Sean T. Buffington : 2014 Commencement Remarks
Sean T. Buffington
2014 Commencement Remarks
May 15, 2014
Welcome, trustees, honored guests, faculty, alumni, friends and family to the 136th Commencement Exercises of the University of the Arts.
Let me begin by asking you to join me in acknowledging the Class of 2014.
Now, Class of 2014, 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 2014, 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.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the past. You probably have been too. It’s something we tend to do when we arrive at a milestone date like the conclusion of an academic year or an event like Commencement. We look back.
We look back of course because we want to remember what we’re about to leave behind: friends and teachers, meaningful places and watershed moments, experiences that shaped who we are and the art we make.
We look back too to celebrate what brought us here to the present moment, to thank those who helped us along the way. 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.
And so we retreat into what we know: the things and people and events that have gone before, the memories we made of them—and the sense we made of those memories as they receded farther into the past, as the ever-renewing present made them newly and differently meaningful.
And as we organize and categorize, reinvent and reinterpret our memories, we slowly make them into a story about the future: about who we are and what we want, about what we believe and what we can do.
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; more than that, we use art to fix the world and its dangerous uncertainties aesthetically—to fix them in paint or film or words or movement. 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 too we can master the future before it finds us.
The arts, in a certain way, are uniquely positioned for this work. They are themselves expressions of mastery. The arts rely upon mastering media, technique, craft, style. And in mastering the form, artists are, to some degree, able to eliminate uncertainty, to ensure predictability.
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.
The artist comes by this predictive ability through intense and sustained study of the past, of the accumulated experience and wisdom of artists who came before, of the art that they made and the effect it has had on generations of audiences.
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?
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 entering it, by confronting its darkness, by casting a light into it, by seeing in its formlessness and emptiness some kind of opportunity.
Artists know that they bring with them into this unmapped territory of the future all the navigational tools provided them by history—the history of artmaking and meaning-making.
They bring with them:
the dodecaphonic compositional tradition,
the innovations of Cunningham and Graham and Ailey,
Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group—
a history rich with precedent-shattering approaches that forced artists and audiences to see the past they were stuck in and to look forward into a future that was frighteningly unfamiliar.
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.
We celebrate—and mourn—those past things. We long to hold onto them for a few more moments. We clutch them to us like a talisman against the future that lies just on the other side of this stage, right outside the doors to this theater.
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.
Your past: days and weeks and years
of perfecting your execution of techniques invented by others,
of studying thoroughly the long history of your field,
of learning, painfully, what you are capable of,
of trying and failing and of trying and succeeding,
of slowly piecing together what works and doesn’t work and how.
Of learning who you are and how you love, and what and who you love, and what hurts you and what makes your heart soar.
All of this past—your past—you carry forward now into your future, and you will use it. What you make will give your future shape and meaning. But more than that, what you will make give the rest of us something to cling to some future day for hope, as we walk forward into the unknown.