On Monday, May 7, Radio City Music Hall hosted the 2018 School of Visual Arts Commencement Exercises. Proud parents, elated students —1,180 graduates receiving degrees—and seas of red graduation gowns filled the beautiful Art Deco space on this glorious day.
The centerpiece highlight, of course, was the keynote speech by designer and environmentalist Maya Lin, an artist "who interprets the natural world through science, history, politics and culture,” as so perfectly put by SVA Board of Directors member Joseph F. Patterson.
A recipient of both the National Medal of Arts (2009) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016), Lin was introduced to the art world in 1981, when as a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale, she won a fierce competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was completed in 1982 and redefined the concept of a monument, standing as one of the most powerful memorials in modern memory.
“Art can be a reflection of our time, or it can pose a new way of looking at our world," Lin said in her rousing speech. If you want to relive the moment, you can read the speech in its entirety here and watch the full clip below.
MAYA LIN: Thank you, thank you. President Rhodes, distinguished Board of Trustees, department heads, faculty and family members, and most importantly to the class of 2018. You have begun something here at the School of Visual Arts, we’re all drawn here because of the certain creative drive within you.
And in being here you have explored and questioned who you are and what you are artistically. Art can be a reflection of our time, or it can pose a new way of looking at our world. I think the strongest works accomplish both.
But I hope your work will always be a true part of who you are, reflecting not just you personally, but the times and experiences that have shaped your lives. And please, never forget, there is something magical and wonderful about the making of things. And I hope none of you ever lose that sense of magic and sheer joy when you know you’ve made something just right.
Speaking of that, I wanted to share with you today some words that have helped me in my understanding of being an artist. The passage comes from W.H. Auden in The Dyer’s Hand. Although it is specifically about writing and becoming a poet, and I have updated this passage as far as gender, I think it translates well to the struggles in making a work of art and becoming an artist.
It begins with, suppose eventually you succeed in becoming a poet that sooner or later a day arrives when all the words are right, and all are yours. Your thrill at hearing this does not last long however. For a moment later comes the thought, will it ever happen again?
Will I ever be able to say, tomorrow I will write a poem and thanks to my training and experience I already know I shall do a good job? In the eyes of others, you’re a poet if you’ve written one good poem. In your own, you are only a poet at the moment when you are making your last revision to a new poem.
The moment before you’re still only a potential poet. The moment after, you are someone who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever. Why were Auden’s words so memorable to me? When I came across these words, I knew he had described my own fears and insecurities about being an artist. And I felt an immediate sense of connection and understanding.
Most importantly, I realized I was not alone. And even though creativity is a very singular and at times fiercely individualistic pursuit, we all have shared and will continue to share similar struggles, fears, failures, and successes, countless all-nighters on projects that you dismantle and started over again at the last minute, or wish you had.
Getting lost in the studio, staring at a blank canvas, an empty room, a computer screen for days, having your work disappear as your computer crashes, or having a perfect first sketch and then losing the spark as you rework it, or trying to remake something that you can never quite capture again. And no matter how much time and effort you have put into a project, that effort doesn’t necessarily make it right.
Creativity has never been a linear equation. And A plus B rarely adds up to C. My hardest courses in college were my arts classes. For no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many hours I’ve put in, it didn’t mean that it would work.
Some will say it’s easy. Artists get to make whatever they want to make. There’s no wrong answer. But then again, who’s to say what is a right answer? But isn’t it amazing that you know when it is right? And can anything replace that sense of euphoria when you have made something that you know is just right? I don’t think so.
The making of art is a constant struggle. As I sat for my college graduation, it was hard for me to concentrate on what our speaker was saying. I must admit, I was terribly preoccupied. I had just won the competition to design the Vietnam Memorial.
I had been to my first press conference in DC, and I knew that hours after my graduation I would be leaving for Washington to begin to fight for control over the design of the memorial.
At first it would be a very aggressive internal struggle for control of the design. Because some assumed I was too young to follow through on my design. It was an ugly two month battle for control over who would help me develop the design.
The professional competition advisor had tried to stay in control of the project. He would tell me in front of people how had I known about drainage I never would have designed that. Or tell me that I really didn’t know what I had designed. He’d advised the fund that the design was so simple that anyone could detail it, that he could do it, even though he had no building experience.
