2011 Commencement Remarks

Sean T. Buffington
2011 Commencement Remarks
May 19, 2011

Good morning. Welcome trustees, honored guests, faculty, alumni, friends and family to the 133d Commencement Exercises of the University of the Arts.

Let me begin by asking you to join me in acknowledging the class of 2011.

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 2011, 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.

The class of 2011 is very special to me.

Like most of you, I started here at the University of the Arts—as a freshman, you might say—in the fall of 2007.

And while I won't graduate with you—it's taking me a little longer to finish my major requirements than it took most of you!—nonetheless, I'd like to consider myself—with your permission—a fellow member of this class of 2011.

Thinking of myself as a graduating senior sends me back 20 years to the last time I was a graduate—to a day when I was sitting out there, where you are, looking back up at someone like me in an imposing, slightly ridiculous costume.

Charged as I am now with addressing you all, I think especially about the words that were spoken to me 20 years ago. And I wonder, what should I say to you, my classmates? What was said to me? What would be meaningful—what was meaningful all those years ago?—to you, to me, to everyone who has supported us through these four years?

I remember that there were many speeches that first time I graduated—some by classmates—one funny, one in Latin; another by the president of the University—not especially funny but not in Latin; and one by a famous Russian statesman—which might as well have been in Latin!

I'm sorry to say I don't remember a single word. Not even a sentiment. There must have been something said about making a difference in the world. Someone must have spoken about the transformative power of the educational experience we had shared over four years.

But I can't say for certain.

I can tell you it was overcast that day. That I had trouble keeping my cap on. That I worried about my parents getting lost after the ceremony. That I still had lots of packing to do.

But as to the speeches I had heard? Nothing.

So what shall I say to you? If I can't remember a word of what was said to me—words that I'm sure were wise and thoughtful, were labored over by those who spoke them; if I can't remember those words, what can I hope to say now that will make a difference, have an impact?

Maybe… maybe it isn't the words spoken here today that matter.

Maybe it's the day itself—these hours, these moments.

Because this day is much bigger than what happens in it. It's much more important than anything that's said to you—by me or anyone else.

It is a unique moment, a profound one. You'll have more moments in your life that resemble this one. But none quite the same.

The great Modernist architect Paul Rudolph said something about this kind of moment in a lecture to the American Institute of Architects in 1963. He said:

"We must understand that after all the building committees, the conflicting interests, the budget considerations, and the limitations of his fellow man have been taken into consideration, the architect’s responsibility has just begun. He must understand that in the exhilarating, awesome moment when he takes the pencil in hand… and holds it poised above a white sheet of paper, he has, suspended there, all that has gone before and all that will ever be. The 'Agony and the Ecstasy' of the creative act cannot be delegated."

Rudolph was an architect, but I suspect that all of you—whether dancer, painter, designer, actor, illustrator, or filmmaker—know what he was talking about: a moment of possibility, of decision, of responsibility. A point of inflection between rehearsal and performance, between analysis and execution, between training and action, between past and future.

And while Rudolph was speaking particularly of the moment before the design act or process begins, he might as well have been speaking of this moment, right now.

You have prepared for four years to become an artist —in some cases many more, for a few of you nearly all your lives. You have hopes and aspirations, of course. Many of you have made plans—for next week, for the summer, for next year. But today, right now, everything that has led you here and everything that will follow is suspended, in this moment, like Rudolph's pencil above the white sheet of paper.

Right now is your moment—you own it, not me; not your professors who worked so hard with you to help you reach it; not your family, without whom you never could have hoped to get here. It is yours and yours alone, with all its terrors and uncertainties and all of its glorious possibilities.

Now, I said that this day, this moment, is unique. That's true. Graduation from college happens once. Earning a graduate degree happens only rarely. And in American culture and society, graduation is invested with enormous meaning; it is viewed as a critical rite of passage.

Your challenge—as creative artists, as human beings—is to create more such moments for yourself.

Indeed, your challenge is to invest every moment with the same sense of possibility, of uncertainty, of instability, which society has conspired to invest in this moment.

You are the hand suspended above the page, and you are always suspended there, just about to decide, to commit, to mark the page or the stage or the future.

That is not to say that you never put pencil to paper, never speak the first words of the script, never put the vessel in the kiln. You must do so, no matter how unready or ill-prepared you feel.

Rather, it is to tell you that as an artist, you always have the right, the ability, the responsibility to lift your hands from the paper, to pause and rethink; to reinvent, to choose again, to choose differently.

That is your prerogative and responsibility as an artist: to create, to embrace again the moment of possibility, of un-commitment, of imagination.

And so that is what I am going to leave you with today. Not my words. Twenty years from now—probably a few hours from now—they will be lost to you, as you plunge headfirst into the future—first, of celebrations, then perhaps of internships or graduate school, later on of jobs and relationships, and families, and on and on.

The gift that I wish to give you—a graduation gift from one classmate to another—is no wisdom or poetry from me. It is this moment, right now. A moment of focus, of reflection, of possibility. A moment that belongs to you alone, that is yours to fill. A moment that stands for all the other moments that will follow it when you will stand back, look forward and behind, imagine your future, and choose it.

My gift to you is the next 10 seconds. Ten seconds of silence.

Own this moment for yourself, become that pencil poised above the page, look down at that blankness, that impossible, infinitely possible possibility, and… imagine!

Quiet… Quiet now…..

Thank you.

And congratulations!!