Friday, May 23, 2008

What it Means to Make Art or Tell a Story

Marie Stern, valedictorian for the Class of 2008, shared her thoughts about making art at commencement on May 17. 

So I promised myself that I wouldn’t write the clich√© speech. You know, the one that says, “Congratulations. This is the first day of the rest of our lives. I love you all and good luck.” Just go ahead and take these sentiments for granted (They’re true and I do mean them, but you knew that already, and it’s not very interesting).

Instead, I’d much rather spend my time with you talking about art, what it means to make art or to tell a story.

I’m going to read a quote from a book by Jonathan Dollimore in which he talks about art, transgression, and Oscar Wilde (I know, right? It’s a great combination):

“What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art. It is the only thing in life that stands in normal relations to Art. One who inhabits that realm, ‘the cultured and fascinating liar’… is important because he or she contradicts not just convention… but its sustaining origin, ‘truth.’ So art runs to meet the liar, kissing his ‘false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of the great secret of all her manifestations, the secret that Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.’”

I don’t think that there is a single person among us here at Chester to whom this is a secret. Truth is a matter of style. It is also a matter of Art. Only, nothing is ever as simple, clear-cut, and frankly, boring as the plain old Truth, is it? At least, I certainly hope not.

To make art is to question and to learn. Just because we’re about to graduate doesn’t mean we’re about to stop learning, it doesn’t mean we’re about to stop questioning, and most of all, it doesn’t mean we’ll ever stop making art. We must contradict convention, throw stale tradition and accepted normalities away, let go of our ideas of what is common-sensical. Because where in that gray, alienating world is there room for a voice? It is not enough to be satisfied with the status quo. It is not enough to ever be satisfied.

This is what art-making and story-telling should be: A constant rolling hunger for more answers which only raise more questions. An off-beat harmony that can’t sustain itself without conversing with other, even more off-beat harmonies. An announcement in a silent crowd that there is still a voice willing and able, and the subsequent wave of unease. The restless pacing of someone who doesn’t know if maybe she only has another hour left to live, and should she laugh or cry or press her palms to her eyes and watch the colors burst. Or should she find another, better way to say I Love You.

When we leave this place today, don’t let yourself forget the liar and his “false, beautiful lips.” There is something to be said for fabrication, and for gracelessness, and for honesty, which does not always equate with Truth. Art is beautiful because it is false, because it does not abide by those rules – the ones that say that a painter is a painter and a writer is a writer and they are poor and unhappy because only money brings wealth. Art is beautiful because it leads a secret life, and in that life, there are no segregating walls: a writer is a painter is a doctor is a politicking revolutionary. There is only passion and the calling to learn.

So what does it mean to make Art? What does it mean to be a Storyteller? It means Revolution. Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.

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