But I will never forget this man’s parting words to me after I had successfully convinced the fund to hire a qualified architect firm. And I quote, you’re going to regret this move. You are going to come crawling back on your hands and knees. And he thought I was immature.
Nothing could have prepared me for the political maelstrom surrounding the design, which ensued through the next year. It was a highly public battle where my race, my gender, and my age all caused controversy.
But I stayed on in DC focusing intensely on all aspects of the design, leaving only when I felt the design was just right, that it was as I had imagined it would be. And after groundbreaking, I left.
Many people have asked, how did I get through that time. And I realize now that it was the age I was. The age you all are. Youth gives us a sense of being invincible. And you are all endowed with the same superhuman powers and incredible self-assuredness that you’re right and all those older people are wrong.
My apologies to all of the people in the room that are older than you. And yes in time you will become one of them. And as you get older, your experiences will enrich your creative voice.
But they can also make you afraid of what others will think about you and about your work. Try not to become fearful of your vision. Always trust your instinct and intuition.
When I was fighting for that first project in DC, it never occurred to me to worry about what if I was wrong. I was so sure of my vision. I had absolutely no doubts about how that first project of mine would work. Whoa.
I often reflect back and wonder, could I have been that sure of myself today? Could I have been that unafraid? Probably not. I firmly believe that there was no way that I could have withstood that intense pressure later on in life.
You have that same power today as you graduate. That same fearlessness. Take that amazing self-assuredness born of your youth of fly with it. You’re entering the next chapter of your life with a sense of anticipation and impatience to get on with your life. Your imagination should free you up, and you should not be afraid to offend anyone, to question everything, to reinvent yourself and to rethink the world.
We need that right now. Choose your battles, choose your beliefs, choose how you want to shape your voice and possibly help shape the world. Every generation has perceived a threat that could destroy us. From the great wars to the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation to now the threat of climate change, of a world contracting, growing more factional, more afraid of one another, perhaps more tribal.
I believe everyone has a role and a responsibility to make the world a better place. Because the alternative is for us to help make the world a worse place, or to stand by and do nothing.
I believe that how you choose to relate, respond, and try to shape your time is very much a part of your evolution as an artist. Art can be both a leader and a mirror of the time we live in. Artists can see things that others can’t.
We can present the world in a new light and get others to see a new truth, a new future. We can help to imagine and create a different world. Don’t be afraid to get involved, don’t be afraid to care. Believe that your one voice can make a difference. May you never lose that, that passion, that drive, that poetry.
I am struggling on new works all the time, trying to find new ideas and give them shape. It is the same struggle for all of us. And you are not alone. Your time spent at SVA, the support and observations and guidance of your teachers, your friends, your family who have all helped you in your artistic struggles.
Their comments and the criticism that you’ve listened to today may become even more meaningful as you grow, as you evolve. Listen, sift and filter their advice, these teachings. They will accompany you throughout your life. And you will take what you need from this advice as you continue on your creative path.
And now, as you graduate here today, you are becoming part of a larger artistic community. One that stretches back into time, that creates a dialogue, a conversation with your fellow humans through all times.
I see it as a collective creative consciousness. Through art we know how people saw their world a thousand years ago. And through our art people a thousand years from now will see us.
I think it is amazing that William Shakespeare’s words written four hundred years ago can still make us cry or laugh. Or that I stood in front of Picasso’s Guernica in absolute silent awe. Or watching Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow makes you feel how connected we all are to one another, and how much human suffering is being endured around the world.
How will your works be read and felt one hundred years from today? Or one thousand years from today? So today I ask you to become part of that conversation and to find your voice in this wondrous creative continuum. And I ask you, what would you like to say?
I wish you all the best of luck and the most magical of times. And I hope all of you will find your voice. Congratulations, class of 2018.
School of Visual Arts has been a leader in the education of artists, designers and creative professionals for seven decades. With a faculty of distinguished working professionals, a dynamic curriculum and an emphasis on critical thinking, SVA is a catalyst for innovation and social responsibility. Comprising 6,000 students at its Manhattan campus and 35,000 alumni in 100 countries, SVA also represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For information about the College’s 32 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, visit sva.edu.
Watch the entire speech below.