“I’ve decided to tell you how hopeful I am about the future,” prominent US curator Helen Molesworth told graduating students during her keynote address at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture’s 2018 commencement ceremony last Saturday (June 16). “One of the reasons I am hopeful,” she continued, “is because of your generation.”
She cited factors including how these graduates have come of age during the two-term Obama presidency that shaped a sense of “political possibility,” to the “MeToo” and “TimesUp” movements, “Black Lives Matter,” and the bravery of those with DACA status. Above all, she expressed a belief in the power of listening, and expressed the hope that artists might have a special role to play in building empathy, having built up their listening skills.
Molesworth’s inspiring address was something of an event, as it came just three months after her abrupt firing as chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), after what sources described as tension between her and museum management over her vision for the museum. Though the museum’s official statement said Molesworth had stepped down, artist Catherine Opie insisted she was fired for what was described as “undermining the museum.”
During his glowing introduction, school dean Brett Steele also revealed that Molesworth will be teaching a course at the school this coming fall.
Molesworth’s emphasis on social justice was on full display throughout the roughly 15-minute speech, declaring, “I think your generation is the first generation to come of age when we can say that white supremacy is dying.” But she also, at the end, made sure to leave the students with five pieces of concrete wisdom to take with them into the world. Read (or watch) them below.
Thank you. Thank you, Dean Steele, for the invitation to speak today to the UCLA faculty and staff, to the families and friends of the students gathered here today. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is an honor to stand before you this afternoon. First things first, I want to offer the graduating class of 2018 of the School of Arts and Architecture some big-time congratulations. The word “congratulations” has two Latin roots. The first is to wish joy, and the second is to be together. It gives me such pleasure to be together today with you and wish you joy. Congratulations.
The task of the commencement speaker is to send you into the world with some pearls of wisdom before you start your so-called real life. But I confess, I wonder what knowledge I possess that could be useful for you, you for whom the Internet always existed, you for whom gay marriage and marijuana are legal. Neither were legal when I was in college—[I was] pretty much a petty criminal by the time of my graduation. You who witnessed the first black president as an everyday reality rather than an impossible dream, you who saw the Twin Towers fall as children. What can I possibly say to equip you not for the journey you are about to begin, but the journey that you are already on?
I’ve decided to tell you how hopeful I am about the future, and one of the reasons I am hopeful is because of your generation. You guys have come of age against an extraordinary backdrop of actual and symbolic change. From the two-term Obama presidency that shaped your sense of political possibility, to new ideas in the workplace symbolized by the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, to your generation’s acceptance of trans identities, to the bravery of those of you with DACA status, to your support of the water protectors at Standing Rock, to new ideas about race and power exemplified by Black Lives Matter. And now there are those following in your footsteps. High school students across the country, led by their peers from Parkland, calling for an end to gun violence. These are huge advances in the realm of everyday life, and you have already helped to shape these changes.
But, even though I am hopeful, it would be foolish not to mention how spectacularly messed up the world is at the moment. Both here and abroad, democracy finds itself imperiled by the all-too-familiar wins of authoritarianism and nationalism. In our country, the difficult task of democracy is under enormous pressure from a newer threat, an increasingly powerful oligarchy that has concentrated more money in the hands of fewer individuals than the feudal period. This oligarchy has inserted its values of profit and their inherent belief in money and wealth as the ultimate metrics of success into democracy’s most fundamental institutions: the press, scientific research, concert halls, the university, museums, all institutions that were previously believed to stand apart from the forces of the market. The worlds of culture and art, the worlds you are poised to enter, are striated with the pressure of these moneyed forces in ways we have never before encountered.
And yet, I find these times as joyful as they are scary. One reason for my joy is my ability to address you, the next generation of artists and cultural thinkers, as the folks who have as the bedrock of your pedagogical experience the crit. The crit, for those of you in the back rows who may be unfamiliar with the term, is short for the word “critique.” It is a classroom exercise in which an artist shows her work to her teachers and fellow students, and everyone is at liberty to say what they think. The crit is unique to teaching in the arts, and it happens in writing, art, design, and architecture. The crit teaches students how to present their work and share their intentions and their process. Many people think that the primary value of the crit is that it teaches the student presenting her work to be as good as talking about her work as she is as making it.
But I want to suggest that you were learning something else in the crit. You were learning how to listen. When you sat in a crit, you weren’t simply learning to wait your turn before you spoke. Some of you were learning how to listen to what was being said, as well as what wasn’t being said. You were learning to listen carefully to people’s choice of words, learning to listen for the emotional content of a statement as well as its factual one. You were learning to listen as a way to slow down the formation of your own opinion. You learned it was better to listen to what happened in the crit before you made your mind up about what you thought about the work. You were learning how to listen with compassion and ambivalence. In other words, you were learning how to listen to the complexity and the nuance of the crit itself.
