind of prophet, a predictor of the future. He or she must be able to know that depressing this key or employing that brushstroke will create a particular sound or visual effect. But more than simply predict what a listener or viewer will hear or see, the artist also seeks to predict and to control what that listener or viewer feels and understands.
Artists, in short, are in the business of distilling and deploying knowledge of the past to inoculate us against fear of the future. Or are they? Perhaps. Sometimes.
But just as often, Stravinsky and Nijinsky send the audience of the Theatre des Champs Elysees into paroxysms of riotous rage. Or David Benioff and DB Weiss cut off Ned Stark’s head and leave the non-novel-reading audience of “Game of Thrones” choking on their Sunday night pizza. Or Dylan plugs in. Or Seurat and Monet and Van Gogh decide that color and light — the visual impact of a scene — matter as much as its precisely rendered appearance.
And all at once, art ceases to reassure. It forces our eyes from the comfort of the past to the unfamiliar and unknowable future — a future where music won’t sound the way we think it should and pictures won’t show back to us the world we can see with our eyes.
That’s the paradox of artmaking. Artists seek to make the world meaningful by giving it shape and form. They seek to make it understandable — to themselves and to those who watch and listen. They do just what we do when we retreat to the past in order to understand or protect against the future — or to pretend to ourselves that we do.
On the other hand, artists — unlike the rest of us, perhaps — recognize that the future is not, in the end, understandable; it cannot be fixed or foretold. It can only be explored and invented. We control it by casting a light into it, by seeing in its formlessness and emptiness some kind of opportunity.
. . . Which brings me back to today, to this moment. As human beings, we gaze longingly and with hope at the year just ended, at the four years gone by, at the degree finally completed and to be conferred, at long last, today.
But as artists: as artists you hold onto that past tightly, not as a talisman but a resource, a deep and rich vein of material you will mine and use to light your way into the future, to fuel your work, to build something new and inspiring.”
Re-reading Buffington’s remarks above I thought back to the freshman parents’ orientation of four years before. The message then was that UArts is an arts college, yes, but it’s also an accredited university. Our kids would be able to get day jobs if they wanted to when they graduated. On this graduation day the president’s message was that, day job or not, the graduates were also artists, a calling that has its own strengths, no affirmation needed.
Afterward I dragged my sons through the crowd of celebrating students and parents to the president’s office. There we found Buffington and introduced ourselves. Perhaps feeling a little like my mother must have felt when she met Julian Jaynes 45 years ago, I complimented the president on his speech and asked him for a copy. He was happy to oblige.