I want to be clear, not everybody learns how to do this. While you were learning to make and talk about art, you were also learning how to listen. I can think of no other time when it has been this important to be a very, very good listener. The composer John Cage suggested that listening would be our greatest virtue when he wrote his famous composition “4’33,” a piece for piano where the performer goes to the stage, walks up to the piano, lifts the lid of the piano, and sits with his hands in his lap. They sit motionless for four minutes and 33 seconds. Audiences rebelled when they first heard this piece. They were incensed that they were not being entertained by the artist. But Cage was asking the audience to listen differently. He was showing them that there is no such thing as silence. There is always sound. It is the ear that must be trained. We must learn to listen as much as we learn to speak.
This is what Parkland High School student Emma Gonzalez did when she stood silent for four minutes before an assembly of tens of thousands of people to protest gun violence in the United States. She was refusing to lead us or entertain us with her grief. She was asking us instead to listen, to ourselves, to each other, to the situation. Those of us who have been in a crit know that one of the most interesting questions we can ask ourselves right now is, what did we hear when Emma Gonzalez stopped speaking?
Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s actually really hard to listen. But I’m pretty convinced that it’s the only way towards change. Listening is the basis of empathy, and empathy is the only way to think our way out of the stranglehold of the debilitating and outmoded forms of thought we have inherited from our colonial past. It’s inspiring to stand in front of you today because you guys already have a leg up. Because of the crit, you guys already know that listening helps you learn, that every choice you make has meaning. You know from listening to others that meaning is not made individually, but collectively. In other words, you know how to be a citizen.
I think your generation is the first generation to come of age when we can say that white supremacy is dying. In my entire life, I have never heard so many people from so many different walks of life be able to name and acknowledge the disaster visited upon us. I know in my heart of hearts that some of the most important voices who have helped us understand how the past has shaped us have been artists and musicians and dancers and writers and architects, for they were listening and they have been reporting back to us about what they heard.
But the capacity to identify and name the problem is only half the battle. There will be a long and hard fight ahead. People in power have a lot to lose, for their very sense of self is bound up in fantasies of whiteness and money and power. And yet, what I hear in the daily barrage of bad news is not strength, but weakness. What I hear in this current administration’s culture of lying, bullying, hatred, and violence is not power, but a death rattle. Indeed, I think we are bearing witness to the death rattle of our colonial past, and like all deaths from toxic diseases it will not be an easy or a graceful one. The patient is fighting the diagnosis, fighting the reality of our country’s new demographics, new demographics so beautifully on display here today.
Yet I believe Martin Luther King when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends ever so slightly toward justice. We are on the downward slope of that long arc now. Now is the time to consider listening an active skill rather than a passive activity. Now is the time to listen to those who have not been in power. Now is the time to listen to the myriad ways people talk, think, and feel. Now is the time we make sure to listen to the words, the feelings, and the silences of the many, rather than the few. Can you imagine what our lives would be like if we had listened to Native peoples, if we had listened to the centuries of women denied formal education, if we were listening to the migrants crossing our borders?
Now is the time for the artists who founded Black Lives Matter, for the artists who founded Time’s Up, for the young drama students at Parkland, and you guys, the assembled artists sitting before me today, to bring your very special listening skills to bear on this extraordinary time of change. I selfishly cannot wait to reap the benefits of how your generation will listen, and my faith in your ability to listen brings me back to my congratulations, to this act of gathering and wishing one another well, for being together and expressing our thoughts and feelings is what art is all about, and it is also the imperative work of democracy itself.
All right. I looked up lots of graduation speeches on the web, and you’re supposed to offer some advice. So this is now the five pieces of very concrete advice I am going to offer you.
One, we have two ears and one mouth, so technically it should be twice as easy to listen as it is to talk.
Two, stick close to your friends over the years ahead. Look around at each other now, smile, dap your friends, kiss your lovers. Life is long, and you are all going to need each other.
Three, make your bed. I know that that’s a very Oprah-like thing to say, and I have no idea what it has to do with white supremacy, but I also know that making your bed is one of those things that makes you a more productive person. I don’t know why that is, but you should just do it. Trust me. Make your bed.
Four, if you are lucky enough to enjoy prosperity, remember to share it. Don’t stockpile power and money. If they come your way, redistribute them. Share the joys of your successes widely.
And five, most of all, please remember that love remains our greatest attribute. Our capacity for love is infinite. The more love we make, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more we can give away, and so on, and so on, and so on.